Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media 9780231518499

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under suspicion

C o l u m b i a T h e m e s i n P h i l o s o p h y, Social Criticism, and the Arts

c olu m bi a t h e m es i n ph i l osoph y, soci a l cr i t icism, a n d t h e a r t s Lydia Goehr and Gregg M. Horowitz, Editors Advisory Board J. M. Bernstein T. J. Clark Noël Carroll Arthur C. Danto Martin Donougho David Frisby Boris Gasparov Eileen Gillooly Thomas S. Grey Miriam Bratu Hansen Robert Hullot-Kentor Michael Kelly Richard Leppert Janet Wolff Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts presents monographs, essay collections, and short books on philosophy and aesthetic theory. It aims to publish books that show the ability of the arts to stimulate critical reflection on modern and contemporary social, political, and cultural life. Art is not now, if it ever was, a realm of human activity independent of the complex realities of social organization and change, political authority and antagonism, cultural domination and resistance. The possibilities of critical thought embedded in the arts are most fruitfully expressed when addressed to readers across the various fields of social and humanistic inquiry. The idea of philosophy in the series title ought to be understood, therefore, to embrace forms of discussion that begin where mere academic expertise exhausts itself, where the rules of social, political, and cultural practice are both affi rmed and challenged, and where new thinking takes place. The series does not privilege any particular art, nor does it ask for the arts to be mutually isolated. The series encourages writing from the many fields of thoughtful and critical inquiry. For a list of titles in the series, see page 195.

Under Suspicion a phenomenology of media

Boris Groys Translated by Carsten Strathausen

columbia university press

new york

columbia university press Publishers Since 1893 new york chichester, west sussex cup.columbia.edu Copyright © Unter Verdacht. Eine Phänomenologie der Medien © 2000 Carl Hanser Verlag München Wien English translation Copyright © 2012 Columbia University Press

All rights reserved

The author and Columbia University Press gratefully acknowledge the support of ZKM/Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, in the publication of this book.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Groys, Boris. [Unter Verdacht. English] Under suspicion : a phenomenology of media / Boris Groys ; translated by Carsten Strathausen. p. cm.—(Columbia themes in philosophy, social criticism, and the arts) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-231-14618-0 (cloth : alk. paper)—ISBN 978-0-231-51849-9 (ebook) 1. Art–Philosophy. N7445.4.G7613

2. Aesthetics, Modern—20th century.

3. Postmodernism.

I. Title.




∞ Columbia University Press books are printed on permanent and durable acid-free paper. This book is printed on paper with recycled content.

Printed in the United States of America 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 References to Internet Web sites (URLs) were accurate at the time of writing. Neither the author nor Columbia University Press is responsible for URLs that may have expired or changed since the manuscript was prepared.


translator’s preface: dead man thinking vii introduction 1

I. Submedial Space 17 1.

The Submedial Subject and the Flux of Signs 19


The Truth of the Medial and the State of Exception 32


Media-Ontological Suspicion and Philosophical Doubt 41


The Phenomenology of Medial Sincerity 49


The Gaze of the Other 62


The Medium Becomes the Message 69


The Case of Exception and the Truth of the Medial 80


II. The Economy of Suspicion 91 8.

Marcel Mauss: Symbolic Exchange; or, Civilization Under Water 93


Claude Lévi-Strauss: Mana; or, the Floating Signifier 106

10. Georges Bataille: The Potlatch with the Sun 115 11. Jacques Derrida: The Lack of Time and Its Specters 129 12. Jean-François Lyotard: The Roller Coaster of the Sublime 148 13. The Time of Signs 161 14. Suspicion Is the Medium 173 notes 181 index 193

Translator ’s Preface: Dead Man Thinking

As I said, I am solely interested in the politics of immortality—how one becomes a pure soul, an indestructible mummy, a living corpse. 1 Groys, Politik der Unsterblichkeit

East, West, and the Topography of Art Boris Groys—philosopher and writer, art critic and curator, university administrator and public policy advisor—is known in Russia, Germany, and other parts of the world as one of today’s leading European intellectuals. His work covers a broad range of topics, including the history of art and philosophy, modern anthropology and ecology, twentieth-century politics, and contemporary media theory. Literally and metaphorically, Groys speaks many languages: he draws from epistemology and economics, aesthetics and politics, academic and public discourse. Although fluent in English and French, Groys has published most of his work so far in either Russian or German. Fortunately, over the last few years in particular,

viii—Translator’s Preface

an increasing number of Groys’s books and essays have appeared in English, such as Art Power (2008), The Communist Post-Scriptum (2009), and History Becomes Form: Moscow Conceptualism (2010). The overall goal of Under Suspicion is to continue this trend and further familiarize the English-speaking public with this original and provocative thinker. Under Suspicion is ideally suited to this task: one of Groys’s most influential books, its first part revisits and expands his central thesis about the “cultural economy of exchange.” Groys originally developed this idea in his— still untranslated—monograph On the New: An Essay On Cultural Economy from 1999.2 The second part of Under Suspicion examines this notion within a broad anthropological and philosophical context through detailed readings of Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard. Groys’s analysis of these thinkers is both lucid and entertaining, and there is little need to comment on them in the course of this introduction. The book as a whole, however, is quite distinct from Groys’s other works due to its particular focus on the notion of subjectivity. Under Suspicion investigates what Groys calls the “submedial space” hidden underneath the phenomenological surface of our media apparatus. His crucial argument is that in examining any text, picture, song, or aesthetic object, we can focus either on its representational level of signification or on the underlying medium that literally carries or sustains this signification. But we can never “see” both dimensions at the same time. Given this incongruence between materiality and meaning, the human being, according to Groys, necessarily suspects the existence of a hidden power or mysterious force operating behind the scenes—a quasi subject secretly controlling our media and their pictures of reality. This suspicion regarding the existence of a superior power is as old as humanity itself, as Groys points out in the introduction of this book. Media theory “is nothing but a new formulation of the old ontological question about the substance, the essence, or the subject possibly hiding behind the image of the world.”3 In other words, our millenia-old ontological suspicion is simply being rearticulated through the rise of media theory and new technologies. And as long as this suspicion survives, the notion of subjectivity survives as well.

Translator’s Preface—i x

This is because subjectivity is based on suspicion; it “lives in its own unhistorical time of infi nite doubt.” 4 This preface is less concerned with summarizing the main theses of Under Suspicion than with contextualizing them—biographically and philosophically, geographically and institutionally. This broad contextualization is crucial for two reasons: first, because it mirrors Groys’s own epistemological relativism and his emphasis on contextual thinking; second, because it enables us to address the multiple intellectual traditions that have shaped Groys’s work overall. Particularly in the United States and Canada, Groys is still best known as a curator and critic of modern art. This reputation is largely due to the international success—and fierce critique—of his first book, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, the English translation of which appeared in 1992.5 Unlike Western critics who dismissed Stalinist culture as kitsch or mere political propaganda without aesthetic value, Groys argued that socialist realism continued and radicalized the legacy of the European avant-garde. After the 1917 October Revolution and Stalin’s consolidation of power in the early 1930s, the Soviet regime, according to Groys, embarked on an official campaign to “realize the dream of the Avantgarde, which was to organize all of social life according to an artistic and all-comprehensive plan.” 6 Although both the avantgarde and socialist realism unequivocally endorsed and advocated the sociopolitical use of art, the decisive difference between these two movements concerns the specific means by which they sought to realize this goal. Instead of continuing the Western tradition of “representing” the aesthetic transformation of reality, Russian artists and officials during the Stalinist era went directly to work on this reality itself. Under tight governmental control, aesthetic ideals were (said to be) immediately put into practice, and social life itself was considered to be what the avant-garde proclaimed it should become, namely art: “This claim to have actualized the utopian project of the Avantgarde by using non-avantgardist, ‘realist’ measures is absolutely central to Soviet culture and hence cannot simply be dismissed as mere hype,” Groys insists.7 Although highly influential, Groys’s first book was predictably criticized for its alleged equation of avant-garde aesthetics and Stalinist dictatorial

x—Translator’s Preface

politics. Art historians felt that Groys’s “cultural revisionism” erased crucial aesthetic and ideological differences between genuine art and political propaganda. Political theorists condemned what they perceived as Groys’s superficial analogy of Italian fascism, German National Socialism, and Soviet Stalinism.8 Regardless of whether one considers this critique justified or not, the charges themselves are symptomatic of the intellectual provocation characteristic of Groys’s work in general. All of his major publications share a stylistic aptitude for poignant—and often controversial—observations and a thematic focus on the relationship of art, philosophy, and power. Inspired by Foucault—Groys explicitly called his Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin a “cultural archaeology”—Groys’s notion of power, however, is by no means limited to the realm of politics, propaganda, and (totalitarian) forms of oppression. Instead, it encompasses the entire field of social, institutional, and economic forces that shaped modern art and culture in East and West alike. This methodological emphasis on sociohistorical contextualization dominated the last section of Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, which examined the legacy of the avant-garde and socialist realism in the Soviet Union’s “postutopian” culture of the 1970s and eighties. Yet this chapter was largely ignored by Western critics. This oversight, in Groys’s view, is deeply symptomatic of the West’s reluctance to move beyond its stereotypical understanding of Russian history and culture, whose contemporary artistic achievements, he argues, continue to be dismissed by academic scholars and public audiences alike. The rejection of Russian art, Groys argues, testifies to the Western public’s profound misunderstanding of both the nature of art and that of the cultural institutions supporting it: “I now believe that the people living in the West, with only few exceptions, do not really understand their own system in which they live,” Groys claimed during a conversation with his Russian friend the artist Ilya Kabakow in the early 1990’s.9 The Western public, in Groys’s view, remains committed to aesthetic autonomy and other antiquated notions of art. Most people essentially identify art with the art market and, therefore, denounce the socialist culture of the former East as mere propaganda. Yet the same people fail to recognize the “de facto existing machinery of cultural production” that regulates the

Translator’s Preface—x i 10

so-called free art market in the West. If art is produced for and consumed by the public, then its apparent diversity today is but a secondary effect of the capitalist logic of economic exchange: “The pronouncement of the cash price one is willing to pay for a particular work is the only hermeneutics appropriate for art,” Groys quips.11 This critique of contemporary art largely coincides with that of Marxist critics such as Fredric Jameson and Julian Stallabras, who likewise consider the constant yet superficial change of aesthetic appearances on the global art market a mere façade that hides the essential sameness of its products underneath.12 Yet contrary to most cultural critics (of the left or the right), Groys insists that “art” is irreducible to a particular philosophical concept or specific material properties. For Groys, “art” has no essence or substance of its own. Anything can become art, because art depends solely on the topography of its sociohistorical contextualization: “The artwork is an exhibited object”—that is all. This, precisely, is the reason why today’s exhibition spaces have increasingly become part of the artwork they house and, at times, even usurp its place. “Present-day art is not the sum of particular things but the topology of particular places,”13 Groys argues, and he even considers the museum itself “the actual origin of the modern work of art.”14 The topological nature of art not only determines our cognitive and physiological responses to it but also annihilates the traditional distinction between original and copy, as Groys argues with reference to Walter Benjamin’s seminal artwork essay: “Today, every work of art—even one produced in an original manner—is essentially a copy. Spatial distance alone, however close it may be, renders the art-work original.”15 “Original” and “copy” are relative terms whose meaning depends entirely upon the spatial relationship between art and viewer, object and subject: “If we make our way to the artwork, then it is an original. If we force the artwork to come to us, then it is a copy.”16 Given this topological relativity of art, Groys concludes that “[p]rivatization ultimately proves to be just as artificial a political construct as socialization was before it.”17 The Western art market, in other words, is no more genuine or natural for the historical development of artistic forms of expression than the former East’s state-governed control. Instead, both systems—”free” art market and

xii—Translator’s Preface

state-governed “propaganda”— function as socially constructed, rather than naturally given, spaces for the production and consumption of whatever we choose to call “art.”

Metanoia; or, The Loss of Self The sociocultural divide between East and West remains a central theme throughout Groys’s writings. His critical, almost clinical gaze on Western art and its cultural institutions clearly reflects his unique personal and intellectual history. Boris Efimovich Groys was born in 1947 in East Berlin but grew up in Russia, where he studied philosophy and mathematics at Leningrad University from 1965 until 1971. During his subsequent employment as a research fellow at Moscow State University, he forged strong intellectual ties with underground Russian artists and intellectuals that continued to influence his thinking even after his eventual emigration to West Germany in 1981. In the mid-1980s, Groys received his doctoral degree and assumed a position at the University of Münster, where he remained until his appointment as Professor of Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Media Theory at the Karlsruhe State College of Design in 1994. Since then, Groys has given numerous lectures around the world and held visiting appointments at several American universities, most notably at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. His extended visits to the United States led him to accept a position as Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University in 2009. In spite of this considerable international success, Groys remains—or, at least, considers himself—an intellectual outsider in the West, as he emphasized in the late 1990s: I am now an emigrant, a stranger in Germany—without any roots in German society, but also without any roots in Russian society. Hence I cannot speak in the name of any tradition, any country, any cultural space, nor can I represent anybody. I cannot even prop-

Translator’s Preface—x i i i

erly speak and write in my own name, because my name is spelled very differently in Cyrillic vs. Latin letters, and each time I am supposed to sign something, I once again ponder what my real name is—and each time I receive different answers to this seemingly simple question.18 This passage bespeaks a cultural uprootedness that extends to the very core of Groys’s personal identity: the lack of a proper name. It is, indeed, symptomatic that Groys’s academic writings rarely make use of the personal pronoun “I.” Instead, he prefers an impersonal style characterized by passive constructions, broad generalizations and truisms of various kinds—”obviously,…”; “as is well known,…”; “there can be little doubt that…”; and so on—that seem to hail from, and appear to be directed at, nobody in particular. Lacking a “real” name and writing as if he were, literally, beyond himself, Groys deliberately assumes the voice of a dead man. This self-declared loss of self is paradigmatic of Groys’s aporetic mode of philosophical reflection. Its overall goal is to divest the process of thinking from the living body that sustains it. Groys’s thinking reduces the human body to a mummy—a living corpse that, although dead, continues to think. Referring to Plato and ancient Greek rhetoric, Groys identifies this methodology as metanoia, “that is, a transition from an innerwordly to an otherworldly perspective, from the perspective of the mortal body to that of the eternal soul.”19 In contrast to Plato’s, however, Groys’s metanoia replaces the immortal soul with “the immortality of the body as corpse.” This survival of one-self as corpse, Groys argues, can be “anticipate[d] in precisely the same way one was able to anticipate the eternal life of the soul in earlier times.”20 How? By (imaginarily or literally) confi ning oneself to the cemetery, the library, the museum, or any other place removed from the daily struggle to secure one’s livelihood. Only by turning “this heterotopic endpoint [of the cemetery] into the prism of our worldview” can we hope to gain a new perspective on life.21 Only by leaving behind the realm of corporeal existence will a single individual be able to occupy, at the same time, a multiplicity of different— and often contradictory—points of view. By contrast, once metanoia

xiv—Translator’s Preface

“becomes impossible, the individual loses the ability to change perspective…. If one is merely mortal, to escape one’s position in the world is impossible.”22 The implication of Groys’ theory of metanoia in the philosophical context of twentieth-century Marxism is clear enough: it suggests that Groys, the disembodied thinker, is immune to the process of ideological interpellation, famously described by Louis Althusser as the subject’s “turning around” when publically hailed by its proper name.23 Viewing life from beyond the grave, Groys turns a deaf ear to the call of ideology—in fact, he no longer has an ear, a body, or a name for ideology to grab hold of. What remains instead is a thinking mind freed from the material constraints of human embodiment. At least with regard to his disdain for the human body, Groys seems to be an idealist. It would be a serious mistake, therefore, to reduce Groys’s theory about the loss of self to the postmodern cliché of the fragmented subject and its failure of linguistic (self-)representation. Groys’ goal is not to reflect on “life toward death” in Heidegger’s sense, nor does he embrace the “other-as-self ” along the lines of Derrida, Levinas, or American cultural criticism. If anything, his call for social isolation reflects the centuries-old influence of monasticism in the Russian Orthodox Church. And yet, although Groys occasionally acknowledges his Russian heritage, he does so only in the belief that the “absolute peculiarity of Russia consists in its lack of peculiarity.”24 In other words, Groys considers himself Russian only to the degree that “being Russian” means being nobody in particular. Thus, one might even apply Groys’s central claim about his native country—“Russia is not a historically grown reality, but a project, a promise, a new beginning”25— to himself as a writer: instead of a living person, the name “Boris Groys” stands for the utopian project of thinking beyond the presence of (one’s own) life. On the other hand, one might very well dismiss such high-flying metaphors about the pursuit of immortality and otherworldly perspectives as little more than rhetorical ploys on Groys’s part—a calculated scheme to avoid personal responsibility for his provocative theses by means of a ventriloquistic style of writing whose sudden reversals and counterintuitive formulations are intended to take his readers (and conceivably the author himself) by surprise. Groys’s abundant use of hy-

Translator’s Preface—x v

phens, colons, enumerations, and incantatory repetitions creates a subliminal persuasiveness most readers will find difficult to resist, and there is no denying that Groys’s deceptively colloquial prose conceals the skillful rhetoric that sustains it underneath. This tension between surface and depth, however, not only mirrors one of Groys’s central thesis in this book regarding the categorical distinction between media surfaces and submedial space. It also contributes to the seductive power of his writing and serves to undermine any critique of Groys’s style as personal escapism. In marked contrast to his academic texts, Groys’s published conversations with friends and critics openly acknowledge the rhetorical dimension of his work. Here, Groys speaks in a personal, at times even confessional, tone that reestablishes the connection between himself and his text: “I am a craftsman of writing” [“Ich bin ein Handwerker der Schrift ”],26 Groys admits in a wily gesture of self-exposure. It is precisely this self-contrariness that helps maintain the overall appeal of what reviewers call Groys’s “unmistakingly independent,” “eccentric,” “untimely and unorthodox” style of writing so often “at odds with itself.”27 These quotes also demonstrate that Groys’s “art of thinking”28 is no more reducible to the history of Western philosophy and Christian religion than to modern art and postmodern theory. Although Groys draws from all these traditions, his writings successfully manage to craft them into a genuinely original assemblage. Stylistically and thematically, Groys always speaks in his own voice—despite his protestation to the contrary. This is most evident in Groys appropriation of twentieth-century phenomenology, a tradition he explicitly links with his own understanding of metanoia. Much like a living corpse, “the phenomenological subject thinks as if it were not alive” and thus realizes “the infi nite play of life’s possibilities,” in Groys’s view.29 Obviously, Groys’s metanoia has nothing in common with the “existential” or “carnal” strand of phenomenology and its increasing influence in contemporary media studies. Their differences notwithstanding, most of today’s media philosophers (e.g., Brian Massumi, Carolyn Jones, Katherine Hayles, Mark B. N. Hansen) agree that new media art enhances our visceral experience of embodiment. Groys, by contrast, claims that virtual space is essentially bodiless: “The

xv i—Translator’s Preface

experience of corporeal presence, which has always been the goal of modern art, does not occur in virtual communication. As a computer-user, one gets absorbed into the lonely communication with the medium, enters the state of self-loss, body-loss—analogous to the practice of reading a book.”30 Whereas Maurice Merleau-Ponty embraces the prereflexive, visceral sense of human embodiment as constitutive of Being, Groys’s ideal is precisely to break free from and transcend what Merleau-Ponty calls the “flesh” of the world.31 Groys, therefore, considers his work “basically a critical continuation of Husserlian phenomenology,”32 because Husserl, like Groys, reduced embodied cognition to the mind’s pure, eidetic perception of the world. But again, Groys immediately qualifies this intellectual alliance. Far from being too Cartesian, Husserl’s transcendentalism, Groys argues, did not go far enough. Husserl failed to develop a proper “phenomenology of metaphysics”33 and ultimately reduced the study of metaphysics to sociology and positivist science. Rejecting such scientific reductionism, Groys insists that the mind’s capacity for self-reflection can no more be scrutinized scientifically—through the use of neuroimaging, for example—than language, media, and the material world can be understood hermeneutically. Put differently: much as the immaterial infi nity of the thinking mind is irreducible to scientific logic, the material finitude of communication media (e.g., paper and canvas, digital storage, and high-broadband cable) is immune to any kind of traditional, philosophical-humanist critique. But Groys goes even further than that: not only is the human subject irreducible to a third-person, scientific analysis of the brain, as many philosophers will agree, but it is equally irreducible to a first-person, philosophical self-introspection of the thinking mind. Groys’s key insight is that subjectivity does not have a positive existence in itself. It is neither objective nor subjective, but contextual and relative: My subjectivity is not founded on self-consciousness, but on a suspicion by others that I am a subject…. My becoming human does not occur within me, but within context; it occurs in the comparison between me and other humans. How I design that context and

Translator’s Preface—x v i i

which comparison I engage, that’s what matters as opposed to how I look and what kind of thing I am.34 Groys’s notion of subjectivity thus moves beyond the binary juxtaposition of scientific “reductionism” versus existential “phenomenology” that characterizes today’s scholarly debate on consciousness.35 Instead, he insists that literally no-body will ever attain the status of genuine subjectivity. Human subjectivity remains an impossible task, a utopian project every individual is called on to pursue in her own way. Groys’s own version, as we have seen, is to reduce the thinker to a mummy, a living corpse that both enables and prefigures the arrival of the new man and another form of human being. Groys’s metanoia, in other words, is a transitional phase that leads from premodern, traditional humanism and its belief in humanity as a natural, always already given entity to the contemporary reign of (post)humanism and its belief in humanity as the never-ending task of human self-creation. It follows that the “term ‘human’ is a political concept, not a biological one.”36 Humanity needs to move beyond its anthropological assumptions and begin experimenting with different ideas—and different contextualizations—of what we call “human.” This includes granting human rights to nonhuman beings as well as acknowledging the utopian potential of genetic research: “Maybe genetics provides us with the necessary tools and thus replaces hermeneutics and the human sciences with gene-technology. Instead of asking ourselves how to comprehend existing man, we now ask the question: How do we generate a new, a different human?”37 The move beyond traditional humanism inevitably leads Groys back to Soviet socialism and its “vision of the new man,” which he still considers “the best starting point for a radical critique of the traditional, racist concept of the human.”38

The Cultural Economy of Exchange Notwithstanding this emphatic embrace of socialist utopianism, Groys’s relation to Marxist philosophy—like his relation to religion, phenomenology,

xv iii —Translator’s Preface

and postmodernism—is complex, ambivalent, even contradictory. On the one hand, Groys agrees with the left about the global market’s ability to shape contemporary culture. His critique basically coincides with what Jameson denounced as “the becoming cultural of the economic and the becoming economic of the cultural” in the postmodern era.39 On the other hand, however, Groys does not confine this cultural economy of exchange to the history of capitalism but considers it constitutive and necessary for the emergence of any and all forms of human culture: “[The cultural] economy in this sense is not the same as the market. It is much older and more comprehensive than the market, which represents only one specific innovative form of the economy.” 40 Contrary to the self-de˘ iz˘ ek, who equates Capital with the Real and clared Stalinist Slavoj Z contends that “the capitalist economy has a universal scope,” 41 Groys sees “capitalism involved in a more fundamental economy, because capitalism as such, as a whole, may eventually be exchanged as well.” 42 Even socalled primitive societies develop some kind of regulatory system for the economic exchange of values, however strange that system may appear to Western eyes: “Human culture is based on exchange. All cultural procedures are exchange procedures and cultural values are interchangeable. This obviously means that there are no ‘eternal values,’ because all values will be exchanged sooner or later.” 43 Cultural values, in other words, are decreed, not discovered, and the alleged truth inherent in art is culture specific, not universal. Groys first introduced this thesis in his seminal book On the New: An Essay on Cultural Economy of 1999. A prequel of sorts to Under Suspicion, On the New demonstrates that what counts as cultural innovation—and what thus deserves to be called “art”—is determined by the various social institutions that, literally, deal with art: art galleries and museums, libraries and concert halls, academic institutions and the arts section in your daily newspaper. In spite of the plurality of differing opinions voiced in these venues, every evaluation of art, Groys argues, is ultimately defined by “an ideological neutral, purely technical system” that adheres to the particular cultural economy that governs the rules of exchange in a given society. For us today, that economy is controlled by the art market,

Translator’s Preface—x i x

and we already know that this market functions according to “its own rules” insofar as it values only works “that have demonstrated their particularity, originality and individuality” in comparison with previously known aesthetic practices.44 There simply is no art independent of our cultural institutions, and there are no cultural institutions without some basic—yet not necessarily capitalist or monetary—form of economic exchange that determines the relative value of every thing around us, including art objects. Groys’s theory about the cultural economy of exchange leads to several intriguing conclusions. For one, he abandons the left’s continuing belief in “authentic,” “genuine” or “resisting” forms of art—regardless of whether such resistance is conceived, in Jamesonian terms, as “the collective experience of marginal pockets” allegedly beyond the reach of global capitalism,45 or, conversely, as the “negative utopianism” allegedly inherent in all “true art” produced within this system, as Adorno would argue.46 In contrast to both Jameson and Adorno, Groys considers art independent of its mimetic quality, truth value, or any other objective property it is said to possess. Art is precisely not defined by the degree to which it supposedly mirrors or critiques the social space that exists beyond its aesthetic realm. What matters instead is how every new artwork reconfigures the very borderline between art and nonart—between the culturally defi ned, interior realm of the archive and the exterior, social space of everyday life. Thus, an aspiring art object can be said to “resist” a specific system of cultural exchange only to the degree to which it is able to redefine this system such that this object is now socially and institutionally recognized as art. Successful aesthetic resistance, in other words, necessarily inaugurates a process of cultural transformation, because to resist one cultural system is to replace it with another: “The economic logic of the revaluation of value is but the logic of culture itself. Culture always already constitutes a value-hierarchy.” 47 A second insight related to Groys’s cultural economy is that a work of art must first claim its unique space in the museum before it may claim recognition as an art object in everyday life, because art’s constitutive relations are internal to its own history. Put differently: although art is

xx—Translator’s Preface

inherently relational, it is not representational. Art does not reflect the independent laws of nature or some objective quality of social life. Instead, each aspiring artwork creates new insights, innovative comparisons, and different modes of expression by successfully competing against established artworks already collected in our cultural archives. This aesthetic innovation is then shared with the nonaesthetic realm of social reality in order to redefine the border between art and nonart, aesthetics and life. But this extension of art into life constitutes only a secondary relation compared with the primary relation between each individual artwork and the entire history of art preceding it. This is why Groys strongly campaigns for the continuation of public funding for archives, museums, libraries, and other cultural spaces of exhibition. For if art requires a specific context of comparison to become meaningful— remember that, for Groys, “no artwork could possibly be interesting by itself [an sich]” 48— then the survival of our public cultural institutions is tantamount to the survival of Western art as such. This confidence in the role of public institutions leads to a third major conclusion, which regards the relation between art and reality. According to Groys, so-called reality is, at base, nothing but the mere sum of everything that has not yet been collected. Reality is thus not something primary that awaits representation in the secondary space of the archive. Rather, reality itself is secondary in relation to the archive: it is all that which has been left outside of the archive.49 According to Groys, there simply is no reality outside of culture. For there is “no way [the world] is under no description” as the American pragmatist Richard Rorty puts it50—a thinker with whom Groys shares a good deal, most notably his relativist belief regarding the historical contingency of the way things are.51 This inverted view of the common-sense relation between art and reality can hardly be called Marxist anymore. It contradicts the classic base-superstructure model, which consistently defines art as a secondary reflection of material reality. Groys readily dis-

Translator’s Preface—x x i

misses any Marxist-inspired, sociological investigation of art and culture— such as Pierre Bourdieu’s—as thoroughly misguided: Bourdieu, according to Groys, unwittingly focuses on the secondary qualities of human lifestyles instead of investigating the primary, “initiating gesture [of art] that produces the new human” and its lifestyle in the first place.52 This leads us to the final conclusion following from Groys’s theses on cultural economy. Although Groys largely shares the aesthetic goals of leftist politics and considers a “critique of the existing art market … legitimate and necessary,” he nonetheless emphasizes that this critique “becomes politically effective only when it is made beyond or outside the art market—in the context of direct political propaganda.”53 This means that art’s “revolutionary” power is most poignantly expressed by the kind of propagandistic “nonart” currently excluded from the art market, because such art replaces the politically ineffective plurality of aesthetic forms and meanings with the promotion of a single, well-defined, and persuasive message. Besides socialist realism and Western-style political campaign commercials, the best example of what Groys has in mind are today’s Islamist Internet videos, whose political impact and ability to organize global communities is significantly higher than that of most Western art forms today—never mind how “critical” or “revolutionary” such art claims to be. “And that means: one needs to have a certain aesthetic preference for the uniform—as opposed to the diverse—to be ready to accept and to endorse radical political and artistic projects.”54

The Commodification of Academic Discourse Groys readily admits that the kind of aesthetic propaganda he advocates “must obviously be very unpopular, very unappealing to the masses.”55 It should be added that his notion of cultural economy is equally unpopular among German academics. Along with Norbert Bolz, Friedrich Kittler, Peter Sloterdijk, and others, Groys belongs to a generation of German philosophers and media theorists who oppose the strong intellectual legacy of Critical Theory in contemporary aesthetics. In Germany in particular,

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this legacy includes not only the works of Siegfried Kracauer, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin but also extends to the Frankfurt School’s second- (e.g., Jürgen Habermas, Albrecht Wellmer) and third-generation members (e.g., Axel Honneth, Martin Seel, Christoph Menke). The intellectual abyss separating these proponents of Critical Theory from their critics became most obvious in Peter Sloterdijk’s polemic exchange with Jürgen Habermas in 1999. The casus belli was a public lecture by Sloterdijk entitled Regeln für den Menschenpark [Rules for the park of humanity], in which he seemed to envision a positive role for gene technology in the future development of humanity.56 The ensuing debate was led by Habermas’s condemnation of what he called the “wild running speculations” of “some flipped-out intellectuals.”57 In response, Sloterdijk wrote an article in the German weekly Die Zeit tellingly entitled “Critical Theory Is Dead.”58 In subsequent publications, he denounced Habermas as the high priest of “a secularized religion of German post-war society” that demonizes intellectual nonconformity as some form of heresy or “new-heathendom.”59 The intensity of these ad hominem attacks was undoubtedly due to the philosophical rift between two different intellectual traditions: Habermas is a strong analytical thinker who still believes in the self-corrective power of human reason and the consensus-oriented dimension of our moral-practical consciousness, whereas Sloterdijk is a self-declared “cynical thinker” who, in the tradition of Heine, Nietzsche, and contemporary postmodernism, has become increasingly suspicious of the West’s continued appeal to the modern project of Enlightenment.60 But the Habermas-Sloterdijk debate also exposed a deep generational gap in German academia that separates those who personally experienced the terror of National Socialism (like Habermas, born in 1929) from their younger colleagues who did not (like Sloterdijk and Groys, both born in 1947). The latter group considers their elders’ constant references to the Nazi period not only inadequate but counterproductive for an analysis of contemporary society. Another example of this conflict can be found in the work of the German media theorist Norbert Bolz (born in 1953). A virulent critic of

Translator’s Preface—x x i i i

Habermas, Bolz advocates a philosophical shift from Critical Theory’s normative perspective about Western society to a value-neutral appreciation of its innovative power. “Modern society,” he argues, “does not survive through reason, but through evolution.” 61 Instead of criticizing the West—one of Bolz’s books is aptly subtitled The End of Criticism 62— academia should fi nally begin to learn from it: “Culture is bias. And beyond this prejudice is nowhere.” 63 Today’s intellectuals should no longer be trained in the history of art and aesthetics but “be recognized by their ability to speak intelligently … about the users of cell-phones, Nikeshoes and activists of Green-peace.” 64 We now live in a world where design replaces art, superficiality replaces depth, and money replaces God: “Consumerism is world society’s immunity system against the virus of fanatic religions,” 65 Bolz insists, because “money manages the chaos of the world.” 66 Moral values, by contrast, “are hostile to thought” [Werte sind denkfeindlich].67 To be sure, Groys is far less apologetic about global capitalism, and his cultural economy of exchange is utterly irreducible to Bolz’s belief in “money as God-term.” Nor has Groys ever engaged in the kind of confrontational polemics that characterizes Sloterdijk’s and Bolz’s attacks on Critical Theory. But Groys nonetheless shares with them the belief that traditional Marxist aesthetics and leftist cultural critique are no longer applicable to our contemporary world of mass media and market-oriented politics, for the simple reason that the latter effectively control this critique. Like all social practices, discourse, too, “is strongly influenced by the hierarchical position of individual authors” on the market of public opinion.68 For Groys, the only effective way to “critique” or “resist” the power of the market is to embrace a radically different notion of art as propaganda. To the degree that traditional aesthetic criticism refuses to do this, it remains “astonishingly homogenous” in spite of its avowed commitment to diversity: “critical discourse in the West circulates primarily as a commodity on the media market,” Groys insists.69 This commodification of cultural criticism is not limited only to German academia or Marxist theory. It applies equally to any “discourse that seeks out reason’s obscure Other” in order to emphasize the “irreducible, unhomogenizable, infi nite, virtual

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empire of heterogeneities and differences,” because none of these differences, Groys argues, are “oppositional with respect to capitalism.”70 Groys thus posits “a deep affiliation between dialectical materialism and deconstruction”71 insofar as both discourses establish “the doctrine about the class-dominion of intellectuals, the ideology shared by a broad stratum of the intellectual elite.”72 The only way to escape this intellectual conformism, Groys argues, is to turn the history of Western philosophy against itself. Groys advocates what he calls “Anti-Philosophy”—a kind of programmatic concern for human action that replaces philosophy’s millennia-old search for absolute truth: “This conversion, which began with Marx and Kierkegaard, does not operate on the basis of critique, but on the basis of decrees. It decrees to change the world rather than to explain it.”73 What matters in the end, Groys argues, is less the production of philosophical ideas than their consumption. What matters is not whether philosophical ideas are “true” on the level of discourse, but “the way in which the reader puts these [philosophical] commands into practice.”74 In fact, philosophy has always, from its very beginnings, contributed to the commodification of discourse precisely by opposing it. Philosophy’s rhetoric about its alleged pursuit of nonutilitarian truth is thus nothing but a clever market strategy that criticizes common, everyday language in order to increase the appeal of its own, highly esoteric and rarified discourse. Plato, in Groys’s view, denounced the sophists not simply because they sold truth for money, but because he wanted to prove publicly that their “truth” was inferior to the real “truth” offered by genuine philosophers like himself. Yet both “truths” were marketed as (discursive) products to the public. There is no truth apart from these competing truth versions: “The philosopher is not a producer of truth…. The philosopher is an average guy from the street who got lost in the global supermarket of truths…. All authentic philosophy is nothing but the verbal articulation of this perplexity.”75 In the modern world, the “truth” of philosophy lost credibility in the eyes of a public increasingly mystified by the seemingly endless variety of competing concepts, systems, and ideas. Free to adopt or reject any of them, yet yearning for guidance about what to do in everyday life, the

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confused public sought comfort in the antiphilosophy of Marx, Kierkegaard, Freud, and others. The ruin of traditional philosophy, Groys argues, was caused by the same economic principles that enabled its previous success. Once philosophy had to compete with other discourses—such as advertising or religion—on a level playing field and lost its privileged status as a metadiscourse allegedly superior to all other discourses, it collapsed under the pressure of the same market forces it had successfully exploited earlier. Paradoxically, then, the only way for (anti)philosophy to survive today is for it to accept rather than reject its commodity form: instead of continuing its age-old quest for absolute truth, philosophical thought must offer to the public pragmatic action decrees that help alleviate the burden of truth choice for those overwhelmed by modern philosophy and the global market-space of ideas.

On the Subject of Paradox This is the core of Groys’s philosophy, which, for lack of a better term, I will call his epistemological relativism.76 For Groys, neither objects nor values, neither art nor discourse, have any meaning by themselves outside of specific contexts. And since reality is simply that which has not yet been collected by our cultural archives, we actually have no clue as to what is real and what is not, nor can we know for sure whether we are dealing with an original or a copy, genuine art or mere kitsch: It is impossible to say a priori whether any particular thing, form, language, or cultural custom belongs to the high, valorized culture or to the profane realm. All cultural phenomena constantly fluctuate around this borderline and change their own position relative to it…. An amalgamation of valorized culture with the profane realm would be possible only if there existed some qualitative criterion able to determine the value of a certain thing independently from its actual position. But such criteria do not exist. Hence there are no profane things, no reality or nature, no Being or Life, no common

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sense as such…. None of these interpretations is secured by anything at all, because there is neither an ontological foundation [Begründung] of norms nor an ontological foundation of general difference and non-normativity.77 This strong relativist position informs Groys’s reflections on art, philosophy, politics, economics, and life in general. Yet if literally every thing—art and its interpretation, material objects as well as social (discursive) practices—is subject to the cultural economy of universal exchange, then this economy itself must be unfounded, contextual, and relative. This, however, is not how Groys presents his theory of suspicion and cultural exchange. In spite of his general endorsement of relativism, he nonetheless considers the economy of suspicion more fundamental, more essential than any other. Every economy, in the end, is a matter of credibility—as everybody knows, of course…. That is why the economy of credibility is, at the same time, the foundational economy [Fundamentalökonomie], so to speak. This economy operates on the level of pure insinuation, of pure suspicion: it operates on the level of the zero-medium, on which the entire medial hierarchy is founded.78 Groys’ own “Anti-Philosophy,” in other words, is ontologically grounded in the “onto-economy”79 of cultural exchange. And this means that Groys’s theory of cultural economy refutes itself. It is inherently paradoxical. The vexed problem of performative self-refutation is not new, of course. Ever since Parmenides declared man the measure of all things, so-called realists have charged relativists with one version or another of performative self-contradiction. There are two ways for Relativists to counter this charge: some analytical philosophers have argued—convincingly, in my view—that “relativism is not self-refuting,” because it requires only plausible, as opposed to absolute, evidence for its validity.80 Others, such as Richard Rorty, have accepted the paradoxical nature of relativism only to insist that this fact is largely irrelevant for social life outside of academia. Although Groys rarely engages contemporary analytical philoso-

Translator’s Preface—x x v i i

phy, he clearly aligns himself with the second camp: for him, as for Rorty, Derrida, and other postmodernist thinkers, paradox is constitutive of thought as such. Groys traces the history of this insight from deconstruction and Marxist philosophy all the way back to Socrates and the Greeks: If we understand philosophical thinking to be the exposure of the inner logical structure of a discourse, then from the perspective of genuine thinking, the logical composition of any discourse can be described in no other way than as self-contradiction, as paradox. Logos is paradox; [hence, the philosophical] ideal of a genuinely non-contradictory speech remains unattainable forever—and is, in fact, entirely superfluous.81 The philosophical ideal of noncontradiction is superfluous because it can never be attained. Instead, this ideal turns out to be just another (discursive) commodity subject to the cultural economy of exchange. This is why Groys remains unfazed by his critics’ charge of self-contradiction, and his stoicism befits a thinker who deliberately embraces paradox as part of his own identity. Just think of Groys, the “nameless” writer enjoying international fame, or Groys, the incisive critic of the art market, who nonetheless denounces all cultural critique (including his own?) as commodified language. Much like the modern artwork of which they speak, Groys’s own texts deliberately reflect and perform these constitutive paradoxes of modern life. And Groys himself—the dead thinker, the living corpse—ultimately emerges as a “paradox-object” that functions as “a site of revelation of the paradox governing the balance of power” in contemporary culture.82 We thus return to the question of human subjectivity with which we began. Recall that subjectivity, for Groys, is inherently relational, contextual, and nonessential. Suspended between mind and matter, between the mortality of the human individual and the immortality of its corpse, the subject of “(m)etanoia remains ultimately groundless, purely performative, revolutionary.”83 The performative nature of what it means to be human guarantees that every cultural context can be exchanged for any

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other. No absolute logic, no single truth, no metaculture or metaconcept exists that can regulate the economy of contextual exchange for all times and all places—precisely because the “human” itself remains an infinite project subject to constant innovation. Hence, logos is paradoxical, life is paradoxical, and the human self-constitution as subject is paradoxical. No thought, however rational, will ever dissolve this paradox. That is not a cause for resignation, however. On the contrary, the reign of paradox is liberating insofar as we are free to remake ourselves and the world in which we live. As Groys reminds us, “the decision to be human is no different from that which validates a work of art as a work of art.”84 The human being, in other words, is essentially a work of art. It will be up to Groys’s American audience to embrace or reject this provocative idea, as well as Groys’s peculiar mix of relativism and idealism, materialism and humanism. It seems likely that at least some readers will suspect Under Suspicion of hiding a far more traditional message underneath its innovative surface—be it Hegelian-Marxist dialectics, American pragmatism, or a defense of today’s liberal ideology of global capitalism. If so, I would exhort these readers, “Enjoy your suspicion!” It is all you need— and all you have—to defi ne your self and your own subjectivity.

under suspicion



h is book h a s e m erged from t h e de si r e t o answer the question about the nature of the force that upholds our cultural archives and endows them with their durability—a question that has preoccupied me ever since I published On the New.1 Therefore, it might be helpful to clarify the reasons that originally led me to confront this question. In On the New, I described the “cultural economy”: the exchange that takes place between the archive of cultural values and the profane space outside this archive. In the archive, things are collected and preserved that are regarded as significant, relevant, and valuable for a certain culture. All other things that are regarded as insignificant, irrelevant, and worthless remain in the profane space outside the archive. Yet the cultural archives change constantly: some things from


the profane space are incorporated, whereas others from the archive’s collection are considered no longer relevant and are sorted out. In On the New, I tried to answer the question, Which criteria does a culture use when it judges something from the profane sphere to be important and worthy of inclusion in its archives? In particular, I was asking, Why does the archive not remain self-identical? Why is there constantly something New coming into the archive? The common answer to this question is well known: important is that which is important for life, for history, for humans. These important things must be included in the archive, because the task of the archive is to represent life outside the archival space. Of course, opinions as to what is important for life and for humans diverge greatly, which is why representation in the archive seems to concern first and foremost the politics of representation that takes place within the larger framework of a battle for recognition. And there are, indeed, many quarrels about what should be represented in the archive as well as about who is allowed to administer the archive and may decide about its structure. Thus, it appears to be primarily a question of power—specifically, about the position of power that allows one to decide what is significant, relevant, and worthy of being archived and what is insignificant, irrelevant, and should be left out. The discussions about who occupies the archive’s positions of power and about the inclusions and exclusions allegedly practiced by the people who occupy these positions is, therefore, highly emotional. This is always the case when the questions at issue are considered to be political—that is, questions about which everyone is not only allowed, but even expected, to have his own opinion. During such heated discussions, everybody considers something particular to be important and believes that whatever his opponent deems important is actually completely unimportant. And whenever the unimportant seems to triumph nonetheless over the important, public opinion suspects that secret intrigues, covert exercises of power, and, above all, money—lots and lots of money—must be involved. Having observed this entire spectacle for a while, one cannot but be surprised to realize finally that, in fact, the archive continues to grow


steadily—and, actually, grow to everybody’s satisfaction. The development of the archive seems to follow a logic that, in the end, impinges itself equally strongly on everyone involved in this matter. And if somebody is so overconfident in his own position of power with regard to the archive that he begins to act against this logic, he will lose this position quickly enough. There is no absolute position of power in relation to the archives. The archive’s own logic of development always wins out in the end, because archives collect precisely that which has hitherto not been collected in them. And so-called reality is, at base, nothing but the mere sum of everything that has not yet been collected. Reality is thus not something primary that awaits representation in the secondary space of the archive. Rather, reality itself is secondary in relation to the archive: it is all that which has been left outside the archive. My book on the New thus formulated the suspicion that, in fact, the archive does not collect what is important for humans “in reality”—because nobody knows what is important for humans. On the contrary, what is collected is only what is important to the archive itself. The historically new, actual, living, and Real cannot be diagnosed other than by comparison with the “dead,” the archived, and the old. This means that the function of the archive cannot consist merely of illustrating or representing history or of holding fast to the memories of history the way in which this history took place “in reality.” Rather, the archive constitutes the prerequisite for something like history to emerge in the first place, because only if the archive is already there are we able to compare the New with the Old—and it is this comparison that produces history proper. The archive is a machine for the production of memories, a machine that fabricates history out of the material of noncollected reality. This production process has its own laws, which must be heeded by all participants. For example, if a religious orthodoxy fights with all of its power some blasphemous teachings “in real life,” then it is forced to repeat these teachings in its own archive in order to be able to tell the story of its own genesis and ultimate success. Thus, an inner contradiction characterizes the cultural archive and produces its dynamic. On the one hand, the archive is charged with


pursuing completion: it is supposed to collect and represent whatever remains outside the archive. On the other hand, however, things in the archive have a radically different fate from that of the profane things outside the archive: archived things are regarded as valuable and worthy of preservation, whereas the demise, the mortality, and the finiteness of all profane things is accepted without hesitation. Thus, a deep difference exists between things in the archive and things outside the archive, which undermines any claim of representation from the very beginning—a difference with regard to value, fate, and things’ relation to decay, annihilation, and death. If we were to assume, for instance, that the pictures collected in a museum are meant to represent the world outside the museum, we would quickly notice that the opposite is true: namely, that these pictures are located in the museum precisely because public opinion considers them flatteringly different from other things in the world—because they were painted particularly well by particularly talented painters, or because they are framed particularly well or because they cost a particularly huge amount of money. That is why museum culture as a whole tries to prevent the loss of these pictures. Nobody, on the other hand, attempts to prevent the loss of the worldly things represented in these pictures. People try to rescue a picture in which a cow is depicted particularly well, yet the fate of the cow itself is of interest to nobody. And that is to say that the archive cannot depict or represent that which essentially defi nes reality as such, namely its finiteness, its mortality. Even art that seeks to stage its own finiteness in the halls of the museum will be documented, archived, and preserved. Nonetheless, the demand for completion forces the archive to continue searching for the real, that is, for the transient, the actual, and the inconspicuous. At first, this search proceeds along the criteria of formal differentiation: we collect primarily that which testifies to its “reality” by appearing to be different, on a formal level, from what has already been collected previously. But formal distinctiveness is insufficient to produce the New. For the archive, the newness of a profane thing consists not only in its distinctiveness but, most important, in its ability to represent the entire profane reality outside the archive, at least for a limited period


of time—and thus to suggest that the demand for completion has been met. The archive as a whole does not represent reality; only the New within the archive does. It does so precisely by retaining, for a certain time, the aura of finiteness, of mortality, which refers to the fate of all that is real. It is due to this aura of mortality that the New seems able to represent the whole of the transient reality—up to the moment until its own prolonged presence in the archive and its all too remarkable longevity render this erstwhile aura of mortality incredible and thus destroy it. Everybody is familiar with the example of Duchamp’s readymades [English in the original]. In spite of their small number, these readymades became so convincingly successful because they evoked the entire world of modern, everyday life that art had overlooked until then. Likewise, Marx considered the proletariat as the representative of true humanity precisely because the proletariat had hitherto been overlooked by the cultural archives. Similarly, Freud described a few dreams of a few neurotics as the manifestation of the hidden reality of the unconscious. Numerous other examples could be added at will. It follows that the value of a new thing, of a new image or a new text in the archive, is a function of its worthlessness in everyday reality. The less valuable and enduring—the more profane—a thing of reality is, the more it is able to represent in the archive the common worthlessness of the world, and the more representational value is given to this profane thing in the archive. The creation of the New thus proceeds by means of combining formal difference and profane worthlessness. The formal difference enables us to distinguish the selected and newly admitted thing in the archive from all other previously collected archival things. Yet at the same time, its profane worthlessness renders this thing indistinguishable from all other profane things, which is how the newly included item can be elevated to become a representative of all of reality. It should be noted that the tension produced by this value difference is not dialectical in nature, because it never leads to a synthesis, that is, to a thing that would be both absolutely important and absolutely unimportant, absolutely eternal and absolutely transient at the same time. Rather, this tension provides the frame for the cultural economy of the New,

6 —Introduction

which keeps expanding continuously. The new thing in the archive is new not least because it renews and corroborates the demand for completion in the archive. Due to its worthlessness and its unimportance, the new thing in the archive gets the chance for a while to represent within the archive the entire infi nite, worthless, profane world. This gives rise to the glamour, the charisma, the seductive power of the New—it is the glamour of infinity. For a while, the new thing seems to render visible the infi nity of the world within the fi nite space of the archive. Yet the right to such a representation of infinity must be gained through a vigorous competition in worthlessness. This competition is familiar to us primarily as the history of modern art, where the winner is the one who, in the most radical fashion, robs the artwork of its external importance and relevance and thus endows it with the greatest possible representational value. Yet the same mechanisms of innovation are active in all areas of modern culture. As mentioned earlier, the experience of infinity emerges only in cases where the extracultural realm is represented within the cultural archives. The archives themselves are finite, obviously. And although the extracultural realm of reality is vast, it is not infi nite either. This fact, alas, is all too often overlooked, which leads people to assume that in order to discover the infi nite dimension of life, it would suffice to break out of the confi nement of archives, institutions, high culture, libraries, and museums. But “real life” is precisely the place of fi nitude, transience, mortality—and thus essentially the place of all that is unimportant and uninteresting. Even a short visit to the worst museum in the world is a thousand times more interesting than anything one gets to see during a long life in so-called reality. One can only have the experience of infi nity within the archives of high culture, much as Goethe’s Faust had such an experience in the library, only to lose it again later in real life. The effect of infinity is an entirely artificial one generated by the representation of the external within the internal. Neither the external nor the internal as such is infinite. Only the representation of the external within the internal generates the dream of infi nity—and this dream alone is, in fact, infi nite. However, the aura of infi nity bestowed on the new thing in the


archive does not last forever. Someday, this thing will reveal itself as yet another—important, valuable, but nonetheless finite—thing. Then the time has come for the arrival of the new New, for a new ceremony of bestowing archival value on the new representation of profane worthlessness. At this point, I want to interrupt the description of the mechanism of cultural innovation, which I have detailed in On the New. For I have already said enough to spell out the question that has preoccupied me ever since I finished that book. It is fairly obvious that the economy of the New presupposes a secure, stable distinction between the archive of valuable culture and the extracultural, profane space. This distinction must endure so that the economy of cultural innovation may thrive, which is to say, so that this distinction can continuously be undermined, deconstructed, and rendered indistinguishable. To conduct its operations, the cultural economy, like any other economy, needs, above all, time. In the case of the cultural economy, this time is the time of the archive: cultural innovation remains possible for as long as the archive is secure and persists. But what provides the guarantee that the archive will, indeed, persist? Where does the time of the archive originate? How is the cultural economy provided with the time it needs to function? All of these questions culminate in a single one, namely that regarding the temporal stability of the archive. How is the archive sustained and secured—and what can guarantee that it will be sustained over longer periods of time? The archive, in other words, is fundamentally under suspicion of being unsecured. And, evidently, this suspicion can be weakened only if one is permitted insight into the nature of the medium that sustains the archive. So the question can be reformulated thus: what medium sustains the archive— and for how long? Naturally, this question emerges by no means solely in the context of my own investigations. As in the case of the New, it seems, at fi rst glance, that we are dealing primarily with a highly relevant political question. For according to public opinion, it is ultimately society that sustains the cultural archives and decides how long they last. The continuance of archives is thought to depend on the investment of money, labor, and technical know-how [English in the original] society provides for the preservation

8 —Introduction

of the archives. Yet today’s socially dominating discourse does not appear to be particularly supportive of the archive. There are calls from all sides to bid farewell to the sterility of cultural archives and instead to start communicating, at last, here and now. These days, everything is supposed to flow, to morph incessantly from one form into another, to lose all identity, to become undistinguishable, multimedial, and interactive. The biggest prize goes to whoever is able to decenter, dissolve and liquefy himself most rapidly and most radically, because then he is perceived as both market compatible and critical of the system. Naturally, one may protest against this current atmosphere for nostalgic reasons. And who knows? Maybe such protests will prove effective one day. Yet such a discursive turn would play neither a positive nor a negative role for the theory of the New, because the theory of the New seeks to describe, among other things, precisely the change of intellectual fashions, which is why it cannot become dependent on one specific fashion. Even the fashion of decentralizing and liquefying oneself should therefore be welcomed and described by the theory of the New, because this fashion, too, is archived as something new. This is due, once again, to the longing of the archives for infinite life—a longing that emerges exclusively within the archive, as mentioned earlier. Yet like any other human passion, the longing for infinity is unstable. True, this longing, once it emerges, can be satisfied by innovation within the archive. But it is incapable of sustaining the archive as an institution. In the West, of course, the term culture has de facto been synonymous with romanticism from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present day. And romanticism, as we know, supposes that mankind [der Mensch] has an ineradicable desire for infi nity that is inherent in human nature—a longing that can never be satisfied by the finite. This inherent desire for infinity was ultimately understood as the carrier of cultural archives, which contain those values that emerge from the passion for the high and noble and that provide an alternative to prosaic, daily, marketoriented life. But institutions generally cannot be built on passions—and there is even less chance of securing them permanently through passions. Moreover, terms such as passion, longing, desire can be easily translated


into the term demand and thus integrated into the market economy. Yet if the cultural archives must be sustained by the demand for infi nity, then we may bid them farewell right away. Today’s people have apparently no— or at least only a very slight—demand for infinity. They are usually content with the finite. And this contentment with the finite cannot be attacked using moral arguments. It is pointless to ask society or the state to secure the cultural archives if the demand for infi nity is lacking. All other cultural demands directed at the archives, however, are more easily satisfied by the fluid mass culture that continues to expand beyond the archives and that can be communicated here and now. Thus, the quite legitimate demands for a better cultural representation of minorities or for a permanent social presence of particular historical memories are primarily directed at the mass media—television, the film industry, or advertisements—which indeed are able to satisfy them most effectively in the end. By the way, we also cannot expect much support for the cultural archives from ideologies and cultural tides that are critical of the market. It is highly significant that progressive critical theory today, unlike in previous times, no longer charges the market with thinking only in fi nite temporal terms while ignoring the infi nite, “inner” values. Quite the contrary: such a progressive critique considers as still too optimistic even the short-term economic plans that are necessary for the market to function. Today’s critical theory does not rely on the surplus of time but presupposes the scarcity of time—and thus argues in the name of the unstable, the fluid, the uncontrollable, and that which evades our grasp. Time is interpreted as a finite event that jeopardizes every plan, every economic rationality, every market calculation. Today’s critical theory juxtaposes the finite (yet nonetheless still enduring) time of the market and industrial production with a far more radical, catastrophic, apocalyptic scarcity of time—and with the messianic demand, born of this scarcity, for immediate and total consumption. Obviously, such an understanding of time is particularly unfavorable for the archives. However, we may wonder to what degree a society as such can be interpreted as the ultimate carrier of the archives. No society, regardless of the politics it endorses, can prevent, for example, the destruction of

1 0—Introduction

archival values due to natural catastrophes or wars. On the other hand, archival things may outlast the societies that produced them: thus, archaeology creates the possibility of studying artworks that have been preserved by nature rather than by society. Hence, the question regarding the ultimate carrier of the archive cannot be answered quite so easily as might appear at first glance—and this, in turn, renders uncertain the continuance of the archive. For Plato, the divine archive of ideas was indestructible. Likewise, for a Christian, the archive of divine memory, which stores the traces of the merits and sins of every single person, is indestructible. But modernity, too, repeatedly gives rise to teachings that interpret the archive as indestructible. Freudian psychoanalysis describes the unconscious as the medium of an indestructible archive: each process of forgetting and repression only engraves this archive deeper and deeper into the unconscious. Many structuralist theories describe language, too, as an indestructible archive, because they consider language to precede all speech acts and practical actions, including all acts of destruction. Thus, the question about the continuance of the archive is above all a question of the medial carrier of that archive. The determination regarding the continuance of the archive depends on whether this medial carrier is, say, God, nature, language, the unconscious, or the Internet. Yet the carrier of the archive remains constitutively hidden behind the archive and thus inaccessible to direct contemplation. One often considers the medial carriers of the archive to be the technical means of data storage, such as paper, fi lm, or computers. But these technical devices are themselves things in the archive. Behind them, we find yet other and diverse production processes, electrical networks, and economic processes. And what hides behind these networks and processes? The answers become increasingly vague: history, nature, substance, reason, desire, the course of events, chance, subject. Hence, behind the sign surface of the archive we may suspect an obscure, submedial space in which receding hierarchies of sign carriers descend into dark, opaque depths. This dark, submedial space constitutes the Other [das Andere]2 of the archive, albeit another Other compared with the profane space outside the archive, about which I spoke in the context of the economy of the New.

Introduction—1 1

At first glance, the sign carriers of the archive are topographically located within the archival space like books in a library, canvases in a picture gallery, or video gadgets and computers in a video installation. But this impression is deceptive. Books are not part of the archive, but texts are; not canvases, but paintings; not video gadgets, but moving images. The carriers of the archive do not belong to the archive, because they remain hidden behind the medial surface of signs they offer to the observer of the archive. Put differently: the carrier of the archive does not belong to the archive, because although it sustains archival signs, it is not an archival sign itself. Much like the profane space, the carrier of the archive constitutes the outside of the archive. Thus, the archive has not one but two different external spaces. The first space includes all profane, nonarchived signs—here, we are dealing with the relation between the archive and this profane space, which is regulated by the cultural economy of the New as outlined above. The second space pertains to the carrier of the archive—the complicated hierarchy of sign carriers that sustain archival signs on several levels. However, there is a fundamental difference between these two external spaces of the archive. The profane space readily presents itself to the gaze of the observer so that the things of life can always be compared with the archival things. By contrast, the carriers of the signs remain hidden behind the very signs they sustain. The carrier of the archive is constitutively hidden from the gaze of the observer. Because the observer can only see the medial surface of archival signs, he is forced to surmise the medial carrier behind this surface. The relation of the viewer to the submedial space of the carrier is thus essentially a relation of suspicion—a necessarily paranoid relationship. This is why the observer develops the desire to know what is “really” concealed behind the medial surface of signs—a media-theoretical, ontological, metaphysical desire. No doubt, the question concerning the media carrier is nothing but a new formulation of the old ontological question about the substance, the essence, or the subject possibly hiding behind the image of the world. Insofar as it must confront the question of the media carrier, media theory is nothing other than a continuation of

1 2—Introduction

ontology under the new conditions of contemplating the world. Classical ontology seeks to know what is hiding behind the world of appearances. Media ontology seeks to know what is hiding behind medial signs—precisely in cases where these signs, much like their sign carriers, are not “natural” but “artificial.” Obviously, we may now ask whether it makes sense to inquire about the artificial sign carriers in such a mediaontological manner, given that we already know how these carriers are produced, what technical characteristics they possess, and how they function. A similar objection is raised, by the way, when one insists that modern science has already studied nature to such a degree that we already know what the “inside” of nature looks like, which renders the traditional ontological question superfluous. Both classical-ontological and media-ontological questions are thus replaced by a scientistic-technological investigation. Yet the scientistic argument confuses the two different external spaces of the archive: the profane space outside the archive and the submedial space behind the surface of the archive. Artificially constructed sign carriers such as books, canvases, computers, or videotapes exist for us in an evident enough manner only in profane space. Yet we can only surmise them in submedial space. When we see a painting in a gallery, we do not see the canvas that sustains this painting. In order to see the canvas, we have to turn the painting around, that is, we have to leave the realm of the archive behind. If we want to examine what TVs or computers look like inside and how they function, we have to first turn off the apparatus and also extinguish the pictures sustained by the apparatus. And this means that neither the canvas nor the media apparatus are ever accessible to us as media carriers. They are accessible to us only when they no longer function as media carriers, but present themselves as nothing more than things that belong to the profane world outside—at which point the question again arises as to which sign carriers sustain and present these apparatus in return. Profane space and submedial space are thus incompatible with one another. Either we observe the signs and the things themselves—or we ask about their carriers. Hence, the simple identification of profane with

Introduction—1 3

submedial space, on which the scientistic-technical view is based, cannot be sustained. This is why submedial space necessarily remains for us the dark space of suspicion, speculations, and apprehensions—but also that of sudden epiphanies and cogent insights. Indeed, we inevitably suspect manipulation, conspiracy, and intrigue lurking behind the surface of signs presented by public archives and the media. This aptly demonstrates what kind of answer one expects to hear in response to the media-ontological question, and the nature of this answer has nothing to do with any kind of scientific description. Rather, the observer of the medial surface hopes that the dark, hidden, submedial space at some point reveals, betrays, divulges itself for what it is. The observer of the medial surface is waiting for the voluntary or coerced sincerity of submedial space. At issue is another truth of signs, one that differs from the referential truth reflecting the relation of signs to the objects they signify. At issue is not the truth of signification, but the truth of the medial. Every sign signifies something and refers to something. But at the same time, every sign also conceals something. And it is not the absence of the signified object that is concealed, as we hear time and again, but simply a piece of the medial surface that is being materially, medially occupied by this sign. Every sign blocks the view of the medial carrier that sustains this sign. The medial truth of the sign becomes apparent only when this sign is eliminated or removed, thereby allowing insight into the nature of the carrier. To experience the medial truth of a sign is tantamount to eliminating and putting aside this sign—to brushing it off from the medial surface like a speck of dirt. The media-ontological quest strives for a clearing, for an empty spot, for an interval of the sign layer that covers the entire medial surface. It strives for an unmasking, uncovering, unconcealment of the medial surface. Or, to put it differently: the observer of the medial surface waits for the medium to become the message, for the carrier to become the sign. However, we can surely say that no revelation of the concealed, no media-ontological insight, no act of sincerity on behalf of the carrier will eradicate the original suspicion once and for all. Submedial space is originally defi ned

1 4—Introduction

as the space of media-ontological suspicion; hence it becomes immediately apparent that this suspicion cannot be invalidated or eradicated in definitive terms. Yet this still does not mean that waiting for the event of submedial sincerity must be in vain. For the effect of sincerity emerges precisely at the moment when the media-ontological suspicion appears to be validated, that is, when the observer receives a hint about the fact that the submedial interior is indeed structured differently from the medial surface. When that happens, the observer gets the impression that he has fi nally discovered an empty spot on the medial surface and thus gained insight into submedial space—which also serves to confirm his suppositions and anxieties. The insight into submedial space thus appears credible only when it reflects the original media-ontological suspicion: to a suspicious gaze, only its own reflection appears sufficiently convincing. Hence, the task of media theory does not consist of demonstrating that the observer errs yet again at this point, because that only repeats the figure of suspicion once more. Both the media-ontological suspicion and its self-reflections in submedial space can be neither confirmed nor disproved. Instead, another question emerges at this point. Why, how, and under what conditions does such a self-reflection of the media-ontological suspicion appear convincing to the observer? Or, to put this question differently: How does the effect of sincerity, of medial truth, of the (self)exposure of the medial emerge? The greater part of this book is dedicated to a more detailed analysis of this effect. At this point, we shall, therefore, only hint briefly at the strategy for such an analysis. It consists of a search for those signs that give the observer the impression of being authentic messages of the medium, that is to say, messages of suspicion itself. Yet similar to cases of innovation, such signs can function only for a relatively brief time as an empty spot able to provide insight into submedial space. Soon thereafter, they will once again be regarded as “usual” signs that instead obstruct and prevent our look into the submedial. Hence, we are dealing with the same economy as regards both the medial and innovation. The two economies are intertwined in numerous ways. In both cases we are dealing with the creation of an effect of infinitude that only lasts for a brief moment but then can

Introduction—1 5

reemerge through another sign. With regard to mediality, however, the issue is not the infinitude of the presumed reality outside the archive, but rather the dark, concealed infi nitude of the archive carrier. As mentioned earlier, the archive carrier is characterized in particular by the fact that it bestows durability on the signs of the archive—which is to say that the observer can gain knowledge about the continuance of the archive only by gaining insight into submedial space, that is, through a message of suspicion. In the last instance, then, the archive is sustained by suspicion itself — indeed the very same media-ontological suspicion that threatens to undermine this archive. And since the media-ontological suspicion is infinite—because it cannot be invalidated once and for all by any insight into the inside of the archive—the medium of suspicion opens up a potentially infinite temporal perspective for the archive. Western modernity in particular is traditionally described as the age of suspicion that undermines all previous values, traditions, and certainties. This is why people again and again have tried to protect these traditional values from suspicion by giving them a “firm foundation.” But it is far from accidental that the age of modernity is also the age of archivization par excellence. Whereas modernity, on the one hand, destroyed all traditional foundations because all of them turned out to be too finite, too instable, and too fragile, modernity, on the other hand, also provided a much more stable foundation for cultural values—namely, suspicion as such. Suspicion can never be invalidated, eradicated, or undermined, because it is constitutive for the observation of the medial surface: everything that presents itself automatically renders itself suspect—and suspicion carries on by allowing us to presume that hidden behind everything we see is something invisible that functions as the medium of the visible. Thus, suspicion does not just ruin traditional foundations but also replaces them with new foundations. Suspicion constantly transcribes old signs onto new media; this is why it is the medium of all other media, so to speak. These transcriptions from one medium into another medium follow the economy of suspicion as described in the following pages.


The Submedial Subject and the Flux of Signs


s m en t ion ed e a r l i er , s u bm edi a l spac e is , i n its essence, the space of suspicion. In this sense, however, it is also the space of subjectivity, because sub-jectivity [Sub-jektivität] is nothing else but the pure, paranoid, yet at the same time inevitable projection [Unter-stellung] of the suspicion that something invisible must be hidden behind the visible in the space beneath the medial surface. Indeed, subjectivity cannot be seen or experienced; it can never show itself as a sign on the medial surface. Subjectivity is always only that which lurks behind, hides itself, and remains in the dark. It is far from accidental that one might be able to say during an evening stroll, Do you see these dark, suspicious subjects at the far end of the road? This sentence explains the nature of subjectivity better than a thousand philosophies. Subjectivity

20—Submedial Space

dwells in the dark, essentially inaccessible, and unexperienceable space of suspicion. And because media-ontological suspicion, which has superseded classical ontological suspicion, is the most radical suspicion insofar as it is projected into a space that constitutively refuses to allow for any kind of experience, it follows that submedial space is the space of subjectivity par excellence. It is well known that today’s dominant philosophical discourse is markedly hostile to subjectivity—and, because of that, is even considered to be critical. Yet the subjectivity that this discourse thereby rejects is only that of the observer of the medial surface, for it is rightly pointed out that the observer can see only what is revealed to him. On his own the observer cannot “imagine” how things are; he always remains dependent on what he gets to see. Nobody, of course, will deny the fact that seeing depends on revealing—we cannot see what we are not shown. Yet the question emerges: who or what reveals? And we may answer: it is the medial subjectivity that reveals. And no deconstruction of the seeing subjectivity can apply to the revealing subjectivity, because the revealing subjectivity is not transparent and selfevident but dark und unfathomable. The subjectivity of the seer, by the way, becomes manifest only when he directs his gaze toward himself—in which case he becomes a medial surface for his own self. And once again, subjectivity manifests itself as suspicion, which, in this case, the observer evokes against himself by looking at himself. Subjectivity is always only the subjectivity of the other presumed to exist behind the other’s surface. Subjectivity is that within the other which seems suspicious to me and causes fear—which gives me cause to resent and accuse, to ascribe responsibility, to fight and protest. In short, subjectivity gives rise to politics. People feel compelled to take a political position only if they presume a hidden God behind the image of the world. But if everything is supposed to run according to some laws of nature or history or language, then there is no chance for any kind of protest, but only the possibility of a scientific description. It is not by accident that political spaces have been constantly shrinking ever since first nature and then society have been understood to be scientifically explainable.

The Submedial Subject and the Flux of Signs—21

Yet today’s philosophical discourse often remains very ambivalent with regard to the hidden, dark subjectivity of suspicion. Attitudes range from media-ontological atheism all the way to agnosticism and deism. Some claim that there is only the medial surface behind which there is really nothing hidden at all. Such a radically atheistic claim, however, is highly problematic, because subjectivity, as we know, is nothing other than, precisely, nothing. Other authors are much more careful and refer in a neo-agnostic way to “the Other” [das Andere]. Here, the “Other” is actually a name for the submedial space of suspicion. At issue is the imperceptible foundation of the play of signs that takes place on the medial surface. Yet what distinguishes this media-agnostic “Other” in particular is its utter harmlessness. The “Other” simply withdraws; aside from that, it does not do anything bad or anything good. Thus it becomes evident that the media-agnostic “Other” is rather “matter” than “spirit,” because the spirit seduces, pursues, punishes, and rewards. Yet none of this can be said of the “Other” as described via deconstructive means. This Other is not the subject of some action aimed at the observer, but only a material foundation that withdraws from the observer—the “Other” as material, substance, matter, or physicality that has suddenly developed a certain sense of shame that prevents it from appearing in public. With this, however, one has made a predetermination about the nature of submedial space that leads to a number of theoretical difficulties. One is forced to thematize a material carrier that, nonetheless, can be neither experienced nor recognized; that remains passive; and yet, at the same time, continuously withdraws itself by means of “difference,” etc. Thus, one constantly dwells in the vicinity of the concealed subjectivity yet does not dare to take the decisive step; instead, one prefers to cultivate the paradoxical figure of an unexperienceable, unrecognizable, and simultaneously self-mobilizing materiality. In this way, the submedial Other almost becomes identical with the concealed subjectivity in so far as the Other [das Andere] gains the ability to “look back at the beholder” from within the inner space behind the medial surface or to appear to the beholder like a willful specter. And yet, “the other” [der Andere] is still

22—Submedial Space

described deistically, that is, as lacking a will of his own: although “the other” does observe, he does not intervene. Nobody is scared of such an other; hence there is little reason to spend any more time dealing with him. The language of the poststructuralist Other is a thoroughly depoliticized language that does not permit formulation of any demand or accusation. It is often claimed that, especially today, we are living in the era of suspicion, a suspicion that is becoming intensified as never before insofar as it takes aim at subjectivity. Yet it is precisely through this de-subjectification of the subject that suspicion remains stuck halfway, because suspicion is anything but a radical suspicion if it does not imagine subjectivity—and thus real danger—lurking within the Other. Today, one mostly encounters this imagination of a dark, dangerous subjectivity hidden in submedial space in the context of mass culture. Particularly in Hollywood’s mainstream movies [English in the original], we again and again find the suspicion of subjectivity directed at almost any kind of submedial space imaginable: cars, refrigerators, computers, and TVs—not to mention the aliens that come from outer space— unfold a well-targeted and consistently destructive energy in these films. The mass culture of today is above all a culture of radical suspicion. The dominant philosophical discourse, by contrast, has primarily a reassuring and calming effect because it denies subjectivity. Yet we all know that a dark conspiracy is abetted all the more by being declared impossible. Hence, the discourse that is directed against the supposition of subjectivity can certainly be regarded as a particularly obscure fragment of the medial surface behind which lurks a particularly acute danger. If the subject could, indeed, be deconstructed, such a deconstruction would not amount to a threatening defeat of reason, but to good vibrations all around. The attractiveness of poststructural discourse consists primarily in announcing this message, which promises the reader freedom and salvation from all anxiety-producing suspicion, because if the subject exists, this means: you should be afraid. The dark presence of the subject always announces itself through the fear, the embarrassment, and the insecurity into which it catapults us—independent of whether we suppose the subject exists within or outside ourselves. The subject mani-

The Submedial Subject and the Flux of Signs—23

fests itself not via some specific signs, but via a dark threat that seems to emanate equally strongly from all signs on the surface of the world and via the hunch about the dark, submedial space that remains invisible behind the level of signs—which is precisely why we suspect danger lurking beneath it. Only in a world without subjectivity could we feel well and protected. As Sartre puts it: Hell is other people. And we are also a hell for ourselves insofar as we observe ourselves. Indeed, if the subject were to be undermined, deconstructed, and dissolved by the subjectless, unconscious forces of the infinite play of signs, it would amount to a rescue from hell. Yet this promise of a rescue delivered by deconstructionist thought is not credible enough to calm us effectively. Rather, it looks like yet another trick of the hidden subject and feels like a sign of a particularly malicious conspiracy taking place in submedial darkness. The subject can conceal itself most effectively—and thus become all the more dangerous—precisely by sending the good vibrations produced by its own dissolution. It is well known that the theoretical beginnings of the discourse about the disempowerment and dissolution of the subject stem from French poststructuralism of the 1960s and 1970s, a discourse that emerged in the optimistic atmosphere of the 1968 uprising—even though it certainly would be inaccurate to make general judgments about the exceedingly different authors who adhere to this line of thought, which includes highly individual and idiosyncratic thinkers who in no way can be considered representatives of a particular doctrine. Nonetheless, under the influence of these heterogeneous and brilliant thinkers, a relatively homogenous intellectual atmosphere slowly emerged in which certain attitudes, statements, and positions are considered almost self-evident. Among these we encounter above all the conviction that the subject gets lost in the medial play of signs, that the signs are constantly and endlessly flowing, and that this flux of signs can be neither surveyed nor controlled. From this it follows that the subject—due to the superior power of the media—has been deprived of its ability to supervise and stabilize the borders between sense and nonsense, spirit and matter, truth and lie, culture and nature, convention and spontaneity, etc. Hence these borders dissolve, which creates

24—Submedial Space

an infinite, unstructured, constantly moving mass of signs that flows across time and space and escapes from every conscious control, description, and recording. This mass-movement of signs spoils every strenuous exercise of power in the name of an individual or state-sponsored subject of control. Indeed, the happy, revolutionary, optimistic message of poststructural thought consists precisely of this: due to the constant movement and sliding of their meaning, the signs escape every conscious control sought by power. Whoever constantly floats alongside the signs is free and thus escapes from every possible control, observation, and discipline. This is because poststructuralism regards the subject as primarily a controlling agency that claims to be transparent to itself and able to monitor and regulate the relation between sign and sense, signifier and signified, statement and referent—in other words, the process of signification. According to poststructuralist theory, this agency’s claim to power is based on the erroneous presupposition that signification is originally produced by the subject, which is why the meaning of a sign supposedly correlates to what the subject of signification “thinks” when it uses this sign. According to this presupposition, the control that the subject exercises over the signification process operates via a return to the original intention, that is, to the original act of signification: to understand the sign thus means to ask oneself how the meaning of this sign was originally intended, what kind of sense was originally attached to this sign. And if the subject originally implemented the act of signification, then it also feels capable of inspecting and correcting the continued functioning of the signification process, should the signification move away from its origin over time. We know that structuralist as well as poststructuralist thought decisively attacked this very idea of the subject’s implementing an original signification to which it can always return in order to check up on it. According to the view of classical structuralism, the sense of signs is not produced by an act of signification implemented by the subject, but by the interplay of the sign differences in the context of a particular sign system. Although this sign system remains originally unconscious for the subject, it is thought to be absolutely present at all time. Hence, no recourse to original, earlier intended, historical meanings can help us un-

The Submedial Subject and the Flux of Signs—25

derstand what a sign here and now means in relation to other signs. However, in the framework of classical structuralism, both the differences within the respective sign systems and the distinctions among the particular sign systems themselves are potentially recognizable for the subject, because they are finite and identifiable. For poststructuralism, however, the structures, systems, and, hence, also the number of differences have become infi nite; therefore, they are principally no longer accessible to the conscious control of the subject. The subject is no longer in a position to reflect or control the meaning of its own speech acts, not least because the metalanguage required to effectuate such a control cannot be clearly distinguished from the object-language to be examined. Thus, the speaking subject can neither return to the origin of its language nor can it describe, recognize, or control the sign differentials in their present state. As long as the subject thinks and speaks, it remains within language. The subject looses itself in language and always is too late to recognize the sense [Sinn] of signs via (self-)reflection, for it arrives precisely at the moment when the entire play of signs has already shifted imperceptibly. The subject floats along the flux of discourse, dissolves itself within this flux, and loses all control over the sign differences whose play pushes this discourse forward. It is part of the original, constitutive nature of signs to obscure and hide from the subject the differences that produce the signs’ sense. And the more powerful the media become in society, the more plausible the picture of the powerless subject becomes as it floats in the dark sea of signification, carried along further and further by the infinite currents of signs. To be sure, there is no reason why this floating in the sea of language should necessarily be unpleasant for the subject, because obviously we are dealing with warm waters in an agreeably Mediterranean climate. The pleasure of textuality is similar to a nice vacation experience, for along with the subject, every imminent danger—and thus any ontological inquietude—vanishes as well. Permanently self-deconstructing language is a benevolent sea where no sharks lurk, no storms need be anticipated, no underwater rocks obstruct the path, and the water temperature remains constant. We know that mystics of all times, including Nietzsche and

26—Submedial Space

Schopenhauer, described the feeling of floating in the warm waters of infinity as an ecstatic and sublime oceanic feeling. Yet today, one no longer believes that the Other of language can be summed up, if not in a concept, then at least in a feeling or an inner experience. The poststructural Other—understood as the infinite play of signs, of differences, of simulacra, of codes—not only can no longer be surveyed and comprehended; it can also no longer be experienced as a sublime object. Both the production and the perception of signs, including the signs of inner experience, are equally determined by the infi nite deferment of sense, of evidence, of presence. So the question arises as to why he who speaks should take a swim in the sea of language at all instead of resting quietly on the beach, given that no difference between sea and beach remains anyhow. Yet poststructuralist, deconstructive discourse also possesses an activist, propagandistic edge that can hardly be overlooked. People are not only supposed to accept that everything flows; they, too, should actively seek to begin flowing themselves and to get others to flow as well. They too should dissolve the borders of their own language, should avoid letting themselves be pinned down, should dwell within the indefi nite, and should open themselves to the Other. In all this, whoever speaks in a poststructuralist manner must always remain careful, cautious, preliminary, and tentative. His discourse is supposed to operate on several levels simultaneously and may not, under any circumstances, let itself be categorized and labeled unequivocally. Moreover, because every discourse cannot but deconstruct itself anyhow (meaning that it must be self-contradictory from the very beginning), today’s author is also freed from the anxiety of contradicting himself. Given the appropriate discourse-theoretical presuppositions, self-contradiction is not only unproblematic but the decisive advantage of a discourse: by means of the self-contradictory composition of his discourse, the author bestows the highest honor on the reader. For the author no longer presents himself as “authoritarian” or even “totalitarian” by postulating a particular thesis that may potentially be incomprehensible, alienating, or even offensive to the reader. Rather, the author makes the reader an offer he cannot refuse. The reader, indeed, cannot but agree to a dis-

The Submedial Subject and the Flux of Signs—27

course that contradicts itself—because one agrees either with a particular thesis or with its opposite. Yet if the text includes both—or rather deconstructs the opposition between thesis and antithesis—then the reader is free to enjoy such a customer-friendly text. With this, the philosophy of the flowing sense reaches a new level of ecstasy, namely the infinite ecstasy of the market, which is the forbidden name for the whole affair. What was intended to be an anti-authoritarian discourse meant to liberate the flux of language from the subject of surveillance, power control, and censorship has meanwhile revealed itself as an up-to-date market and management strategy. Nowadays, the oceanic feeling of floating in the subjectless, infi nite, obscure sea of signs belongs to normative market behavior—and, as such, is thoroughly familiar to every shareholder. Today’s market of opinions, on which the theorist offers his writings, is equally split, pluralist, obscure, and flowing. At the same time, it is considered absolutely necessary these days for anybody who competes as a producer or a consumer in this market to demonstrate his own intellectual sovereignty. The only way to demonstrate such sovereignty is constantly to stage new games of sign differentiations that always push language anew to flow ever further. If somebody always wants to have his own sovereign opinion, he needs constantly to change and redefine this opinion; otherwise, he runs the risk of finding himself in the uncomfortable situation of having to share his opinions with somebody else. Moreover, the desire to develop one’s own individual opinion precludes from the very beginning any possible agreement with a text of any author, because such an agreement may give rise to the impression that the reader subjects himself to foreign influence: today one begins reading a book with the decisive resolution never to agree with the author, whatever this author may happen to write. That is why today’s author can no longer seek to convince, to convert, or to educate the audience by means of his writings. This intention, once recognized as such, only annoys the reader, who, being a sovereign citizen, wants to have his own opinion about all things in life and considers any proselytizing by the author, who is just another person like everyone else, as a gross offense that he thoroughly rejects. Thus, a well-articulated thesis can obviously appeal only

28 —Submedial Space

to a small minority, a small clientele of customers, in the opinion market. It appeals precisely to those people who have always shared the opinion of the author anyhow. The majority, on the other hand, will only feel offended by such a thesis, or, even worse, will remain simply indifferent. The author who makes it his business to convince somebody about the rightness of his opinion has already lost from the start. The currency in which today’s author is being paid is no longer the readers’ agreement but their lack of rejection. Today’s reader accepts a text not by agreeing with it but only by not considering it personally offensive. The discourse of the flowing sense neutralizes every possible rejection by leaving a space for the other, as the saying goes—or, to put it differently, by not annoying potential readers unnecessarily. Ideally, today’s author should present himself as someone who cannot be defined, labeled, pinned down, or locked up in a terminological box—it would be best if he did not want to be understood at all. Today’s author has to remain flexible; he must be able to float nonchalantly in a pluralist, divided society, for it would lead to fi nancial ruin if he limits himself to a too narrowly defined customer base. Only indeterminacy, indescribability, and the ability to move simultaneously on different ideological and aesthetic levels provide a chance for the author to gain access to the public majority beyond all dividing oppositions and/or by means of deconstructing these oppositions. By the way, the infi nite play of signs necessarily includes play with money signs: wherever infinite desire flows, capital flows as well. The philosophy of the flowing sense was conducive to capital from the very beginning—the subversion was rather directed at the state and its traditional institutions.1 But what exactly does the insistent demand of today’s dominant discourse mean when it asks the individual to flow along with the flux of signs; to dissolve the borders of subjective control; and to become indefinite, indescribable, and flexible? Why is it that today we celebrate only those who flow rapidly and refuse to be located or pinned down at some precise point? By and large, we must be dealing with a program of radical fear, of extreme paranoia, of absolute suspicion, because only he who constantly feels surveyed, pursued, and threatened by a hidden subject

The Submedial Subject and the Flux of Signs—29

will make it his utmost objective to escape from this surveillance, to avoid every determination, to keep his position secret, to flow all the time, and to change constantly the accounts of his own state of being. At the superficial level, we are dealing primarily with anxiety about a possible failure of the market, because regardless of how emphatically and convincingly one is determined to describe the market as flowing, the fear of hidden, secretly all-controlling manipulation is anchored so deep within those who participate in market events that it is impossible to refute this fear effectively via a critique of ideology. This fear alone—rather than adventurousness or ecstatic joy in flowing— can explain today’s mania about flexibility. But this obvious fear of failure in the market presupposes a much deeper, ontological fear—the fear of the hidden subject in submedial space who is watching the movements of the individual from behind the medial surface. Today’s media culture again and again directly thematizes this fear, for example in the film The Truman Show (1997). The ideology of the infinitely flowing sense, which either disregards ontological suspicion or tries to neutralize it through the unthreatening figure of the “Other,” can as such never sufficiently explain why the individual feels compelled to adapt to the flux of signs through some kind of mimicry in order to become untraceable. It cannot explain why the individual is ready to accept the theory of flux not only passively as an adequate description of the world in its totality, but also seeks to implement this theory actively into its own life practice. Such a wish to translate theory into practice emerges only when this theory offers to individuals a promise of genuine interest to them. The promise offered by the theory of flux is to eradicate the hidden, observing and controlling subject along with its potential to threaten the individual. Yet media-ontological suspicion cannot be stopped or switched off arbitrarily: one still feels secretly observed—or feels observed all the more—if one is explicitly told that there is no subject lurking on the other side of the medial surface. Indeed, the assurances of the philosophy of flux—namely that there is no hidden subject of observation and control whose ontological home might be located beyond all established state institutions of control—is not particularly compelling at the theoretical level, either.

3 0—Submedial Space

As mentioned earlier, the poststructuralist philosophy of flux is primarily concerned with the problem of signification. It is concerned with the exterior space of the archive, with the profane space of everyday life. If one understands the archive as the sum of all signs, including language signs, then signification determines the relationship of the archive to the “reality” outside the archive, a reality “signified” by means of archival signs. The philosophy of flux deconstructs the border between archive and profane space by emphasizing the materiality of signs, on the one hand, and by defining all ordinary things as signs, on the other. The philosophy of flux thus considers ordinary things and archival things to be interconnected via a play of differences. The strict opposition between signs and things is thereby dissolved: it gets lost in the net of partial differences, and this amounts precisely to its deconstruction. In On the New, I have tried to demonstrate that we must not presuppose that everything has always been connected with everything else via a system of differences. Rather, the introduction of the New occurs specifically through the creation of a new connection, a new comparison, a new difference. A system of differences can be established only within the archive. We cannot know whether the things of reality are differentiated, first, because they are infinite in number, and second, because they are all equally transitory. The fact that we may, again and again, take particular things from reality and connect them to the net of the archive by no means implies that these things have somehow “always” been part of this net. Rather, an exchange takes place between archive and reality, that is, between the differentiated and the nondifferentiated. Every time the border between the archive and reality is transgressed in either direction, we experience joy over the possibility that this border may now be suspended or deconstructed for good. Yet these transgressions instead confirm the stability of the border, which guarantees the very possibility of such transgressions in the first place. Regardless of how we might determine the relation of signification between the archive and the profane space of so-called reality, the mediaontological problem of submedial space remains unaffected by it in any case. As I pointed out earlier, the media-ontological question does not

The Submedial Subject and the Flux of Signs—3 1

concern if and how the signs on the medial surface are able to signify the submedial, hidden space. The question concerns something else: what lurks behind the sign as a material object, as a speck of dirt, as a kind of fly sitting on the opaque surface of that which remains ontologically hidden—independent of every possible meaning of this sign? For it is in this dark space, hidden by the opaque layer of signs, that we suspect an imminent danger when we observe the media and the world, a danger from which we seek in vain to escape through the strategy of flux and flexibility.



The Truth of the Medial and the State of Exception

h e fl ows of signs t h a t s u rge on t h e m edi a l surface cannot really be infinite. One does not necessarily need the hypothesis of an infi nite, divine subjectivity in order to imagine a hidden subject lurking in submedial space and secretly commanding these flows of signs. Every single media carrier—be it “natural” or produced by technical means—basically allows for only two operations with signs: to save and to transfer. The entire medial economy that operates with signs makes use of these two operations. It follows that signs can flow only by means of these two operations: signs can flow only along the specifically designed media channels that lead from one storage space to another. The storage capacities of all sign carriers, as well as the transfer capacities of the channels that connect these carriers, remain limited and

The Truth of the Medial and the State of Exception—3 3

finite throughout. This fact alone renders all talk about infi nite sign flows entirely implausible. Indeed, what sign carrier could possibly sustain an infinite play of signs or an infinite current of signs? After all, signs are material; they are primarily things, objects in the world. Just as real, material, and fi nite are such sign carriers as books, paintings, fi lms, computers, museums, and libraries, as well as stones, animals, humans, societies, and nation-states. All operations of the medial sign economy are exclusively conducted among such finite media carriers—and this exhausts the possibilities of how to deal with signs. Nowhere will we ever encounter infinite numbers of signs or infinite flows of signs, for the simple reason that there are no—and there can never be—media carriers with infinitely large capacities to save or transfer infinite amounts of signs. To be sure, the discourse about the infinite sea and the infinite flux of signs sounds wonderful. Nevertheless, it is totally implausible, given the finitude of both all factually existing media carriers and the possible operations of transfer taking place among them. This is to say that we may very well imagine a fi nite subject of such a fi nite sign economy, a subject that secretly steers and controls this exchange. Let us remember that at stake in all of this are not acts of signification. One may, if one so desires, perhaps claim that no fi nite—and not even an infi nite—subject is capable of producing and controlling the sense of all signs that are saved and exchanged in the context of the medial economy. The possible effects of sense produced by such operations are indeed confusing and uncontrollable. Yet our case deals with the subject of submedial, manipulative action, a subject that handles these signs without any consideration for their sense, their meanings, their signifieds. The subject of the sign economy must not be understood as the producer of meaning, as someone who, by way of his intentions, attributes meanings to signs, the stability of which is supposed to be guaranteed by the lucidity and precision of his own self-consciousness. Such an enlightened subject of sense production and control has rightfully been deconstructed by poststructuralist discourses. Yet given the finitude of all sign carriers, one may well imagine a subject that deals with signs purely operationally, that is, without giving any

3 4—Submedial Space

consideration at all to sense, meaning, or reference. Such a dark, “demonic,” submedial subject saves the signs, selects them, copies them, exchanges them for other signs, or moves them from one sign carrier to another—in a purely manipulative, technical-operational, quasi-mechanical manner. All signs also have a meaningless, nonsemantic, purely formal, and simultaneously material side beyond all signification. Devoid of sense in this way, signs function on a purely operational level of storage and exchange and no longer on the level of sense. And precisely on this level we can imagine a subject of purely medial operations that deals with signs as if they were things and without any regard for their potential meanings. About such a subject, we cannot say with certainty whether or not its submedial actions are accompanied by intentions—even though these actions may well have a threatening or wholesome effect on the observer. It is true that most poststructuralist theories claim to pay attention to this level of the pure materiality of signs and the technical operationality of the medial economy. But usually they discuss only the negative effects of this materiality and this operationality for the transference of meaning. They quasi-automatically assume that the subject of the medial economy is a speaker whose goal is to transmit a message, a sense, an intention, or any information, and they warn this subject about the materiality of signs, which makes it impossible to preserve the integrity of the speaker’s intention during the act of medial communication. Thus the materiality of signs and the meaningless operationality of the media are perceived only as a danger to the subject, as a threat to the sense identity [Sinnidentität] of its message. Yet the materiality of signs also can be seen as the prerequisite for the emergence of another, non-meaning-related subjectivity that moves along a purely manipulative-operational level and whose intentions—insofar as they exist—are hidden in the submedial dark. The effects of sense that emerge during this process on the medial surface can point only indirectly to the hidden labor of manipulation. They should therefore not necessarily be seen as intentional. Rather, these effects constitute a semantic collateral damage [English in the original], as they are called in today’s military language.

The Truth of the Medial and the State of Exception—3 5

To be sure, the viewer of the medial surface does not imagine submedial space—where he thinks the unintelligible subject of manipulation resides—to be entirely obscure. Signs cannot but show themselves in a specific medium designed for each and every one of them: in spoken language, in writing, in painting, in fi lm, etc. It follows that the observer can make a guess about which media carriers sustain the respective medial surfaces, whether they are books, canvases, TVs, computers, and so on. We know that these primary media carriers are integrated into other, more complex media carriers such as galleries, libraries, TV networks, or computer networks. And these museums, libraries, or computer networks are themselves part of diverse institutional, economic, and political relations that help determine the way they function and thus co-determine the selection, the storage, the processing, the transmission or the exchange of signs. Individual people who are carriers of signs are as much part of this hierarchy of media carriers as are larger groups of humans, such as peoples, classes, groups, cultures, etc. All of these are, in turn, integrated into complicated economic, political, and other processes including biological, chemical, and physical ones, because humans, societies, and nation-states obviously consist, like all other media carriers, of protons, electrons, and other elementary particles. The media carriers thus form complicated hierarchies and networked structures—a gigantic, densely furnished, submedial space that, nonetheless, remains structurally invisible to those who seek to follow the movements of signs on the medial surface. In this submedial space, the sense of signs as determined on the medial surface does not play a big role at all. Thus, in his everyday practice, a museum worker deals with a valuable painting always in the same way, regardless of whether that painting carries on its surface the image of a beautiful woman, a cow or an abstract combination of color and form. Of particular importance for these workers is the material makeup of the painting, the condition of the canvas, the chemical consistency of the colors, the temperature, the humidity, the lighting conditions in the room, etc. Likewise, a technician is concerned with the optimal storage and transmission of electronic data without asking himself what, precisely, is

3 6—Submedial Space

stored or transmitted in each case. The content of a particular book is just as immaterial to a mouse or a worm that is eating the book as it is to the library employee in charge of protecting books from mice and worms. And it is fairly obvious that this purely operational way of dealing with signs is crucial to their fate, because for a sign to acquire a meaning, it must first of all become medially present. The very possibility of a sign’s becoming present, however, is decided on this elementary, technical level of pure operationality. Some signs, for example, cannot even be presented in a museum, because they are too big—such as mountains, planets, or living elephants—or because they are too small—such as viruses. Hence, only depictions of these things are allowed to be included, stored, and exhibited in the museum. Once one starts thinking about how many objects cannot be incorporated into our archives because they would not fit for purely technical reasons, one begins to react with an entirely different feeling to all those protests about political censorship and other social injustices as concerns acceptance into the archives. When we confront the media, we are constantly aware of the hidden presence of submedial space. Yet as mentioned before, we are structurally incapable of seeing through it as long as we are busy looking at the medial surface. Inevitably, this leads the media observer to suspect that a secretive manipulator dwells in the clandestineness of submedial space, a manipulator who, by means of the whole machinery of different media carriers and media channels, produces a level of signs on the medial surface for the sole purpose of concealing himself even more. The observer must experience this entire theater of signs as a dissimulation, a lie, a deceit— completely regardless of whatever meaning the individual signs that compose this theater may have. It has become customary to argue that nothing but language speaks through the text and that the author is dead, because he is incapable of controlling the infinite variety of meanings that can be attributed to his own text through the infinite flow of language. However, although a book may have infinite levels of meaning, the book is still a finite product for the publisher and produced with a particular amount of paper and printing toner. We may consider the author, as the provider of sense, to be dead, yet he still lives as the producer of a material object

The Truth of the Medial and the State of Exception—3 7

called book. He lives on as part of the material of which the book is made, but primarily as a manipulator able to situate his product medially in this or that particular context. Of course, today’s dominant media-theoretical discourse claims that the medial play of signs takes place only on the medial surface, meaning that the signs themselves remain hidden in this play and thus give rise to the suspicion that behind them lies a submedial, concealed, “other” space in which a secretive manipulator may exist. The theory of flux is decidedly anti-ontological: it considers the interior to be an illusion, and it considers all assumptions of a secretive manipulator to be projections of the observers’ own anxieties. Yet the fact that, in the last instance, the medial play of signs cannot be thought of as infinite actually speaks against this theory and renders it implausible, because the infinitude of the play of signs constitutes the crucial presupposition for the validity of this theory. It is important to realize that this theory is only one among many theories created to invalidate media-ontological suspicion. However, it is impossible in priniple to invalidate this suspicion, because it opens up a submedial space that remains essentially inaccessible for the observer of the medial surface—at least during the time of his observation. The media observer thus has no means by which to confirm or refute the mediaontological suspicion. At the same time, the observer cannot simply turn off, disregard, or suppress the suspicion—because this suspicion is constitutive of the experience of the media as such. Thus, every serious media theory worth its name must pose the media-ontological question about the nature of submedial space and thereby exceed the poststructuralist modes of theorizing, which remain stuck on the medial surface. And once again: our thinking must not succumb to the temptation of scientistic discourse, either. Because all media carriers can be conceived as things in the world, it seems, at first glance, not only possible, but indeed mandatory, to describe these things scientifically. Particularly with regard to electronic media carriers such as TVs and computers, we might get the impression that they can and should be described primarily as technical gadgets. Likewise, when the media carrier “human person” is made the object of investigation, one often hears

3 8 —Submedial Space

the claim that this person can be sufficiently described and explained by brain studies and other neurosciences. Yet such a scientistic approach overlooks the fact that a scientific description must, by necessity, miss the specific function of media carriers as media carriers, because whenever these devices are being scientifically examined as to their interior makeup, they are precisely not functioning as media carriers but as mere objects of that investigation. We are able scientifically to analyze given media carriers, including human beings, only when they are not functioning as actual media carriers. Our knowledge about the inner constitution of media carriers, including human beings, when they are not functionally operative merely allows conjectures about how they look inside during the time in which they are functionally operative. Once again we are dealing with nothing but a presumption—one among many others. This presumption seems to be particularly plausible solely because it somehow looks “objective”—in contrast to the media-ontological suspicion, which is generally considered to be merely “subjective.” The media-ontological suspicion, however, is by no means merely “subjective,” because it does not emerge solely in the “subjective” imagination of the observer. Rather, the media-ontological suspicion is “objective” in the phenomenological sense, because it necessarily appears during the act of observing the medial surface. As observers of the media, we are simply incapable of seeing anything else in the media but loci of hidden manipulation. Because the inner, submedial space is structurally hidden from us, we have no choice but to suspect, to project, and to insinuate. The media-ontological question—much like the earlier ontological question—has its own “objectivity” that is distinct from the objectivity of the sciences. Because the (media-)ontological suspicion can neither be confirmed nor refuted in scientific, objective, descriptive terms, it creates its own reality and thus also its own criteria of truth. The truth of media-ontology is not the truth of scientific description but the truth of coerced or voluntary confession, of exposing the interior, of the sudden moment of sincerity—the kind of truth we expect from a subject under suspicion and not from an object patiently awaiting description. Thus, the observer does not look for statistically verifiable reg-

The Truth of the Medial and the State of Exception—3 9

ularities but for the state of exception, for the special moment that allows us insight into the interior, into the secret, into what is hidden behind the medial surface. In that special moment, the layer of signs becomes transparent at one point, and a void, an interval, appears—and then the observer looks into the interior, into the submedial, and recognizes its hidden truth. This truth is revealed to him in the same manner in which human subjectivity is revealed at times when a person seems compelled to betray, expose, or declare himself in moments of voluntary, coerced, or unconscious sincerity. Needless to say, this momentary truth of sincerity disappears the very next instant, because the empty interval of sincerity quickly and inevitably presents itself as a new sign and thus as a part of the usual, “insincere” layer of signs that covers up the interior of submedial space. Still, the truth of that moment remains a truth, and one may say that all works of art, like many other valuable objects in the archives of our culture, are nothing but souvenirs that remind us of such exceptional moments of insight. One may, of course, raise the objection that the momentary truth of gaining insight into the interior is nothing but a subjective illusion that emerges only in the “consciousness” of the observer. Yet by no means is the media-ontological suspicion a merely “subjective feeling” located solely in the “consciousness” of the observer. The same must also be said about the truth of medial sincerity, because it, too, belongs to the economy of suspicion and represents one of the figures in which the suspicion manifests itself. Hence, the truth of the insight into the interior also acquires its own “objectivity,” which can be neither confirmed nor refuted scientifically. For example, the commonly shared conviction that the human character (i.e., the hidden, interior makeup of a human being) reveals itself most poignantly in extreme situations (e.g., during wartime and under unusual, nonquotidian moments of stress) is constitutive of our culture. It is, certainly, a quite “unscientific” conviction, because obviously we cannot deduce how “human nature” functions in general from insights gained only under extreme circumstances. Yet culture cannot renounce such insights either, because they belong to the economy of suspicion— the suspicion that culture necessarily harbors against human beings.

40—Submedial Space

Yet culture also harbors the same suspicion against all other carriers of signs. The truth of the state of exception, of the special case that gives us the impression of having suddenly experienced what things look like on the inside, cannot be renounced or relativized as long as the media-ontological suspicion defines our perception of the medial surface. The observer of the world cannot be satisfied merely with registering the signs on the surface of the world. Instead, he waits for the world fi nally to confess to him. This waiting constitutes the interior of the world as a “subject.” So the point is not that the world in its interior “is” truly a subject; rather, the point is that we have no choice but to suspect the world in a manner in which we can only suspect a subject. Both figures we are discussing here—that of the media observer and the world observer as well as that of the submedial subject—are functions within the economy of suspicion, and they are defi ned solely as such functions. We shall discuss at a later point how the economy of such an “objective” suspicion works. For now, and in order to characterize the nature of the media-ontological suspicion, we must analyze in greater detail the charge of a “subjective illusion” that is repeatedly directed against this suspicion.


Media-Ontological Suspicion and Philosophical Doubt


a t u r a l ly, t h e s uspic ion t h a t s om e t h i ng is hidden behind the visible and experienceable surface of the world that cannot be observed or described by humans and that might be threatening to them is hardly new. This ontological suspicion has determined the entire history of Western philosophical discourse. Essence, substance, God, force, matter, or Being are just a few of the many names for this hidden Other [dieses Andere] that ontological suspicion presumed in the interior of the world. At least since Plato, philosophy has tried again and again to recognize and name what is hidden so as to overcome the fear of it. Yet the suspicion is a suspicion precisely because its object cannot be recognized but only presumed—and thus the suspicion can neither be confirmed nor refuted, as mentioned earlier. For

42—Submedial Space

this reason, and thanks to Descartes, philosophy at the beginning of the modern period came to the conclusion that ontological suspicion cannot be “in the world,” but only “in the observer.” Descartes used this interpretation of suspicion to empower the world observer to administer ontological suspicion as a specific manifestation of a subjective, epistemological “doubt.” Thus, the world observer has above all gained the power to allocate the time of suspicion as he pleases. The Cartesian philosopher has the power to determine freely the time at which to begin the labor of doubt—and the time at which he has won sufficiently clear and obvious evidence to be able to end it. For Descartes, ontological suspicion no longer possesses the power to take hold of the observer’s soul against his will or without his conscious approval. This transformation of ontological suspicion into philosophical, epistemological doubt eliminates the observer’s anxiety with regard to his own fate, an anxiety that generally gives ontological suspicion its edge. Indeed, without this dimension of anxiety, ontological suspicion can be taken care of very well—and, if necessary, also be turned off. This sovereignty over the beginning and the end of suspicion is decisive in distinguishing postCartesian, scientific thinking from pre-Cartesian, religiously determined thinking, which remained subject to a much more horrifying suspicion— namely, that the result of one’s thinking delivers the thinker either to paradise or to hell. The scientifically thinking observer doubts, examines, and thus arrives at specific insights. Yet these insights are “his” only if he himself can determine when his doubt begins and when it ends. If, on the other hand, the suspicion arises by itself—say, the way in which one can become frightened in a dark alley even against one’s will—then all insights that emerge thereafter are almost worthless. Instead of saying, Now I have produced clear, scientific evidence, one may in that case say merely, Now I have slightly calmed down, because the street no longer appears quite so dark to me anymore. The question of the degree to which one can administer one’s own doubt is the central question of every epistemological theory and of every media theory as well. In this sense, even those who no longer believe that their doubt can be suspended through clear evidence nonetheless con-

Media-Ontological Suspicion and Philosophical Doubt—4 3

tinue to think in a Cartesian manner for as long as they believe that they determine the beginning of their doubt and that they decide when to doubt—instead of suddenly being seized by doubt as if seized by fear. The doubt that seizes us is no longer an epistemological doubt but rather a paranoid, irrefutable, ontological suspicion that can never be suspended. The subject of this suspicion is no longer the observer himself but the hidden, submedial space whose dark threats and menace radiate throughout the medial surface of the world. This suspicion, you might say, is subjective—but its subject is the interior of submedial space, a space that is suspect. The observer, on the other hand, is not the subject of suspicion, but subjected to it. The observer is only the victim of suspicion; he is its object. Kierkegaard was the first—and maybe the only—important philosopher after Descartes who described suspicion as a state that arises on its own and seizes humans against their will, subjecting them to “fear and trembling.”1 Yet Kierkegaard still sought to retain the freedom to choose whether to give in to doubt or to escape it “aesthetically.” By selecting—albeit retroactively—doubt and being faithful to it, the Kierkegaardian hero again makes this doubt his own. Kierkegaard, too, does not want to abandon entirely the sovereignty that Descartes gained over ontological suspicion.2 Yet the Cartesian world observer is able to administer his ontological suspicion effectively for one specific theological reason alone. According to Descartes, man can see only what is shown to him, and a fundamental presupposition of Cartesian thinking is the theological conviction that it is God, the benevolent, and not the malin génie [“evil genius”; French in the original] who shows us the world—a God who does not want to deceive us. There is certainly nothing wrong with this Cartesian presupposition. Although ontological suspicion presumes that the subject looms in the dark, dangerous, threatening space behind the surface of the world, this does not necessarily mean that this hidden subject must itself be evil, demonic, dark—it might as well be divine, radiant und truthful. But we do not know that for sure and can only hope that this subject will reveal itself, showing us its true nature. Still, by postulating the hidden subject of ontology as the truthful God, Descartes deprives ontological suspicion

44—Submedial Space

of all of its poignancy and transforms it into philosophical, epistemological doubt. Almost all post-Cartesian philosophy (from Kant and Hegel all the way to Husserl) has attempted to liberate itself from this hypothesis of a hidden subject that is alien to us—but that is also indispensable to us because it shows us everything we are able to see—in order to attain complete evidence of our own intuitions and our own thinking. However, the suspicion that things are different on the inside from how they present themselves to us can never be refuted entirely, even though it was thematized primarily by those authors of the modern age who remained somewhat on the fringes of the main currents of academic philosophy, such as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. According to Marx, the interior of the social world reveals itself as a realm of hidden economic forces and relations that, although they determine the reality of human life internally, usually show themselves to human consciousness in a distorted, “untrue,” insincere manner. According to Freud, the interior is a space of the libidinal subconscious that hides its real makeup and dynamics behind its external symptoms. And according to Nietzsche, the interior of the world reveals itself as the will to power. In order to reach its life’s goal, this will must necessarily operate with lies and illusions, which, therefore, completely occupy the surface of consciousness. For all these authors, then, ontological suspicion plays a pivotal role: things necessarily present themselves falsely to the observer of the world. The interior of the world reveals itself for what it truly is only in a few exceptional cases, such as social revolutions or the dreams of neurotics or the tantrum-fits of willful superhumans—and thus confirms the original suspicion. Yet none of these authors ever asks why the revelation they experienced is able to create such a convincing effect of sincerity for themselves as well as for others. Instead, they simply postulate the “truth” of their teachings and thus adopt a genuinely ordinary, scientific sense of “truth.” As a consequence, the truth of revelation and the effect of medial sincerity that play such a crucial role in these teachings have been completely misrecognized and presented as naturalist, scientific evidence. This yields the impression that submedial space could be described just as “objectively” and scientifically as the medial surface.

Media-Ontological Suspicion and Philosophical Doubt—4 5

To be sure, Heidegger later sharpened ontological suspicion by stating clearly that Being, which shows us the totality of beings, cannot be described objectively or scientifically but remains hidden behind the image of the world due to ontological difference. But the Heideggerian Being still cannot erase its descent from “physis,” a descent Heidegger himself documented in his writings. Heidegger describes the self-concealment of Being as a quasi-physical process that creates for the observer only the illusion that a subject might be hidden behind the surface of the world. All thinking about ontological difference is directed precisely against such an onto-theological suspicion. Descartes turned philosophical doubt into the foundation of human existence. In the context of Cartesian philosophy, his “I think, therefore I am” actually means “I doubt, therefore I am.” Now Heidegger declares ontological suspicion itself—along with the philosophical doubt derived from this suspicion—to be merely an effect of the quasi-physical process of Being’s self-concealment, which also implicates humans insofar as they, too, are “in the world.” Thus, ontological suspicion itself becomes suspect. Heidegger suspects that this suspicion is but an effect of a quasi-physical process “within the object” of the suspicion. Heidegger argues against the traditional assumption that the world observer can control his suspicion. He wants to show that suspicion is not grounded in the subjectivity of the observer, but in the self-concealment of Being. Hence one gets the impression that Heidegger invalidates ontological suspicion once and for all: rather than feeling compelled to answer the question of who or what hides itself behind the world’s surface, the philosopher can now be satisfied with demonstrating the naïveté of the ontological question itself—precisely because this question is, at the same time, acknowledged as a necessary and exigent one. It is well known that Heidegger’s strategy in explaining ontological suspicion as an effect of the self-concealment of Being was widely incorporated into poststructuralist theories of the infi nite production of sense. The response to the question concerning the sense of signs is now reduced to the indication that the movement of signification renders the referent simultaneously revealed and concealed: insofar as it signifies, a sign distorts and hides the signified through the very same act of

46—Submedial Space

signification by which it refers to the signified. And because, in the last instance, all referents are themselves signs, we are dealing with self-concealment as the potentially infi nite play of signs. This self-concealment as the play of signs in turn creates for the observer the illusion of an “interior;” the observer, however, is meant to overcome this illusion by gaining insight into the deceptive nature of his own suspicion. The major problem with this deconstruction of ontological suspicion, however, does not consist primarily in its continued reliance on the traditional rhetoric of insight but in the fact that the suspicion it seeks to invalidate needs to be modified and cut down to size in order to allow this invalidation in the first place. This is because a quasi-material, automatically unwinding process of self-concealment does not create within the observer any acute fear or any feeling of threat directed against him personally. Thus, it does not provide the observer an opportunity to protest, to demonstrate or accuse, to call for justice, or to struggle against injustice. The ontological becomes depoliticized by being de-subjectified. Politics remains possible, to be sure—but only as the politics of differentiation among the various signs on the medial surface. In contrast, an ontological politics, especially a media-ontological one, becomes unthinkable. It is impossible to protest, to object to, or to press charges against the selfconcealing play of signs, because no subject can be made responsible for it. Certainly, a post-Heideggerian, poststructuralist discursive strategy might claim to invalidate epistemological, Cartesian doubt. Yet this strategy does not invalidate the more profound onto-theological suspicion, because this suspicion refers to a hidden manipulation and menace and not to the logic of sense production. Ontological suspicion in its original theological garb presupposes both the observer’s fear for life and limb and his concern about how to save his soul after death. It does not refer simply to a theoretical doubt about the truth of this or that particular statement regarding the sense of Being. Moreover, if all signs are equally doubtful because they are all equally involved in the play of self-concealment, then the philosopher even gains back his control over doubt. As he witnesses the infinite play of signs, the philosopher can justifiably apply his doubt to any sign at any time—

Media-Ontological Suspicion and Philosophical Doubt—47

whenever and for whatever reason it seems opportune to do so. Thus, the doubt about doubt can be particularly well administered, because it can be applied equally effectively under all possible circumstances. This strategy of a flexible doubt is particularly noticeable in the academic discourse of deconstruction. Whenever the discourse of deconstruction deals with a certain sign—and it has dealt with a good many of them by now—the theorist is essentially reduced to standing before this sign with a sense of infi nite perplexity, insecurity, hesitation, and thoughtfulness. The discourse of deconstruction always paddles against the stream of language, which relentlessly pushes this discourse forward toward overcoming doubt and toward the revelation of the hidden. This rhetorical paddling upstream and the almost superhuman efforts with which the discourse of deconstruction treads water without moving forward endow this discourse with a unique and well-deserved aura in the eyes of the reader. One should note, however, that this discourse prefers to fi x its gaze of sublime perplexity on precisely those signs that are particularly fashionable in today’s cultural and academic establishment. Thus we get the impression of dealing with an artistic installation that can be carried from place to place and adjusted perfectly to various local conditions—even though its essential attractiveness is based on its invariability. At issue here is a peculiar immobility in flux. As soon as the theorist confronts a sign, he succumbs to a quasi-cataleptic condition caused by the following question: Does what he sees render the hidden Real (or the radical Other) both accessible and hidden and/or renders it neither accessible nor hidden? The theorist believes it would be naïve to take a step forward in any direction as long as this question has not been deliberated first, albeit preliminarily. Yet it is also known by now that this preliminary deliberation must last forever, because it concerns a question that cannot be answered—not least because this question refers to the unavailable, that is, to the self-concealment of language which internally governs the unfolding of this very question itself. Thus we are happy about a discourse that essentially always stays the same—and, at the same time, remains infinitely malleable and adaptable. Because this discourse can be applied equally well to everything that can be seen or heard, it can be staged with equal

48 —Submedial Space

success everywhere and on every occasion. And because it is infinite, it can be started and interrupted at any chosen point in time. At the same time, however, this discourse is deeply serious. It knows no frivolity. The person [der Mensch] of deconstruction is a seer who sits in front of the self-concealing wall of signs as if it were a wailing wall—waiting, hoping, and crying. And whenever somebody passes by to look at him, he sits there in exactly the same pose. Thus, the thinking of deconstruction makes all signs flow. Yet while all other people are in flux, the person of deconstruction is not, because he can begin and end his deconstructive work whenever he wants, at any time and any place on the river. This immobility of the pose also means that although the person of deconstruction is constantly subject to the doubt about doubt, he does not feel acutely threatened by any suspicion. For as soon as one becomes subject to suspicion rather than doubt, the signs begin to differentiate themselves clearly with regard to the intensity of the suspicion they arouse. Doubt creates equality; suspicion creates hierarchy. Suspicion is unconcerned with the search for the sense of signs, which all signs, as we know, both possess and do not posses in equal measure. The suspicion that arises out of submedial space is, therefore, not distributed equally on the medial surface but gets concentrated on specific signs that look more threatening than others. Throughout this process, the signs change neither their form nor their sense, yet they nonetheless attain a threatening or a soothing aura. They do so not through the movement of signification or of difference, but solely through their physical, spatio-temporal movement and by being resituated on the medial surface, a movement caused by the working of the submedial mechanisms of transmission whereby signs are transported back and forth from one context into another.



The Phenomenology of Medial Sincerity

h e t ru t h of t h e s u bm edi a l , t h e i n t er ior , the hidden can manifest itself only in the phenomenon of sincerity, testimony, and self-revelation—as a gaze that penetrates the layer of signs covering the medial surface. And thus the question of how we recognize on a phenomenological level the sincerity of the other—that is, when and why we believe that the other is sincere here and now—is of the utmost importance for any inquiry into the truth of the submedial. A scientific description can be provided only for those processes that take place on the medial surface. The submedial subject, by contrast, is not an object of knowledge but of suspicion and fear. As such, it must reveal itself if it is to confirm media-ontological suspicion—thereby overcoming it at the same time. On the one hand, this moment of sincere testimony

50—Submedial Space

confirms the suspicions and presumptions of the media observer, because this moment finally provides evidence that such suspicion, according to which things look different on the inside than on the surface, was justified. On the other hand, however, this insight into the interior of things also generates a feeling of trust within the observer. It creates the feeling that he finally knows what things really look like on the inside. This state of trust lasts only until the old suspicion reawakens, and the sign of sincere revelation is exposed as nothing but a sign among many other signs on the medial surface. Throughout this process, the observer cannot consciously resist either the state of suspicion or that of trust, the latter also being part of the economy of suspicion. Much as he cannot trust a sign that arouses suspicion, the media observer is also incapable of withdrawing trust from a sign that presents itself as trustworthy and sincere. In general, however, the phenomenological analysis of sincerity is prevented by the assumption that sincerity in humans must have something to do with their self-consciousness and their inner relation to their own self. Sincerity is often understood as a demand of oneself and of others to state publicly what one “really” thinks internally. At the same time, one also presumes that humans must know what they think, which is why sincerity is interpreted as an ethical imperative whose fulfillment cannot be controlled from the outside: one cannot know the thoughts of others and hence cannot verify the sincerity of their statements. If this view of sincerity is correct, then, obviously, a phenomenology of sincerity cannot exist. Sincerity would, indeed, not be a phenomenon but merely an ethical command. Psychoanalysis, however, has made it commonly known that humans essentially do not know what they think. Humans, too, are to themselves nothing but a medial surface behind which a dark, submedial space remains hidden that does not grant privileged access to humans as observers of themselves. Yet it would be premature to conclude from this that sincerity is impossible and that the demand for sincerity becomes untenable. Psychoanalysts still believe they are capable of gaining access to the inner side of their patients, at least occasionally. Sincerity does not take

The Phenomenology of Medial Sincerity—5 1

place “inside the other”—as if it were the other’s conscious decision finally to tell the truth about his inner side. Rather, sincerity is a phenomenon that presents itself only to the observer—as evidence of the sudden self-revelation of the other. The observer then gets the impression that a mask has been lifted, revealing the true face of the other that the mask hitherto had concealed. All familiar tropes of uncovering, of unmasking, of exposing the other refer to this phenomenon of sincerity, as does the pious waiting for the voluntary self-revelation of the other. And there can be no doubt that the observer repeatedly gets the feeling that he is finally facing the phenomenon of sincerity and that he has reason to believe in coerced or voluntary revelations and testimonies of the other, in spite of all his usual suspicions. As we pursue the phenomenological analysis of this feeling, it seems warranted to return once again to the common, everyday interpretation of sincerity as the coincidence between thinking and speaking. In this respect, the crucial question emerges: What is thinking? Evidently, the hypothesis of thinking is nothing but the effect of the observer’s suspicion that the speaker does not “think” what he says—or, in other words, that things are different inside the speaker from the way they appear on the medial surface of his speech. Thinking as such cannot be defined other than by means of this possible discrepancy between exterior and interior, that is, as the hidden Other of language. And this means that thought is from the very beginning a figure of media-ontological suspicion. Humans do not think; they merely speak. Yet every human being is suspected by other humans not only of speaking but of thinking as well— hence a person might not “mean” what he says. The reality of thought is nothing but the reality of suspicion, which is spontaneously aroused in the observer when he watches the other speak. Thought is a name for the danger of deceit, trickery, and pretense that constantly emanates from the other. This is why a “coincidence” between thinking and speaking is actually impossible. Thought is by defi nition a figure of suspicion concerning the incongruence between exterior and interior. To claim that sincere speech says what the speaker really thinks is to claim that one wants to establish a referential relationship between thinking and speaking—as if,

52 —Submedial Space

to the observer, thinking and speaking were two mutually independent and equally accessible processes. Language, however, does not signify thought—it hides it. Nevertheless, the evidence of sincerity is no less “real” than that of suspicion. Not only certain humans, but also certain texts, images, or fi lms create the impression of sincerity in the eye of the observer, an impression he cannot suppress at will. Any effort to undermine such an impression of sincerity by evoking—in general, theoretical terms— the nontransparency of submedial space is just as hopeless as an attempt to invalidate media-ontological suspicion by argumentative means. Rather than trying to endow the phenomenon of sincerity with an “objective validation,” or, conversely, simply trying to deny its very possibility, it seems more productive to ask under which conditions the phenomenon of sincerity emerges in the first place. The trajectory such a phenomenological analysis of sincerity should take is determined by the following fact: in the eyes of the observer, the layer of signs considered to be common, typical, characteristic, and specific [eigen] for a particular sign carrier will inevitably appear as a layer of insincerity covering up this carrier. When certain people repeat again and again what we have already heard them say at least one hundred times, we do not get the impression that this reveals their hidden process of thinking. Rather, it arouses the suspicion that they think differently from the way they talk. The impression of sincerity is weaker still if representatives of an institution or a culture keep singing the same old song, which is perceived as a fi xed and well-known part of their identity. The same is true of texts, images, or fi lms that are produced according to well-known conventions, because they merely confirm the expectations we already have of such cultural products. This is the case even if these texts, images, or fi lms show something that may well be “true” in the referential sense of this word. Although it may happen that people who always repeat the same thing actually believe what they say, inevitably their speech will be perceived as insincere—presumably even by themselves, if they ever care to listen to themselves speak. In our culture, sincerity does not stand in opposition to lying, but in opposition to automatism and routine.

The Phenomenology of Medial Sincerity—5 3

Sincerity has nothing to do with the referentiality of signs, that is, with the question of “correspondence between sign and referent.” Sincerity does not refer to a certain mode of signification, but to the medial status of signs—to something that is hidden underneath a given sign. A quasi-automatic repetition of what is always the same creates the impression of an eternally unwinding program that spews out certain phrases and signs without thereby manifesting the submedial subject, spirit, thought, or person. The common, traditional, and repetitive covers up submedial space like a nontransparent protective shield and thus creates the impression of insincerity. If we can detect no movement, no displacement, no disturbance on the medial surface, then the submedial subject appears to be completely still. Precisely this inner stillness renders submedial space particularly suspect. We have a particularly intense suspicion of somebody who speaks and lives mechanically, automatically, without deviations, and according to fixed rules. We suspect that such people are completely different on the inside from how they pretend to be on the outside, because we have the feeling that they do not want to show themselves to us at all. In that case, the observer inevitably begins to practice aggressive, provocative strategies of unmasking in order to achieve, from the outside, a violent exposure of the other—in order to provoke the other into taking off the mask and showing his true face. In so doing, the observer hopes for a spontaneous deviation from the program, an interruption, a mistake, a glitch— or, to put it differently, he hopes for the emergence of a different, strange, uncommon sign amid the usual routine. Precisely such a sign is then judged to offer an insight into the interior of the other. The waiting for the moment of sincerity is thus the waiting for the appearance of the alien, the uncommon, the deviant amid the familiar and the well known. Because media-ontological suspicion above all gives rise to the anxiety that the interior makeup of submedial space is different from how it presents itself on its surface, the observer will accept only those signs as sincere revelations of the inside that seem different from the familiar signs of the surface—that is, different from those signs that corroborate the original suspicion of discrepancy between exterior and

54 —Submedial Space

interior. Only such alien, unexpected, “out-of-place” signs offer themselves to the observer as windows into the interior of submedial space. Only such “other” signs create the following impression in the observer: Now, finally, the submedial Other has betrayed itself, has exposed itself, has shown its inner nature. Only self-alienation appears to be sincere. By contrast, insisting on one’s identity always seems mendacious, hypocritical, suspect. Sincerity is the alien amid the proper [das Eigene]; it is a consequence of the exchange of one’s own signs for alien signs, an exchange that causes the effect of a sudden insight penetrating the protective shield of conventional automatism. It is an everyday experience that the introduction of an alien sign into the familiar medial context guides our attention to the sign’s medial carrier. Let’s assume somebody asserts that the earth is round and has a specific diameter; then the listener would try to remember if that number is correct. Attention thus focuses on the sense of the statement—on the truth of referentiality as such. But if somebody claimed the earth were a cube, attention would immediately shift to the carrier of this statement. One would not primarily ask oneself if this statement was, in fact, true, but rather would inquire about the kind of person who would issue such a statement—if maybe he is crazy or comes from a different time period or is only joking. Faced with an obviously alien, strange statement, one does not raise the question of its referentiality but that of its mediality, that is, of the interior nature of the sign carrier that sustains this statement on its surface. A strange, “crazy” statement often appears to us to be incorrect—yet at the same time also sincere, authentic, and revelatory. All of this demonstrates the fundamental connection between the phenomenon of sincerity and the phenomenon of innovation. As shown earlier, innovation also depends first and foremost on context. We can talk about innovation only in the context of the archive that preserves the old signs and thus enables us to compare the New with the Old. Yet not all new signs can function as signs of sincerity. If a new sign is to create the effect of sincerity, the most important requirement is that this sign presents itself as the effect of a reduction, an impoverishment, a dilution of the traditional layer of signs—because only the reduction of the sign cre-

The Phenomenology of Medial Sincerity—5 5

ates the effect of its medial transparency. By contrast, innovation that presents itself as an accumulation, an enrichment, or a thickening of the layer of signs gives rise to the effect of still greater insincerity. To return to an earlier example: An absurd sentence about the shape of the earth creates the impression of sincerity, yet a learned sentence containing more knowledge about cosmic processes than average mortals possess would still produce the effect of an insincere, exaggerated, “overblown” entitlement—even if the sentence were true. The exchange of the alien for the proper creates the impression of sincerity only when it incorporates those signs that are commonly associated with the menial, the vulgar, the poor, the disagreeable, or the depressing. If somebody refers to himself as a jerk, the others think: “The man may be a jerk, but at least he is honest.” But if somebody refers to himself as a genius, then nobody considers him to be honest. The biggest effect of sincerity, however, is created when signs are incorporated that are not only alien but also dangerous. This incorporation of signs of danger provides the most radical confirmation of media-ontological suspicion. Thus, signs of militant, revolutionary, direct, and immediate violence—along with signs of insanity, ecstasy, and unrestrained erotic desire—come across as particularly sincere because public opinion holds that they manifest the dangerous and violent reality that supposedly hides behind the apparent peacefulness of the existing status quo. In this sense, sincerity stands in opposition to civility: we spontaneously associate “nice” with mendacious— and “coarse” with direct, authentic, and sincere. The context dependency of sincerity also explains why the same signs function differently in different contexts: in the “proper,” familiar, everyday context, they may function as signs of conventionality and routine, whereas in the “alien” context, they function as signs of an authentic revelation of the interior. If a liberal wants to appear sincere, he should advocate conservative positions among his liberal friends. But if a conservative wants to appear sincere, he should present himself as a liberal among his conservative friends. But if the liberal always and exclusively advocates liberal positions and the conservative always and exclusively conservative ones, then this sounds hypocritical, banal, or even mendacious. A romantic

56—Submedial Space

artist who acts like a romantic comes across just as insincere as a pragmatic businessman who strives for profit. Yet if the businessman behaves romantically and the artist pragmatically, then both create the impression of sincerity. The same rules apply to believers and atheists, scientists and mystics, etc. The meanwhile notorious reference to “cultural identity”— an identity one allegedly receives by virtue of one’s ethnic origins— appears authentic and sincere only when the person who is supposed to have this identity has always already established himself as a successful representative of modern globalized culture. A renowned international author, artist, or curator appears sincere and authentic if he reveals signs of his respective cultural background [English in the original] allegedly buried under the layer of signs imposed on him by cultural modernity. Yet someone who does not appear to be modern, globalized, and international is well advised to de-emphasize his cultural identity in favor of appropriating signs of a globalized modernity. Otherwise he comes across as a conventional and obstinate fundamentalist who is incapable of showing humanness and sincerity. The phenomenon of sincerity emerges as a combination of contextually defined innovation and reduction. In order to function as windows to the submedial interior of a sign carrier that sustains a particular layer of signs on its medial surface, signs must appear to the observer, first, to be new, uncommon, and unexpected within this layer; and, second, to be simplified, of lower value, and primitive in every sense. Such signs direct our gaze down into the depth and suggest an insight into the interior. If, for example, we discover the rotting corpse of an animal in the midst of a beautiful landscape, then we inevitably think, So this is how brutal and disgusting life looks at its innermost core. At first, such a thought seems strange and rather implausible, because the rotting corpse is only one sign among other signs on the sign surface of the landscape and thus cannot— “objectively speaking”—provide more insight into the interiority of the landscape than any other landscape sign. Indeed, science tells us that both the landscape as a whole and the corpse itself consist only of elemental particles that make no difference between life and death, beauty and ugliness. Yet the effect of sincerity cannot be invalidated by this argument.

The Phenomenology of Medial Sincerity—5 7

For us, the corpse ranks lower on the aesthetic value chart than the beautiful, living landscape, and this very baseness necessarily transforms the corpse into an authentic, sincere sign of interiority. We trust the scientific explanation that equates the interior with elemental particles only because this explanation gives us the chance to say once again, Oh, this is how cruel, unjust, and immoral nature is at its innermost core—it makes no distinction between life and death, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad. The only reason for the observer to believe in science and its explanations of the interior space of nature thus consists in the fact that these explanations appear to be extremely cynical in the eyes of the observer. Otherwise, science consists of nothing but a collection of language signs among many other language signs on the medial surface. As this example indicates, the phenomenon of sincerity does not occur only with reference to human beings. Nature, too, is capable of giving testimony and can reveal itself through a sign of sincerity. Artificially produced media carriers are also considered suspect—and can, therefore, also become sincere. Media culture, which is constantly aware of its mediality, again and again thematizes both media-ontological suspicion and events of media sincerity. Particularly in Hollywood movies, artificially produced sign carriers—such as ancient Egyptian mummies, statues, computers, robots, TVs, houses, cars, and even refrigerators—often reveal a dangerous subjectivity hidden in their interior, an aggressive and mean intelligence that does not seek to communicate, but only to manipulate and to destroy. Mostly, however, the subjects causing strategically targeted destruction in movies take the form of aliens that come from the dark, submedial, cosmic space commonly hidden behind the media surface of the sky. Thus, in the Alien movies (in particular in the first two fi lms, directed by Ridley Scott and James Cameron, respectively) or in Independence Day (directed by Roland Emmerich), we are dealing with themes of pure aggression and strategically organized destruction. In contrast to the nice and communicative extraterrestrials in films by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, the aliens of the next generation are no longer amenable to discussion: they immediately and directly attack their counterpart. These aliens

58 —Submedial Space

are not subjects of meaning and communication—hence they cannot be deconstructed. At the same time, however, these aliens are also not forces of a subjectless nature or of the unconscious; they do not destroy uncontrollably, aimlessly, or arbitrarily as might natural catastrophes or eruptions of insanity. Aliens are not subjects of signification or of communication— they are, rather, subjects of targeted actions. The physical appearance of the aliens betrays their origin in the menial, the deep, the interior. Yet their actions are nonetheless systematically organized and strategically well planned. Aliens pursue their victims in a very efficient manner and thus demonstrate their high intelligence. At the beginning of the alien is the deed, not the word. The alien embodies the act of unconditional aggression. Thus, the alien provides the perfect image of media-ontological suspicion—suspicion of the mute, noncommunicative, aggressive, and dangerous manipulation that controls the fates of both signs and their observers from behind the medial surface of rational communication. It is of no particular importance whether the threat of such a radical, direct aggression originates beyond the skies or from the interior of another medial surface. The human, too, can be such a surface. Neither the hero of Ridley Scott’s ingenious fi lm Blade Runner (at least in its original version) nor the hero of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall has any idea which subjects act within his own interior. Yet the heroes do know that these subjects act in a goal-oriented way—they are not dissolved in some freeflowing, subjectless force of the unconscious or of desire. Aliens are the signs of a radical sincerity through which the reality of the submedial reveals itself to us. They are the windows through which we can look into the interior of the submedial space of modern media—where we detect the threatening, ruthless danger waiting for us. And yet, the appearance of an alien in a movie also redeems and reassures us, because submedial space thus abruptly confirms the suspicion we have always already had. Actually, the viewers of Scott’s or Cameron’s fi lms are quite happy when the alien finally jumps into the picture or when the world is threatened by apocalypse. This is similar to the effect of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, where we wait impatiently for the birds finally to attack, giving a sigh of

The Phenomenology of Medial Sincerity—5 9

relief only when they appear on the horizon. The observer prefers even an extremely violent revelation of submedial space to its remaining hidden, which causes suspense [English in the original]. We know that Hitchcock toyed with this suspense in the most intelligent manner, which is why he rarely gave the viewer an opportunity finally to relax by witnessing the eruption of outright violence. Hence, the obscurity of submedial space must under no circumstances be equated with its being unfathomable or unavailable. Naturally, the observer can see only what is shown to him, namely the medial surface that renders the condition of submedial space inaccessible. Yet humans do not experience only observation and self-observation. They, too, are themselves being observed, and thus they also function as a submedial space for others. This is the reason that the observer knows not only how to recognize signs of sincerity but also how to produce them. As far as obscurity and sincerity are concerned, the relation between the observer of the medial surface and the submedial Other is symmetrical. As seeing beings, we depend on what the Other shows to us. As showing beings, however, humans are equal to all other submedial subjects. In the medial world, everybody can play the same game of revelatory seduction and secret aggression with everybody else. When others see me, they, too, do not see anything more than the medial surface that I offer to them. The submedial Other creates the impression of being mysterious and inaccessible when made the object of a seeing, theoretical investigation, because it appears to recoil infi nitely from this investigation. Yet as soon as the observer abandons his purely theoretical attitude and instead begins to reveal, to present, to self-display himself, inevitably he is forced to employ the same submedial strategies of manipulation that all other submedial subjects use who present their medial surface. Thus, as showing beings, humans gain a certain competence in dealing with submedial space that they cannot achieve as merely seeing beings. Yet they gain this competence not primarily through observation and interpretation but by participating in common, submedial, manipulative practice. It is precisely this heightened media-ontological suspicion—according to which the Other

60—Submedial Space

cannot only be observed but can also observe me in return—that establishes a symmetry that renders the gaze of the Other susceptible to manipulation. The submedial Other is not a God able to read our hearts, look through our medial surface, and recognize us as sign carriers as opposed to mere signs. At this point, the difference between media-ontological and traditional theological discourse becomes apparent. God certainly is not dead, but he can only suspect us of being subjects of thought or of conscience. The human being is not a “pure spirit”; hence he is obscure to himself and to all others, God included. But the human is also incapable of becoming a Nietzschean, alienlike, superhuman subject of pure aggression, which would allow him to lose all fear of the submedial Other. Humans have the ability—and are simultaneously forced—to show, stage, and mask themselves in order to seek protection from the gaze of the Other, which is always an evil, dangerous, destructive gaze. Of course, one may now start looking for the “real human being” hidden behind all of these performances. Yet the answer is already clear: the human being is only a suspicion that roams inside a specific form of life as a particularly dangerous and threatening subject. This suspicion, however, is also threatening to humans. Hence, they try to invalidate this suspicion directed against them and to appease the gaze of the Other. The goal of every self-masking and self-performance primarily consists in disarming the gaze of the other and in removing its danger. For the gaze of the Other is always a suspicious, evil gaze that aims to penetrate and destroy my medial surface—my body—in order to reveal the submedial subject inside me. The best protection against the evil gaze of the Other is the effect of sincerity. In this case, the suspicion that hits me is being reflected back through the effect of sincerity—because, as mentioned earlier, my own inner being is nothing but this suspicion directed against me. It is far from accidental that most traditional masks are masks of evil—of death, wrath, threat, ugliness, and the animalistic. By carrying my dangerous interior as a mask, I deliberately confirm the suspicion directed against me—and thus pacify the evil gaze of

The Phenomenology of Medial Sincerity—6 1

the Other. The phenomenon of sincerity lets the evil gaze of the Other reflect on itself—and thus neutralizes it, if only for a short while. Certainly, then, the subject of submedial space can artificially produce and strategically use the effect of sincerity. Yet this is not to say that this effect is merely “simulated” and does not take place in “reality.” The phenomenon of sincerity is nothing but a particular relation of signs to their context. Every time this relation is established and serves its function— which is to confirm and thus to ward off the suspicion of the observer— the effect of sincerity takes place, regardless of how this effect is produced in each individual case. As demonstrated above, the effect of sincerity is produced by displacing certain signs from one context to another, an operation that lies in the realm of the technical possibilities of every advanced media carrier. Yet the strategies that make use of the effect of sincerity depend primarily on a more detailed analysis of the gaze of the Other.



The Gaze of the Other

e a n - p a u l s a r t r e ’ s b e i n g a n d n o t h i n g n e s s e xamined for the first time on the highest philosophical level the gaze of the other. In his brilliant analyses, Sartre shows that we can have no proof and no certitude concerning our suspicion that the other pursues us with his gaze. For our own observations of the other are incapable of convincing us that he observes us exactly as we observe him. The gaze of the other is phenomenologically concealed from our own mode of seeing. We can detect this gaze only indirectly, through the feeling of shame we experience when we feel ourselves observed by the other—without, however, having this feeling “objectively” confirmed. In this case, shame is a specific kind of fear—the fear of the other’s negative judgment about our person. Through this fear, we insinuate that the other possesses sub-

The Gaze of the Other—6 3

jectivity, that is, the ability to see and judge us. Under the gaze of the other, we become ashamed of our body, our appearance, our behavior— of the entire image with which we present ourselves to the world. The mere suspicion that the foreign gaze observes me suffices to give rise to this all-encompassing shame.1 According to Sartre, however, it is only the presence of another human being in our immediate surrounding that provokes the feeling of being observed. In this case, media-ontological suspicion focuses on the medial surface called the human. This surface is clearly privileged, because it shows itself as potentially more dangerous than any other. Yet, MerleauPonty’s phenomenological analyses of seeing already demonstrated that this anthropomorphic limitation is highly problematic and that we can suspect all beings that we see of seeing us as well. Seeing, for MerleauPonty, is a reciprocal operation: one cannot possibly see anything at all without being seen in return.2 This approach was developed further in a convincing manner primarily by Lacan in his theory of the gaze of the other. At one point in his Seminars, Lacan talks about his—by now famous—experience with a can of sardines, which he claims to have had in his youth. Spending time together in a small boat out on the ocean, Lacan and a friend of his saw a can of sardines floating on the water’s surface and strongly reflecting the sunlight. Lacan’s friend suddenly remarked about the can that although he was able to see it, the can could not see him. Lacan then relates that this casual remark made him think that the can of sardines could indeed look [regarder] at his friend, because only on the basis of this presupposition would it make any sense to claim that the can could not see [voir] him.3 With this little story, Lacan illustrates the central thesis of his theory of the gaze, according to which light always already produces visibility, meaning that a ray of light can be interpreted as a gaze even if an anthropologically defined subject of this gaze is absent. The gaze is a function of the interplay between light and darkness. So if I am illuminated by a beam of light, I have no choice but to feel struck by the gaze of the other. The light transforms me into a spot right in the middle of a picture that offers itself to the gaze of the other.4 Thus, I am always already subject to

64 —Submedial Space

the gaze of the other, that is, to the light in which the other can see me, even before any possible appearance of a human figure that could be identified as a potentially “conscious” observer. And because we cannot completely withdraw from light, we can also never completely withdraw from the gaze of the other. We actually do not need the presence of another human being in our immediate surroundings in order to feel observed—a can of sardines is totally sufficient to produce this effect. In this context, Lacan refers to Roger Caillois’s book about mimicry,5 in which Caillois seeks to demonstrate that animals employ mimicry to show themselves to the light of the world in the same manner in which artists adorn themselves with their paintings. Thus, all signs of the world attain the same degree of suspiciousness and dangerousness. Every sign I am able to see can also see me in return, because it reflects light. Obviously, this does not apply only to signs of nature. Whereas Lacan continued to describe the gaze of the other as the effect of the natural play of light and darkness and to depict the human being as a spot in a natural landscape, Jacques Derrida took the next step by investigating the gaze of the media that, he claims, secretly seek to observe us precisely when our own gaze is still captivated by the images we see in the media.6 The key term Derrida employs in his investigation of the gaze of the media is the word specter. As we know, the intense phase of Derrida’s preoccupation with specters begins with his book about Marx, in which the specter of communism, which appears at the beginning of the Communist Manifesto, plays the main role.7 Derrida, however, also characterizes medial pictures— that is, photographic and particularly cinematographic pictures—as specters, because they can reappear, move, and speak, and because they can see us without the necessity for the living presence of those people whose pictures were medially recorded some time in the past. Humans return in the media not as humans, but as specters—beyond their absence and after their death. This has frequently been seen as a great loss—as the actual, mystical death of the subject, if not the medial murder of the living person. The appearance of the specter thus conclusively confirms the death of a person, who otherwise still has the chance to remain alive in the living memory of other people or might even be resurrected. The ghostly

The Gaze of the Other—6 5

aspect of photography and fi lm thus extinguishes a past life even more radically than death itself does. The media accept death—they even outbid it. Numerous theorists leveled this charge against the media, and it continues to provide the essential background for any fundamental critique of the media.8 As we might have expected from the beginning, Derrida pursues the opposite strategy: he valorizes the specter and, above all, the gaze with which it looks at the living [die Lebenden]. For Derrida, the repetition of the ever-same, a repetition made possible by medial image and sound recordings, is a continuation of the repetitiveness of life itself, which is infected by absence and death from the very beginning. The absence of living presence in fi lm can be diagnosed because fi lm allows the exact repetition of the same words and gestures. By contrast, we associate the living primarily with the emergence of something new, deviating, and unexpected. For Derrida, however, there is no big difference between fi lm and life: the actor in real life, for example, also repeats his role numerous times during rehearsal. The completed fi lm only continues to practice the same repetition that already had announced the eventual death of the actor earlier, namely during the fi lm’s recording process, when the actor was still “alive.”9 This is why the specter cannot be described through an ontology, but only through a hauntology.10 The specter haunts [Das Gespenst spukt]11—and this means that it is senseless to ask what is ontologically hidden behind the specter. The specter invalidates the ontological question about its essence.12 To be sure, the specter looks at whoever poses the question. Yet the specter does not permit the spectator to look into its interior. We stand before the specter as we stand before the law that has come to us from life’s beyond—and embarrasses us.13 At this point, Sartre’s description of the gaze of the other emerges again in a radicalized form: we feel observed, surveyed, judged and maybe even sentenced by the specter. At the same time, we can no longer interpret the process of seeing as reciprocal—we cannot see the specter in the same way it can see us. The specter comes to us from the past, from the realm of death—particularly as the specter of the father—and thus has genealogical priority compared with those living here and now. Hence

66—Submedial Space

the gaze of the specter causes not only shame within us but also a feeling of unconditional responsibility with regard to what is absent, because what is absent refuses to enter into negotiations with us. Our relationship to the specter correlates with our relationship to the law: it is asymmetrical. We cannot judge the specter, because we are unable to “look through” it; yet the specter can judge us. Our freedom—and our morality—emerge exclusively out of this absolute responsibility we have to the specter.14 Thus, a shift occurs from the deconstruction of the traditional foundations of morality to a new founding of morality based on the very lack of foundation—based on the ghostly: “The spectral logic is de facto a deconstructive logic. It is in the element of haunting that deconstruction fi nds the place most hospitable to it, at the heart of the living present….”15 Yet these analyses of the ghostly demonstrate all too clearly that Derrida is more a reader of Sartre’s and Lévinas’s texts than a viewer of Ridley Scott’s and James Cameron’s movies—and even less of Hong Kong ghost movies. Derrida’s specters are mute and upstanding representatives of fatherly law who arouse our awe for this law and a feeling of responsibility simply by means of their gaze and their immovable presence. These specters are immune to every ontological question because there is not a trace of any “living sense” in them. They are like the written texts that were the subject of numerous early writings by Derrida in so far as these texts are unable to discuss their content with their readers. The living subject, for Derrida, is the subject of spoken language, of communication, of signification. Specters are not living subjects, because they are merely signifiers that are unable to communicate. They embody the dead law, which every living communication must follow. However, the cinematic specters we are familiar with, as well as all possible aliens and terminators that invariably come from either the past or the future (that is, from the realm of death), usually show little inclination to communicate at all. At the same time, they are most agile, extraordinarily immoral, vengeful, inconsistent, moody, and, above all, extremely dangerous apparitions. Although they are not subjects of signification, they are subjects of medial action. They do not embarrass their observer, and they do not force him to observe the law. Instead, they immediately

The Gaze of the Other—67

attack the observer and annihilate him without giving any reasons whatsoever for doing so. These swift specters do not leave their victims any time for remorse, legal queries, or moral scruples. One must flee from them as fast as possible—or attempt to fend them off. Hence, with regard to such dangerous specters, the media-ontological question is more than apt—not, of course, as a question of how best to understand the specters but as a question of how to ban them, to put them back into the bottle, to render them harmless. We cannot answer this question theoretically but only through specific magical practices by which the specters can be made benevolent, warded off, or even rendered completely subservient to the will of the observer. When humans confront specters, they should approach them primarily as magicians. The media-ontological question with regard to specters is not the question of their nature but of the most effective protection against them. At issue is not meaningful communication, but saving one’s life before it is too late. The search for signs of sincerity is not guided by an epistemological interest, but dictated by threatening exchanges with others that are steeped in constant fear and mutual distrust. At issue during such exchanges is not merely “communication”—that is, what is being said or how (and how much of) it is actually understood—but, above all, the mute, yet exceedingly real danger that radiates forth beyond all communication from the submedial space of the others. Whenever the movie protagonists of the Alien series calmly and sensibly converse with one another, there is always the chance that an alien will jump out of the chest of one interlocutor and within seconds annihilates the other. Thus, a person will above all look for signs of sincerity in the other in order to circumvent this danger that might erupt from its inside. Signs of sincerity are produced as a means of putting the other at ease and to make him trust us—in order to alleviate his potential aggressiveness, which is nourished by distrust. The effect of sincerity is thus inscribed from the very beginning into a complicated network of offensive and defensive strategies; it is used strategically. Yet the formal composition of the phenomenon of sincerity always remains the same: it emerges as the apparition of foreign, cheap, and threatening signs in a familiar context. Here, the hidden medium becomes the

68 —Submedial Space

message—medium understood precisely as the submedial, that is, the supporting infrastructure that remains hidden behind the layer of signs that covers the medial surface. So if one talks about the medium of painting, then, in fact, one refers to the submedial space of painting, that is, the stuff out of which the painterly picture is made: paints, canvas, but also the artist as author, the entire museum system, the exhibition spaces, the art market—basically everything that produces, sustains, and presents the painted image. Naturally, one could now begin to operate with complicated definitions. For example, one might understand colors as pure forms of perception that have nothing in common with paint as a material substance, but instead articulate the field of visibility as such. Hence, one might talk about the “medium color” regardless of how each individual color is “materially sustained.” But what speaks against such an attempt is the fact that all colors, if you wish, “originally” represent the effects of specific electromagnetic waves on the human eye, which renders them “originally” material. Of course, one can entertain this and similar discussions with reference to all other media—but they seem to be rather unproductive overall. One should simply recognize that the common usage of the word medium is twofold: in general, the word refers both to the medial surface and to the submedial space that sustains it. The borders of this space, however, remain vague, because depending on one’s ideological conviction, the painted image, far example, is declared to be sustained either by the canvas, or the art institutions, or bourgeois society, or divine inspiration, or artistic genius, or particular elementary particles and specific brain regions. Still, if one uses the word medium as opposed to the word sign, then one generally refers to the media carrier—or, using the terminology of this present text, the submedial space behind the layer of signs that covers the medial surface.



The Medium Becomes the Message

t is w el l k now n t h a t a fa mous for m u l a by Marshall McLuhan has played an exceedingly important role in the development of media theory: “The medium is the message ” [English in the original]. With this sentence, McLuhan formulated a particular truth-claim, one that allowed today’s media-theoretical discourse in the first place and delineated the parameters within which this discourse has operated ever since. According to this sentence, the medium that the subject of speech uses to issue a particular statement (be that medium spoken language, writing, painting, photography, film, dancing, etc.) also issues at the same time and parallel to that statement a statement of its own—the point being that the speaking subject can rarely reflect and can never consciously control this statement of the medium. And this means: When we

70—Submedial Space

issue a statement—that is, when we combine particular signs in a rulebound context such that we give this combination the sense we intend— then we are, in fact, not issuing one statement but two distinct statements. One statement includes what we consciously wanted to say. That is our message [English in the original], our meaning, the “conscious,” communicative intention we want to express via a particular combination of signs. But at the same time, a second statement emerges that we did not consciously intend—the message of the medium. At issue here is a message behind the message and beyond the control of the speaking subject. Hence the truth that media theory is charged with finding consists of determining what this second message—the message of the medium that we did not consciously intend—actually says. This understanding of media theory’s claim to truth primarily reminds us of the claim to truth of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis, too, claims that we always speak out of both sides of our mouth, meaning that each of our statements is a double statement: each statement transports a conscious, intended sense as well as an unconscious sense that manifests our erotic desire. Hence it is far from accidental that Lacan, Deleuze, and many other authors with roots in the psychoanalytical tradition have tried to combine psychoanalysis with a particular kind of media theory. Under the influence of these theorists, the media discourse of the last decades has incessantly talked about desire as the hidden carrier of the medial. Only within the framework of such a discourse does it make sense to refer to infi nite streams of signs—as an analogy to the infinite streams of desire that supposedly flow always and everywhere, flooding everything. With regard to the streams of desire as such, everybody has his own opinion: some people, for example, occasionally might feel just a bit too tired to keep on desiring into infi nity. Yet with regard to media theory, we can say with certainty that the signs on the medial surface are not sustained primarily by desire but by technical media carriers such as books, canvases, fi lms, computers, or telephone networks. And we all know that such carriers are fi nite—much as electricity, which these days allows most media carriers to function, is produced only in a finite quantity. Most important, all of these technical media carriers

The Medium Becomes the Message—7 1

have their own materiality and their own reality beyond the human body, beyond human imagination, and particularly beyond the human unconscious. As McLuhan understood it, the medium is located not in the human, but outside the human—as in writing, painting, or TV. The message of the medium is, therefore, not an unconscious (i.e., still human) message. However one understands that which defines the human [das Menschliche], the message to which McLuhan refers here is a nonhuman message, an inhuman message. It is the message of sounds, colors, electric currents, etc. It is the message of the media carriers that retain their nonhuman dimension even and precisely when humans use them for the purpose of conscious and all-too-human communication. It is only by breaking with all that is human [allem Menschlichen], including the human unconscious, that media theory gains its own discursive field. Yet media discourse, as McLuhan initiated it, had an inherent tendency right from the start to rehumanize the media. The very project of understanding the media—McLuhan’s most important book is, in fact, entitled Understanding Media—means that within submedial space, we presume the existence of the subject of signification, of notification, of communication, whose message the observer can and must interpret correctly. The analogy to psychoanalysis is all too obvious here. For McLuhan, the submedial subject is an anthropological subject of speech whose language one is supposed to understand, rather than an alienlike subject of pure action, aggression, and danger that one must either defeat or fend off. This is why McLuhan interprets the observer’s relation to the submedial subject quite optimistically as a hermeneutic relation of reading and understanding and not as a paranoid relation of fear, of self-defense and counteraggression. McLuhan sentimentalizes the submedial subject even further by separating media into “hot” and “cold,” which ultimately transforms them into conversation partners whom we can conceivably charge with excessive frigidity—as is, in fact, customary among friends and lovers. Yet the unreflective optimism of McLuhan’s view of the media becomes most obvious in his claim that the medium “is” the message—a

72—Submedial Space

claim that proved detrimental for the further development of media theory. For this claim means nothing else but that all media at any time are always already absolutely sincere—all one must do is correctly read and understand the signs of their sincerity. This simple presupposition of infinite sincerity in the media is baffling. If we accept this claim, then every search for a confession, for an epiphany, for a self-revelation of the submedial Other becomes utterly superfluous. Rather, all signs on the medial surface are, at the same time, the sincere signs of the submedial and transmit its messages. There are no signs that hide, conceal, distort, lead astray, or render the submedial inaccessible. McLuhan is unaware of submedial suspicion. Yet his baffling trust in the sincerity of the medial has specific reasons that I will examine below. How, precisely, is an understanding of the (sub)medial messages supposed to work? McLuhan’s answer to this question is relatively simple: by comparing different media. The consciously intended message that the speaker formulates with the help of a medium is subtracted from its medial expression, so to speak, and then compared with other possible formulations of this message in other media. The person communicating is thus imagined as a subject able to choose among different media that can carry his message. If that person seeks to communicate a piece of information, he selects one from among the media at his disposal and disregards all others. Since the recipient of the message knows what the entire medial paradigm looks like (that is, what other medial operations would also have been possible for the speaker), he can imagine the consequences that the choice of another medium might have had for the meaning of the same message—whether, for example, the respective message would have been warmer or colder in another medium. Thus, the recipient can calculate the message of the medium via a relatively simple formula: the medialized message minus the intended message equals the message of the medium. McLuhan himself practices his own hermeneutic investigations of different media via such an intermedial comparison, always in a very witty and inspiring manner. Yet the basic presupposition of this comparative analysis is the belief that such an analysis can separate the subjectively intended message of the individual speaker from the message of the me-

The Medium Becomes the Message—7 3

dium, in order to demonstrate later on how the one message modifies or even undermines the other. This belief, however, is highly questionable. And the actual question is not whether this belief in the possibility of separating the message of the medium from the individual message is justified or not. Rather, the question is, Where does this belief come from in the first place? The answer to this question can only be: This belief is the legacy of the classical avant-garde, which McLuhan, rather uncritically, makes his own. It is well known that the classical avant-garde, as it emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, defi ned itself precisely via a reductionist procedure: it seeks to subtract from the text or the picture everything that is content related, consciously intended, or communicative in order to reveal as its final product the pure mediality of the medium, or, as McLuhan puts it, the proper message of the medium. Both McLuhan’s analyses and all subsequent media-theoretical discourse are utterly unthinkable without accepting this basic premise. For his part, McLuhan is quite conscious of this legacy and far from trying to conceal it. Quite the opposite: in McLuhan’s text, the magic formula “The medium is the message” appears in a subordinate clause, namely in the context of discussing cubism. Indeed, in Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan writes that cubism destroyed the three-dimensional illusion and revealed the medial procedures by which the picture “drives home the message.”1 In this way, cubism made possible the “instant sensory awareness of the whole.”2 And McLuhan continues: “Cubism, by seizing on instant total awareness, suddenly announced that the medium is the message.”3 Hence, it is not McLuhan who proclaims the happy tidings about the message of the medium, but cubism. But how exactly does McLuhan know that cubism proclaims precisely the message of the medium and none other? At this point, he invokes Ernst Gombrich as an indubitable authority.4 McLuhan proclaims that Gombrich proclaims that cubism proclaims that the medium is the message. Yet Gombrich formulated this proclamation much less explicitly than did Clement Greenberg, who at that time, however, did not yet enjoy such an indubitable academic authority as Gombrich. In his essay “Modernist Painting”—an essay much debated at the time—

74 —Submedial Space

Greenberg writes about French cubism: “It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium.” He continues: The limitations that constitute the medium of painting—the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment— were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly. Under Modernism these same limitations came to be regarded as positive factors, and were acknowledged openly. 5 Thus, Greenberg decisively ascribes to cubism the discovery of the mediality of the medium and the explicit thematization of the medial—in short, the proclamation of the message of the medium. Therefore, when McLuhan wrote his book, the interpretation of the classical avant-garde as an artistic strategy aimed primarily at the revelation of the medium was widely accepted, at least in sophisticated art theoretical discourse.6 Indeed, the historical avant-garde constituted itself from the very beginning through the demand to remove from each artistic medium everything foreign to it so as to retain only what was specific to the medium. From painting, everything mimetic, topic oriented, and literary was supposed to be removed in order to make visible pure combinations of colors and forms. From poetry, all narrative and imagery was supposed to be removed in order to make audible the pure sound of language or to render visible the pure form of writing. From music, all imitation and melodic narration was supposed to be removed in order to make audible pure sound. The turning away of modern art from referentiality and mimesis was not an act of individual caprice but an effect of the systematic search for the truth of the medial and for medial sincerity, which allows the medium to show itself as it truly is instead of remaining hidden behind the intended message. This search for the sincerity of the medial continued in the advanced art of the twentieth century; it also continued throughout the epochs of multimediality and so-called postmodernity. Today, however, instead of trying to reveal the materiality that sustains

The Medium Becomes the Message—7 5

traditional “arts and crafts” media such as painting or sculpture, people are more concerned with the media institutions, the market, or society. It is interesting that particularly today, at a time when media theory is so popular, there is a tendency to suppress the memory of the origins of our interest in the medial. Again and again, the classical avant-garde is depicted as “old fashioned,” in spite of the fact that media theory continues to thrive based on the belief about the sincerity of medial signs as originally formulated by the avant-garde. The reason for this suppression probably resides in today’s strong association of the medial with mass media. The artistic avant-garde, by contrast, does not seem popular enough to be taken seriously in the context of media theory. The artistic production of the historical avant-garde appears too artisanal and too dependent on traditional technical means to remain relevant in the age of fi lm, TV, and the Internet. Yet the social dissemination of a medium or the degree of its technical sophistication [English in the original] are mostly irrelevant to the question of medial sincerity. This question exclusively concerns the fundamental relation between the layer of signs on the medial surface and the submedial space that is hidden behind this surface, a relation that is equally valid for all media. This is why McLuhan was able to transfer the effect of medial sincerity—which cubism produced with the help of distinctly idiosyncratic artistic means and exclusively with reference to the medium of painting—to all other media with such ease. McLuhan inherited the belief in the message of the medium from cubism without, however, asking himself under which conditions and with the help of which methods the medial can be made sincere. Cubism, however, did not merely interpret painting as a message of the medium but downright extorted the testimony of mediality through the use of rigorous methods that in fact recall traditional methods of torture: reduction, fragmentation, cutting up, collage. Cubism made the medium into the message. This—and the fact that he wrote his book after the rise of cubism—led McLuhan to believe that the medium had always already been the message. In this way, McLuhan, with one bold stroke, brought the avant-gardist exposure of the medial to explosive expansion. McLuhan transferred

76—Submedial Space

the same patterns of explanation, which originally had been invented and used to legitimize the radical strategies of a specific, advanced art, to the entire image world of modern media—without, however, subjecting this image world to the same procedures of reduction, targeted destruction, and coerced sincerity. McLuhan, of course, wrote his texts at about the same time that the makers of pop art succeeded at least partially in their efforts to achieve medial sincerity in the image world of the mass media, particularly in advertising. Yet when one reads McLuhan’s texts, it appears as if these efforts had been completely superfluous, as if the media had always already proclaimed their message from the very beginning without being forced to do so through specific artistic practices. McLuhan transformed the active, forceful, artistic practice of the avant-garde into a purely interpretative practice that seemed to be sufficient in his eyes to register the anonymous messages of the mass media that were hidden behind the “subjective” intentions of communicators and their consciously enacted communication. As an inevitable consequence, the impression arose that the messages of the medium undermine, alter, and ultimately dissolve the subjective, auctorial intention of the communicator, because the possibility of a conscious, auctorial intention, whose sole goal would be to get the medium to communicate its own message, has surprisingly been overlooked by most of media theory before and after McLuhan. Or, rather, such an intention is attributed solely to the media theorist himself who claims a metaposition with regard to language—whereas all other messages apart from that of media theory are considered to be merely “auctorial,” individual, subjective. Hence, in today’s language, the “medial” functions more or less as a synonym for the dissolution, the subversion, and, ultimately, the annulment of every auctorial, individual, subjective intention. The dichotomy between the “auctorial intention” and the “anonymous message” of the medium determines almost all media-theoretical discourse of today, and it is all too obvious who will have the upper hand in this uneven competition. The message of the medium has become a message about the powerlessness of the individual.

The Medium Becomes the Message—7 7

Meanwhile, in the arena of public awareness, the message claiming that the medium is the message undermines all individual messages. Whenever media theory seeks to appear self-critical, it merely redirects this suspicion—namely that every subjective message is anonymous, media-dependent, and doomed to fail—against itself. Hence we are told again and again that media theorists, too, are forced to use the very media they analyze and criticize in order to formulate and disseminate their own message—and that, therefore, their own message is undermined by the media as well. Yet due to its inevitable tautological structure, such a self-reflexive media critique only increases the credibility of media-theoretical discourse as a whole. This is because the real problem of media theory is not that it, too, depends on the media but that it constantly runs the danger of overlooking the fact that most messages that were—and continue to be—formulated in modernity are always already messages of the medium. This metaposition is by no means unoccupied, because the effect of medial sincerity always offers another chance to claim a metaposition, which by no means is an exclusive right of the media theorist. Many other speakers, painters, or filmmakers also can occupy a metaposition and proclaim the message of the medium. Moreover, as argued above, media theory itself depends on such artistically constructed metapositions, which it inhabits in order to analyze and “understand” the media from this perspective. Once these messages of the medium have been proclaimed, however, they are no longer subjected to further subversion and dissolution by the medium—even and precisely in cases where they take the form of individual messages. The widespread ideology of the infi nite alteration and dissolution of all messages in the media flux is deceptive: numerous messages, namely the messages of the medium, cannot be easily dissolved and made to flow. Media theory almost automatically presupposes that individual, auctorial speech only pursues the goal of communicating something like the “inner world” of the speaking subject, that is, its opinions, desires, objectives, and truths. Such a communication of the subjective cannot but fail, because it is overridden, undermined, and dissolved by the anonymous

78 —Submedial Space

message of the medium, as mentioned earlier. But what about cases in which the auctorial, conscious, subjectively willed intention consists precisely of discovering the message of the medium in order to transform it into one’s own message? In this case, the message of the medium remains as “subjective” as before; yet it is no longer subjective in the sense of trying to “express” the inner truth of the speaking subject. Rather, the point now is to allow another subject to express itself, namely the subject that remains hidden behind the medial surface exposed to the gaze of him who speaks. The subject of those messages is the subject of media-ontological suspicion, which is why it cannot be undermined and dissolved through a mere sign game on the medial surface. The entire sign game taking place on the medial surface is suspect. Therefore these messages, whose subject is this suspicion, cannot be altered by the sign game. The suspicion directed against submedial space remains self-identical, regardless of the various differentiations of signs on the medial surface. From the very beginning, the intention of the classical avant-garde consisted of sounding forth the message of the hidden medium instead of proclaiming a message of its own. The highest sincerity of an avant-garde artist is exchanging the signs of his own self with the message of the medium so as to give voice to the hidden, submedial subject. Thus, the artist transforms himself into a medium for the medium and turns the message of the medium into his own message. At the same time, however, this artist has also transformed his own message into the message of the medium. If the commentators of cubism and McLuhan claim that the medium revealed itself in cubist images in full sincerity, then we must not forget that these images, too, had their concrete, individual authors. By transforming the message of the medium into his own message, the cubist artist de facto proclaims that message to be the message of the medium. From the very beginning, the effect of sincerity has involved complicated strategies of offense and defense by which signs of sincerity are being traded constantly between the artist and the medium. Naturally, the same exchange of signs takes place in the context of post–avant-gardist media theory, albeit in a somewhat more clandestine fashion. Thus, when McLuhan imparts to his reader the victory of the

The Medium Becomes the Message—7 9

medial message over the individual, auctorial message, he also refers to the victory of his own message over all other messages. According to media theorists, all individual messages vanish in the general noise of the media—with the exception of their own message, of course, which proclaims this noise. This means that all other messages are altered and dissolved, causing them to wither and die. Yet the message of media theory never withers and dies, because it is the message of death—and death, in contrast to life, does not die. We may say that the medium is death, therefore, the medium never dies. All voices are deconstructed—except for the voice of whoever proclaims this deconstruction, because deconstruction never ceases to deconstruct, and difference never ceases to differentiate. All “living” voices are extinguished—it is only dead writing that remains forever, because the distinction between presence and absence no longer applies to writing. But does the voice that seeks to speak in the name of dead writing also attain a position beyond the distinction of presence and absence? The author who wants to proclaim the medial and not just use it instrumentally in order to express something “of himself ” certainly does so in the hope of being protected from disempowerment through the medial. Whoever does not speak in his own name but in the name of the medial does not want to die. He wants to remain forever—or at least for as long as the medium persists whose message he proclaims. At this point, a connection emerges between the message of the medial and the durability of the sign, a connection sketched at the beginning of this book. When the medium becomes a sign, then this sign, due to the medial economy, has the entire time of the medium at its disposal. The avant-garde artist, much like today’s media theorist, wants to endure; that is why they both want to become media of the media. In this way, they hope to attain an endurance denied to all other, merely “subjective” spirits. Of course, the question arises as to how such an exceptional case of medial durability is possible within the framework of the medial economy.


The Case of Exception and the Truth of the Medial


s m en t ion ed e a r l i er , t h e signs on t h e su rface of the media have two different truth values: the truth of referentiality and the truth of submedial space. The truth of referentiality is scientific truth. It concerns the normal case—an experiment, an observation, or a law that attains its truth status by virtue of its repeatability. The truth of the medial, by contrast, concerns the truth of exception, of the special case and the special destiny, because the submedial becomes sincere and allows insight into its interior only in the case of exception. Whenever signs of sincerity are repeated, they become routine merely by virtue of this repetition, which means that they loose their sincerity and their medial truth. The truth of sincerity is lost through repetition rather than being verified by it, as is the case with scientific truth.

The Case of Exception and the Truth of the Medial—81

The truth of the submedial, of the hidden subject, of media-ontological suspicion is the truth of the case of exception. The cubist pictures in which McLuhan recognizes the revelation of the medial are not plentiful; hence, one cannot claim that they are representative of what is normal in the medium of painting. Most of the painted pictures we know from art history do not look like cubist pictures. At first glance, therefore, it seems rather implausible that only cubist pictures are supposed to reveal the medium of painting. Instead, one would expect to learn more about the medium of painting from a typical, average picture and not from the highly uncommon, idiosyncratic, cubist pictures that, on top of it, are relatively badly received by the broader public. Nonetheless, it is quite justifiable to say that cubist pictures reveal the medium of painting, if only for the same reason that we might claim that war exposes the hidden character of a person because it transports him into a state of exception during which this person’s innermost core suddenly becomes apparent. Similarly, a cubist picture is a picture in the state of exception, so to speak: flattened, cut up, rendered unrecognizable and unreadable. The avant-garde transports the artwork into a state of exception much as war transports people into a state of exception. Hence, we trust avantgarde pictures much as we trust war, that is to say, without liking them very much. Clement Greenberg thought that pictures had to look as flat as possible in order to reveal the hidden truth of their carrier. In our time, this opinion is rarely shared. But even those who see Duchamp’s readymades as the key to the truth about how the art—and museum—system “really” functions still believe in the state of exception. Every theory that claims to reveal what the hidden interior of the medial looks like puts its trust in the exception. The specific image of the interior that such a theory creates (and whether it creates one at all) is not particularly important. Rather, what is important is why those who hold such a theory believe that it can grant insight into the interior. Why is it that war in particular is considered to be a state of exception that can provide information about human nature? Why does McLuhan consider cubist art in particular to be a state of exception among all styles and thus able to

8 2 —Submedial Space

provide information about the medium of painting? The crucial question is: Why does anyone consider a particular case to be an exceptional case that can grant the observer insight into the interior? What we are asking about is the phenomenology of exception—the phenomenology of the case of exception and the state of exception. Evidently, the phenomenon of exception is intimately related to the phenomenon of medial sincerity. The case of exception occurs only when sincerity seems to have been established by force, that is, when sincerity presents itself as the effect of a certain use of violence. We have more trust in a coerced sincerity than in a voluntary one; the latter we inevitably suspect to be a simulation. The phantasm of the emergency that can grant insight into an interior—an interior that is usually kept hidden under the plane of signs of insincere conventions—announces a deep connection between aesthetics, sincerity, and violence. This connection is of crucial importance for artistic modernity and is based on the economy of suspicion. The world must be forced to give testimony in order to reveal its interior. The artist must, first of all, forcibly reduce, destroy, and remove the exterior in order to expose the interior. This trope, according to which insight into the interior is the effect of a violent dismantling of the exterior, produces in equal measure the cases of exception relating to war, art, and philosophy, all of which announce their own truth, which is radically different from the truth of “peaceful” and “superficial” normality. From today’s perspective, it is less the cubists than Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, as well as Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt later on, who demonstrated the truth of the painterly surface—the truth of the medium—by radically removing everything that was exterior, mimetic, thematic. In doing so, they obviously completed the labor of destroying the conventional image surface, a labor that the cubists had already started. Malevich’s Black Square (1915) in particular presents itself as the result of a radical effacement, removal, and reduction of all common signs pertaining to imagery. What remains is the pure form of every painterly picture as such—the picture carrier after it has been purified of all the images it usually sustains. Here, the effect of medial sincerity is perfectly staged. Black Square does not present itself as simply a picture among

The Case of Exception and the Truth of the Medial—83

many other pictures but as a sudden revelation of the hidden picture carrier that, due to the artist’s use of violence, manifests itself with overwhelming evidence amid the common and superficial world of images. Let us note that by emphasizing the staginess of this process, we do not mean to say that the revelation of the medial is therefore “simulated” in some way. Even a “true” revelation requires a stage (that is, a context for its manifestation) in order to be perceived. The strategy of medial sincerity was not practiced solely by artists of geometric abstraction, such as Malevich or Mondrian. For Wassily Kandinsky, every image was a combination of pure colors and forms, a position he elaborated in his famous text Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910/11).1 To normal observers, however, these form-and-color combinations remain invisible because these observers focus their attention primarily on the subject matter of the picture. Still, these basic elements— which remain invisible to the observer—determine the effects every picture exerts on the observer. For Kandinsky, the true artist is a media analyst who systematically examines these unconscious effects and puts them to explicit use in his pictures. Operating with abstract forms and colors, the artist-analyst is able to expose the vocabulary of these forms and colors that other artists use in a completely unreflective, unsystematic, and obscured manner in order to produce, in each individual case, specific sensations within the observer. Thus, the case of exception, which provides insight into the inner constitution of an image, simultaneously becomes the starting point for a new claim to power. The artist of the avant-garde who has seen the inner constitution of each and every possible image and has experienced the truth of the medial that sustains all other images thus necessarily also gains absolute power over the entire image world and can shape this world consciously and systematically. The case of exception established by one single picture that can demonstrate the truth of the medium thus empowers the artist to administer the gaze of all of humanity and of the entire common mass of observers. It is well known that artists of the radical avant-garde insisted on their prerogative to give form to the entire visual world of their time.2 Although this demand was no longer explicitly adopted by later media theorists such as McLuhan, they

8 4 —Submedial Space

did not completely abandon it either. Media theorists still claim to be able to administer the observer’s gaze regarding the entirety of the medium— albeit no longer through the process of retransformation, but through reinterpretation. The art of the avant-garde is often regarded as the manifestation of a radically individualistic strategy of “self-realization” that particular artists practice who consistently want to speak their own language and send their own message. Yet this ideal of self-realization clearly contradicts the self-understanding of the radical avant-garde. The artists of the avantgarde did not want to send their own message but solely the message of the medium. That is why McLuhan claimed to discover in the art of cubism the initial gesture of media theory. On the other hand, however, both the artists of the avant-garde and the media theorists claimed for themselves the right to administer the message of the medium, thus inevitably giving rise to the question of how legitimate this claim actually is. Yet the answer to this question depends crucially on how willing we are to accept the truth of the case of exception—and above all on how willing we are generally to accept that a specific case constitutes a case of exception at all. This is because every case of exception is itself subject to the mediaontological suspicion of being merely a sign among other signs, a case among other cases on the medial surface, and thus unable to provide direct insight into the interior condition of submedial space. As mentioned earlier, this suspicion can never be refuted. Precisely the artistic practice of the avant-garde demonstrates most clearly that the observer may very well interpret the sincerity of the medium as a clever manipulation of signs. It can hardly be denied that both the black square and a canvas sprayed with color in a seemingly chaotic manner are not some unknown signs that first became accessible to the observer through the cases of exception created by Malevich or Kandinsky. Rather, the effect of sincerity in these cases emerged solely through the new and unexpected usage of these signs in the context of an art exhibition. Such a usage, however, might also mean that we are dealing with an ordinary case of manipulating the signs on the medial surface and not with an exceptional case of providing insight into the interior.

The Case of Exception and the Truth of the Medial—85

But if media-ontological suspicion cannot be refuted, neither can it be confirmed. Even if the observer judges a work of the radical avant-garde to be a clever manipulation, this work still fulfi lls its exceptional function of providing insight into the interior—namely as an insight into the hidden interior of the art market that manifests itself as a big fraud. It is entirely secondary how the observer, in each case, judges the interior that is exposed by the avant-garde work, whether as the revelation of the spirit or as a fraud. All that matters is that the avant-garde work of art is seen as a case of exception that manifests the interior in a sincere manner—even if, during this process, this interior reveals itself as a fraud. It is well known that Duchamp’s readymades achieved precisely this effect of sincerity in exposing a hidden fraud by “laying open” the displacement of signs and things on the medial surface as a genuine artistic gesture. In this regard, the artist of the avant-garde does not appear as a great purifier who eliminates all signs on the medial surface in order to give the medium a chance to reveal itself. Rather, the artist appears as the great manipulator who exchanges conventional signs of art with profane signs in order to pass off these profane signs as the self-manifestation of the medium. Yet the difference here is not so great as is often assumed. Duchamp, for one, was no less “spiritual” than Malevich or Kandinsky—even if he exposed the submedial spirit as a trickster. It follows that antimodern propaganda, which has always denounced modern artists as swindlers, manipulators, and false magicians, itself profited from the very insight into the interior of art that the denounced artists were able to grant the observer. Modern artists became truly popular precisely by being presented in antimodern writings as swindlers and manipulators—as living embodiments of media-ontological suspicion, according to which dark, dangerous, yet simultaneously fascinating specters operate behind the medial surface of art. Without the widely shared desire to get close to these specters and become equal to them, modern art could have never attained its social success. Some artists such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti gained early success by exploiting for their own purposes the populist image of the modern artist as a suspicious and dangerous subject.

8 6—Submedial Space

The exceptional status of an exception, then, can neither be refuted nor confirmed through the suspicion that we are actually dealing merely with an overestimated normal case. Equally irrelevant are all other conceivable attempts either to justify or contest the case of exception. There are many cubist pictures, not just one. So, which picture from this series actually is the exceptional case? A war often lasts many years and consists of many single events. Which of these actually is the proper test and thus the revelation of the interior? One can always argue about the exceptional status of an exception. The new, the unexpected, and the alien are not generally binding categories. The case of exception is characterized precisely by the fact that there is no—nor could there ever be—a criterion able to identify it as such. The case of exception cannot be defined or subsumed under a rule; it is a figure of media-ontological suspicion and thus belongs exclusively to its economy. The aura of the exception, of medial truth, of insight into the interior cannot be determined “objectively,” that is, by means of an experienceable, regular, empirical, visually observable difference from the regular case. Rather, the state of exception is the object of a personal commitment. The observer has to decide for himself what to accept as an insight into the interior. Still, we must not think of the case of exception as depending solely on the decision of the observer, because observers do not feel called on to make such a decision all the time. We cannot simply decide to see something as an exception that does not present itself as an exception. Yet an exception forces us to decide if it allows us insight into the interior, and if so, what insight that might be. At the same time, the state of exception is transferred from one case to another, from one sign to another, from one thing to another, and from one person to another—according to the economy of media-ontological suspicion. New cases of exception are produced precisely when claims of medial truth deduced from old cases of exception are critiqued. In general—or at least on the surface—such a critique is politically motivated. The discourse that wants to proclaim the message of the medium inevitably claims to be exclusive. It devaluates other, merely individual, subjective

The Case of Exception and the Truth of the Medial—87

discourses and thus often appears intolerant and despotic. This generates the desire to unmask and expose this arrogant discourse of exception and to look behind its surface into its interior. One succeeds in devaluating such a discourse of exception by radicalizing suspicion and by pointing to an even deeper, even more hidden, more overlooked, and almost inaccessible submedial space behind this discourse. In the realm of psychoanalysis, for example, we fi nd that “consciousness” cannot be the medium that sustains the surface of signs, because it is itself a space for projections that have their ground in the dynamics of the libidinal unconscious. Yet this undermining of consciousness leads to the introduction of the new medium of subconsciousness, which takes over the same functions of carrying and presenting the signs that the medium of consciousness previously performed. Moreover, the subconscious becomes equipped with the carrier ability of divine consciousness insofar as the repressed is granted an almost infinite guarantee of returning.3 And if we think of submedial space as being radically different, as an event that prevents the secure return to its origin (as deconstruction suggests), then this is precisely what guarantees the return of the unforeseeable, the uncertain, and the unintelligible—which now can continue to haunt the world for all eternity. Suspicion is the medium of all media, because it inspires a self-perpetuating, foundational critique of the archive, a critique that demands and enables the process of recopying the archive into ever-new media, thereby securing the archive’s durability. Beneath the archive lies suspicion, and it is this suspicion that, in the end, sustains the archive forever. Suspicion is infinite. Signs become truly interesting to us only when they appear suspect. It is by means of suspicion that suspense [English in the original] is produced, which manifests itself in the prolonged, suspenseful attention we give to suspicious signs. The signs that give us the impression of hiding something dangerous, threatening, uncanny behind them thus achieve the longest duration, because signs are interesting to us primarily as icons of suspicion. Only these signs of suspicion are continuously studied, interpreted, and preserved. By contrast, everything that can be explained quickly and gives us the impression of not hiding anything is immediately

8 8 —Submedial Space

forgotten and removed from the archive. The archive of our culture is constructed like a detective novel that aims to create infinite suspense [English in the original]. The temporal economy of the archive is the economy of suspicion, in which moments of medial sincerity confirm that, indeed, everything looks different “inside” than on the medial surface. These moments of sincerity play the part of preliminary disclosures that—as in a detective story—are continuously repeated in order to keep suspense [English in the original] alive by promising a final disclosure. Every time the archive is questioned, every time the evil gaze of the other falls on the signs of the archive and the political question about its usefulness (or its uselessness) is raised—a question that threatens the archive with extinction—this critical, penetrating gaze discovers a deeper level behind the surface of the archive where it can rest for a while. Immediately, the effect of medial sincerity emerges again. Since the submedial space behind the archive is nothing but a suspicion, the evil gaze of the observer seeking to enter into the submedial interior sooner or later only encounters itself—and is thus reflected, projected back onto itself. Through this reflection, the new medium is uncovered as a mirror surface that presumably reflects suspicion. Of course we can say that all of this is just an optical illusion. At the same time, however, this supposed illusion, much like all other moments in the economy of suspicion, is inevitable, necessary, and irrefutable. Hence, the dynamic of the archive does not consist only of the permanent acquisition of the New, but also in the no less permanent transcription of its signs and values onto ever-new media—from God to the Internet. This process of recopying governed by suspicion continuously infuses the archive with the time of its duration. On the medial surface, the recopying of archival signs into ever-new media carriers manifests itself as the process of quoting. As stated earlier, the effect of sincerity emerges from quoting alien signs within one’s familiar context [im eigenen Kontext]. If chosen correctly, these signs then attain the infinite value of a new revelation of the submedial. Thus, the economy of suspicion, which includes the moment of sincerity, also functions as an economy of quotation that can operate with infi nite values. To

The Case of Exception and the Truth of the Medial—89

be sure, humans have continuously attempted to design an economy capable of operating with infinite values—an economy of aura, of the sacred, of magical powers, of redemption. The first serious attempt of this kind was the model of symbolic exchange developed by Marcel Mauss and meant to describe the exchange of gifts in so-called primitive cultures. I will discuss this approach in greater detail in the second part of this book. The concept of the gift, which is of central importance to Mauss, is directly relevant to the problem of the media economy, because the analogy between the economy of the gift as described by Mauss and the economy of quotation is self-evident. When we quote, the culturally defined rights and demands of other people with regard to their own signs are not violated, which is why no fi nancial compensation needs to be paid. Of course, the distinction between quotation and plagiarism plays a crucial role in this context, because this distinction marks, at the same time, the border between the symbolic economy and the market economy. Under certain well-known circumstances, anybody who puts up signs on a medial surface offers these signs as a gift that others can either accept or decline, that is, quote or not quote. The conventions that regulate the acceptance or nonacceptance of such gifts is much like the duty of mutual quotation, which is strongly influenced by the hierarchical position of individual authors. (Authors of equal rank must quote each other with the same frequency; better-known authors are authorized to bypass lesser-known authors, even if the latter quote them, and so on.) These conventions are strongly reminiscent of the conventions of gift exchange in primitive cultures as described by Mauss. This is hardly surprising, because both cases deal with a transference and distribution of submedial, hidden, magical powers beyond any fi nite, communicable, detectable sense. An author who integrates alien signs into the medial surface of his own texts—signs behind which we presume the existence of other powerful, submedial subjects “as authors”—does not increase the comprehensibility of that text. Yet nonetheless, he increases the magical effectiveness this text exudes. Such quotations lead us to presume that the text houses a dangerous, manipulative subject, a magician with enough power to

90—Submedial Space

manipulate the signs of other powerful magicians and able to use them strategically for his own purposes. Thus an author who quotes alien signs conveys a stronger impression of powerful authorship than one who advocates precisely his so-called own ideas—which do not interest anybody precisely because they are only his own. It is also well known that one may not quote the same author too often, in which case quoting gradually looses its magical power and begins to irritate the reader. The reason for this gradual decrease of a quote’s magical effectiveness is that it looses its strangeness over time and gets integrated into the medial surface of a text, thereby becoming a proper part of it. In order to maintain their magical effect, quotes have to be exchanged constantly so as to continue to maintain the same appearance of foreignness and freshness. The quote functions as a magical fetish that lends the entire text a hidden, submedial power beyond its superficial meaning. A quote has an even more powerful effect if we presume not just a particular author behind it, but God, nature, the unconscious, labor, or difference. These are strong fetishes, each conjuring the powerful submedial in a particular way. Yet all of them must nonetheless be exchanged in a certain rhythm according to the laws of the medial economy. In order to create such fetishes, one does not have to use brilliant quotes by famous authors but can use anonymous quotes that stem from the authorless realm of the everyday, lowly, foreign, vulgar, aggressive, or stupid. Precisely such quotes produce the effect of medial sincerity, that is, the revelation of a deeply submerged, hidden, medial plane on the familiar medial surface. It then appears as if this surface had been blasted open from the inside and that the respective quotes had sprung forth from the submedial interior—like aliens. All of this, of course, refers to the economy of the quote as a gift that can be offered, accepted, and reciprocated. The next chapter will elaborate in greater detail how such an economy of infinite values functions.



Marcel Mauss: Symbolic Exchange; or, Civilization Under Water

h e au r a of m edi a l si nc er i t y a n d du r a bi l i t y—the aura of exception—is continuously transferred from one sign to another according to the economy of media-ontological suspicion. In order to understand the rules of this economy, one should remember some of the older theoretical projects that try to describe an economy beyond the market. At issue in particular is an economy of the sacred, which is similar to the medial economy insofar as the power of the sacred is likewise presumed to reside “inside” things rather than manifesting itself directly on their outside. Understood as such a hidden, interior power, the sacred follows the rules of a particular economy as it moves from one thing to the next. In his famous essay The Gift (1923/24), Marcel Mauss was the first to try to describe such an economy

94 —The Economy of Suspicion

systematically as an economy that includes the interior of things and thus transcends the ordinary market economy.1 Mauss begins his essay with the observation that among all peoples at all times, the gift displays a paradoxical nature. Although gifts are, by definition, voluntary, humans nonetheless are subject to a social obligation to give, accept, and reciprocate gifts. Firm rules govern the exchange of gifts, rules that are equally familiar to all gift givers and receivers, even though those rules are neither explicitly formulated nor expressible as such. A gift is commonly considered an expression of free will, of individual generosity, of a highly personal dedication, and particularly of a general preparedness for renunciation beyond the usual economic calculation. In this sense, the motif for an individual’s decision to give gifts to others is believed to lie exclusively in the inner nature and character of this individual, which reveals itself as either generous or stingy. On the other hand, however, society shuns and penalizes a person who does not offer gifts. The individual is forced to give gifts in order to be socially accepted and to benefit from this acceptance while avoiding harm. Both benefit and harm can certainly be described in economic terms. Behind the illusion of free will, the exchange of gifts hides a coercion that emerges from an economy no less regulated by strict rules than the economy of money or the market. Mauss called this different economy the symbolic economy. The symbolic economy enforces not only the giving of gifts but also the acceptance of gifts and the offering of countergifts. Whoever does not accept the gift offends the gift giver. And whoever does not reciprocate the gift ends up in a socially unfavorable position. The gift, which is supposed to reveal the inner nature of human beings—that is, their ability or inability to be generous—thus emerges as a factor in a symbolic economy that ascribes certain “inner values” to its participants. To be sure, Mauss considers symbolic exchange an archaic form of economy that predates the modern money economy. At the same time, however, he assumes that by no means did the symbolic economy lose its power with the arrival of money and the commodity market, because the symbolic economy is much more comprehensive than the market. In this

Marcel Mauss: Symbolic Exchange; or, Civilization Under Water—9 5

sense, Mauss ultimately sees no difference relevant to his theory between so-called archaic and modern cultures. Even in the culture of European modernity, the market can claim only partial validity because it does not involve “inner values.” The symbolic exchange of gifts, by contrast, is total and comprehensive. It is a “system of total prestations” because it exchanges not only commodities such as those in a normal money economy, but also “courtesies, entertainments, ritual, military assistance, women, children, dances, and feasts; and fairs in which the market is but one element and the circulation of wealth but one part of a wide and enduring contract.”2 When a person presents a voluntary gift to another person without demanding or receiving an equivalent monetary “compensation,” the gift recipient feels internally obligated to the gift giver. He owes the giver “inner,” symbolic values such as respect, thankfulness, and a feeling of solidarity, all of which are certainly important social goods that improve and solidify the position of the gift giver in society. What is more, the gift recipient is obligated to offer a countergift. He must “retaliate” for the gift so as not to be despised by others or despise himself. Thus, the solidarity created by the gift may even be more effective, economically speaking, than a purely financial obligation. “Inner” values such as friendship, love, and honor are exchanged within the context of the symbolic economy, too. According to Mauss, no selfless, heroic deed, no sacrifice, no squandering in ecstasy, and no generous donation could fall outside the symbolic economy of the gift, because all of them force society to offer symbolic services in return while bestowing glory, prestige, admiration, and thus also a better social position and power onto the human subject of these selfless deeds. Such deeds, to be sure, are no less selfless and generous because of this reciprocation. Quite the contrary: it is only within the economy of symbolic exchange that these symbolic gestures are considered generous deeds worthy of admiration. The economization of the selfless, the generous, the self-sacrificing, and even the self-destructive—in short, of the romantic—is certainly the most fascinating aspect of Mauss’s model of symbolic exchange. The modern teachings about the market and market behavior that have

96—The Economy of Suspicion

circulated at least since Adam Smith suggest a highly specific model of the human being that supposedly defines the “interiority” of the individual agent of this market. According to this model, the protagonist of the market is a self-serving, calculating, ruthless individual whose behavior is determined exclusively by a cost-benefit analysis. Because such a “typical,” bourgeois individual allegedly lacks a sense of what is noble and selfless, he was and remains the permanent target of romantically inspired critique and irony on the one hand and social mockery on the other. This is why romanticism—including political romanticism—looks for an antibourgeois alternative in art, in religion, and also in the military—actually primarily in the military, because the military most radically demands selfless sacrifice, loyalty until death, and the predominance of honor from every individual. These alternatives give everyone a chance to act in accordance with his inner and thus higher principles and impulses, which no longer can be reduced to an external, economic, base calculation. Yet Mauss engages in an elegant attempt to describe precisely this “inner and higher” romantic ideal of selflessness and “true greatness” as partaking of and governed by the extended economy, understood as the strictly regulated mutual exchange of gift and countergift. On the one hand, these gestures of selfless generosity thus gain legitimacy precisely in terms of economic expediency. Now, even an ardent advocate of capitalist markets can no longer claim that all of this is just a romantic fantasy. On the other hand, however, Mauss also radically de-romanticizes the romantic and subordinates it to the reign of the economic. This is why people have always had a hard time with Mauss’s theory. Reading Mauss, we are constantly confronted with an irony that is by no means only literary but emerges from the subject matter itself. Every theoretical explanation is both justification and degradation: it insults what it explains. By the way, a theory that seeks to explain something is always already a selfless gift to the object of explanation. By means of the explanation, this object is understood and its social existence legitimated. However, the object of theory cannot—or can only rarely—reciprocate the gift of explanation adequately. And this offends it internally. For example, we know all too well that artists and writers feel offended and misunderstood pre-

Marcel Mauss: Symbolic Exchange; or, Civilization Under Water—9 7

cisely by those critics or theoreticians whose gift of interpretation was instrumental in helping them achieve respect and glory. Mauss constantly thematizes this, in his words, agonistic character of the gift. Every gift is simultaneously a challenge and an assault on the dignity of the recipient—an assault that must be repelled by a countergift. In many passages of his book, Mauss demonstrates the structural similarity between gift giving and warlike action. In some cultures, for example, it is customary to throw the gift into the dirt right at the recipient’s feet, much as one throws down a gauntlet to declare war on another—yet this custom nonetheless remains a celebration of gift giving. Mauss also quotes the well-known German expression “to retaliate for the gift” [sich für das Geschenk revanchieren] in order to emphasize this warlike component. By means of the gift, the gift giver gains symbolic control over the recipient, who feels obligated to the giver and relegated to a lower social rank than he. Under certain circumstances, a whole society can feel obligated to a single person because of his selfless sacrifice, in which case the person gains significant symbolic power over that society. The first gift exchange, according to Mauss, was a gift exchange with gods, spirits, and the dead. When I offer a sacrifice to the gods, this sacrifice may appear to be a pure destruction of goods, when, in fact, the gods are supposed to feel compelled to offer a countergift. If I repeatedly offer sacrifices to my god, then I expect him to help me in a later, difficult situation that I might not foresee at the time I make the sacrifice. The symbolic economy is thus by no means limited to human beings. Rather, this economy is totalizing in the sense of including gods, spirits, dead ancestors, and unborn people within its gift exchange. It may well be the most important dimension of this economy that, contrary to the market economy, it is not structured anthropologically and includes not only everybody who is alive but also all spirits of all times as well. According to Mauss, only within the context of the symbolic economy can something like a “living personality” or “individuality” emerge and a person attain a “face” that expresses his “interior.”3 The inner character of a person is not biologically endowed but produced as the effect of this

98 —The Economy of Suspicion

person’s symbolic actions. If the recipient does not reciprocate the gift, then he loses face. But why can one lose face by failing to offer a countergift? Evidently, one attains one’s face only as a gift giver. The word personality is derived from the Latin persona. A persona is a mask, a word that originally meant the same as “face.” To have a face, a persona, was thus originally an honor, a privilege. In earlier times, not everybody had a face, not everybody had a persona; officers or priests, for example, were clearly privileged in this regard.4 And by no means did an officer have his own face; he had an officer’s face—the mask of honor. The face was thus part of the uniform. When an officer did something that violated military honor, he lost his face and sullied his uniform. Personality, face, and individuality are thus being exchanged like all other signs within the symbolic economy, which is why it would be meaningless to try to identify the subject of this economy. Each protagonist of the symbolic economy can attain his own personality only by taking over a sign that has a long history—a face that others have already worn for a long time. Similarly, to possess an unrepeatable, irreducible individuality evidently means to carry a well-known romantic mask, which one may easily loose by acting in a “selfish” or “profit-oriented” manner. However, by no means does such an exchange of identities lead to a dissolution of the borders of the individual, to an identity in flux, or to a decentering of the subject—postulates about which we hear so much these days. The subjects of the symbolic economy who exchange the signs of their personality certainly remain self-centered; they do not dissolve at all. To be sure, these submedial subjects repeatedly exchange their masks on the medial surface. Yet, at the same time, they can be adequately defined as carriers of symbolic exchange that occupy specific places in the topography of the medial surface. And they are defined above all by the fact that the symbolic exchange is performed in a warlike manner, that is, strategically, as Mauss continuously emphasizes. This antagonistic component of the symbolic exchange is particularly evident in the phenomenon Mauss calls potlatch, using an old Indian word.5 The potlatch consists in an ostentatious, demonstrative, and seemingly aimless destruction of one’s own goods. When a chieftain destroys

Marcel Mauss: Symbolic Exchange; or, Civilization Under Water—9 9

a part or even the entirety of his property and that of his tribe, then, according to the laws of symbolic economy, he obliges other chieftains to do the same in order to save face and maintain their social rank. Thus, a pure, “unproductive” destruction of wealth also becomes an economic action. At the same time, the potlatch demonstrates very clearly that the foundation of the symbolic economy is an aggressively waged competition in social recognition. Undoubtedly, such a competition yields winners and losers, because the extent of the sacrifice determines the social rank of the person who sacrifices. It may suffice at this point to recall some well-known sacrificial deeds—the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ and Socrates’s voluntary acceptance of his death sentence—to recognize the far-reaching obligations that may result from such sacrifices. Both Christianity and the tradition of European philosophy are based on these two sacrificial deeds. Both traditions continue to conjure the symbolic power of these deeds in order to legitimate their own privileged social position. Because God sacrificed himself for humanity through the body of Jesus Christ, Christians feel obligated to sacrifice themselves to God—or at least to obey him. The philosophical tradition, too, is ultimately based on a potlatch. Socrates’s death obliges other philosophers to think, that is, to adapt the specific methodical procedures that Socrates offered them as a gift and a legacy. It is far from accidental that Friedrich Nietzsche, who sought to liberate himself from old debts in the name of a new way of thinking, tried again and again to diminish the symbolic value of Socrates’s and Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifices. With the help of “psychology,” Nietzsche tried to prove that Socrates, being a man of pure reason, had absolutely no concern for life, meaning that we cannot interpret his death as tragic or as giving rise to obligations. Nietzsche also described Christ “psychologically,” as a weakling for whom self-sacrifice was an inner psychological necessity and not a voluntary act that could oblige others.6 Nietzsche also envisioned the coming superhuman as the one who, by means of his own, freely willed doom, would fi nally liberate humanity from the old obligations while obligating humanity to embrace a new intensity of life.

1 00—The Economy of Suspicion

The most interesting question here is certainly not whether Nietzsche was “right” with his revaluations, but how consistently his thought followed the logic of the symbolic economy. In his case, the aura of the hidden interior, of the media carrier, of the superhistorical moves from the signs of spirituality and reason to the signs of life and pure vitality— precisely by means of a new sacrifice that overcomes and annuls the old sacrifices through the potlatch that Nietzsche staged in his writings. Behind spirituality and reason, Nietzsche discovered life as a still more deeply hidden media carrier—a weak life, in fact, that still does not know anything about its supportive function. With the superhuman, by contrast, life achieves such power that even the death of the superhuman remains life affirming. Thus, life becomes the new, absolute, infinite media carrier, and all signs it sustains are obligated to it in the same manner. Nietzsche’s writings inaugurated a historically unique potlatch of the historical avant-garde in which the biggest prize went to whoever was best able to renounce: to renounce mimesis in art, metaphysics in philosophy, narratives in literature, and so on. All of the reductionism of the historical avant-garde was nothing but a paroxysm of potlatch, not unlike that which caused Indian chieftains again and again to burn all their possessions, sparing nothing. Yet every one of these acts of potlatch discovered and established a new and infi nite carrier of art that, for a brief time at least, elevated the artist who “discovered” this carrier—and who dedicated and sacrificed his life to this discovery—to the status of chieftain of the particular art scene in vogue at the time. Obviously, it is entirely irrelevant in this context whether or not the person who sacrifices actually possesses the riches he ostentatiously destroys. Nietzsche accused the Christian ascetic and the rationalist philosopher of having too little life in them and thus of possessing nothing that could actually be sacrificed. If one does not have enough life within oneself, then indeed choosing Christian asceticism or rationalist morality does not seem to be such a big sacrifice. Hence, Nietzsche considered this kind of sacrifice to be a sham in which the person who sacrifices, in fact, only pretends to sacrifice, because he actually lacks that which he allegedly sacrifices. The same charge was often leveled against the artistic

Marcel Mauss: Symbolic Exchange; or, Civilization Under Water—1 0 1

avant-garde, namely that these artists did not actually possess the mastery, ability and knowledge of the very tradition they allegedly renounced voluntarily. In this case, too, we are dealing with a kind of infi nite suspicion, because the suspicion that one merely simulates a sacrifice can be neither confirmed nor refuted. This infinite suspicion, however, in no way undermines the functioning of the symbolic economy but actually gets it started in the first place. Although this suspicion devalues the old sacrifice, it nonetheless transfers the old symbolic values into the very medium in which the depreciation of those old values occurred—for example the medium of life, the medium of language, or the medium of writing. The suspicion of simulation does not completely annul the symbolic values but rather shifts and redistributes them so that the next cycle of the symbolic economy of suspicion may begin. Hence, the general suspicion about simulation that applies to all values in modernity does not invalidate the symbolic economy but propels it forward. Mauss also considered his own model of symbolic exchange to be universal, that is, he believed it applied not only to archaic societies but also to modern Europe, because he thought that wasteful striving for luxury and conspicuous consumption played an important social and economic role in modern societies as well. Indeed, competition in conspicuous consumption characterizes the behavior of the modern European bourgeois no less than that of their archaic or aristocratic ancestors. Today, it is as impossible for the individual to withdraw from this competition as it was in earlier times. In modern times, too, one is obliged not only to earn money but to spend and donate it as well. Hence, under the conditions of modernity, the symbolic economy remains a system of total prestations and thus transcends the limits of any pure, profit-oriented exchange of commodities. At the end of his book, Mauss also applies his model of symbolic economy to answer political questions topical at the time, primarily those concerning the role and the limits of the welfare state in modern society. Mauss interpreted the economy of the gift as justifying the necessity of the welfare state as a redistribution mechanism from top to bottom.7 In his view, every commodity a worker produces also contains a symbolic

1 02—The Economy of Suspicion

component. Every commodity is also a gift of whoever produced it, because every worker invests not only time and physical power in the production of commodities but also his soul, emotions, and personality, so to speak. However, the wage the worker receives on the labor market does not compensate for this additional, emotional investment. The worker, according to Mauss, strives not only for fair wages but also for a symbolic recognition of the gift he offers to society. The welfare state and its presents to workers are thus countergifts that society is obligated to provide within the context of the symbolic economy. They are not mere handouts that society may decide to give or not to give of its own accord. In Mauss’s view, the social phenomenon that today is known as sponsoring [English in the original] plays the same role. Sponsoring is not voluntary but inevitable, because gift giving, according to Mauss, is a symbolic act of war and thus a substitute for real war. Those who do not want to share must wage outright class warfare—and thus will lose their money anyhow.8 This last reflection demonstrates that Mauss proceeds from a theoretical perspective that is by no means anthropocentric, even though he does draw certain “humanitarian” conclusions from his model. For example, he compares human beings and their cultures, including their markets, with maritime plants. Human institutions, he claims, are like “polyps and anemones.”9 We must recognize that human masses are moved by forces that do not emanate from these humans themselves, says Mauss: “We see groups of men, and active forces, submerged in their environments and sentiments.”10 Human civilization, in Mauss’s view, is primordially submerged “in water.” We discover this fundamental fact of human existence not through the famous inner “oceanic feeling,” but through the external observation of the streams that continuously displace, move, and exchange all things human. At this point, it becomes obvious that the major difficulty of dealing with Mauss’s model derives from the question of how we are supposed to understand the nature of the coercion that forces each individual to participate in the exchange of all signs. To be sure, one may interpret this coercion in ordinary economic terms as a rational calculation that people use in order to survive and

Marcel Mauss: Symbolic Exchange; or, Civilization Under Water—1 0 3

advance in a given society. In this case, the coercion of the social conventions that force us to engage in symbolic exchange is mediated by the conscious decision of the individual who wants to follow the logic of symbolic exchange. Numerous passages in Mauss’ writings fully confirm this understanding of coercion as a conscious calculation. Yet at the same time, many more passages contradict this understanding and describe the coercion to exchange as a submedial, oceanic movement from which no sign on the medial surface can escape. This movement forces the individual to follow it even—and precisely—in those cases where this individual consciously seeks to resist the ruling conventions of the symbolic economy. Those who do not voluntarily and deliberately engage in exchange will themselves be exchanged by force. The first, anthropocentric, humanist interpretation of symbolic exchange is particularly widespread in subsequent ethnological literature. It often depicts symbolic exchange as some kind of “primitive” social idyll in which all human beings are allowed to partake equally of all symbolic goods—a utopian vision of economy beyond private property, beyond the accumulation of goods, beyond individualism and the social isolation of human beings. Today, however, some ethnologists have begun to question this idyllic picture and try to prove that even in archaic societies the will to collect and preserve persists. Thus, certain—and particularly sacred—objects are exempt from symbolic exchange and set apart as the inalienable property of a tribe.11 This limitation on the coercion of total exchange that Mauss described introduces an element of individualist isolation into the allegedly primordial paradise of archaic cultures.12 Yet both the humanist, idyllic interpretation of Mauss’s model of symbolic exchange and its empirical repudiation, advocated by more recent research, equally disregard the radical nature of the symbolic economy that Mauss designed. Symbolic exchange, according to Mauss, is more than a system of rules that can be followed—or not followed. It is, rather, a coercion that, if necessary, also exerts itself without the conscious agreement of all actors and even against their explicit will. Even the tribe that tries to preserve at least some of its riches will be forced to lose them sometime through war

1 04—The Economy of Suspicion

or potential decline. Mauss grants only peripheral importance to the freedom of individual decision making with regard to the symbolic economy.13 In this sense, the symbolic exchange that Mauss described is reminiscent above all of Hegelian dialectics: the absolute spirit uses both thesis and antithesis, confirmation and contradiction, for its own, inner, subphenomenal, submedial movement. Whoever acts in accordance with the spirit of his time is rewarded. Whoever does not act in accordance with this spirit is punished. Yet both modes of action serve the same spirit. The gift, according to Mauss, is internally split and paradoxical from the very beginning—dialectically, one might say. It is the sign of peace, of affection, of generosity—and, at the same time, the sign of agonistic challenge, of provocation, of war, of subjecting the recipient of the gift. Thus, those who do not voluntarily accept the economy of gift and countergift are subjected to it through war and struggle. At some point, everybody must lose everything he still possesses, even if he has not yet given it away as a gift—at the very latest, at the moment he dies. Everybody is involved in the total circulation of symbolic goods, whether consciously and willingly or not. Because Mauss’s model of symbolic exchange also takes gift giving into account as war booty or as the legacy of death, it does indeed amount to the description of a “system of total prestations.” Thus, indeed, in Mauss’s view, every human civilization is primordially submerged in water—or, as we can also say: is submerged in suspicion. It cannot resist the movements and currents of this invisible ocean, regardless of whether it wants to swim along or not. The water—that is, the universal medium of all communication—is certainly not, in Hegel’s sense, the absolute spirit that operates behind the entire phenomenal, medial surface of the world. Nor should we understand this medium as the embodiment of a positive, scientific, mechanically acting, “objective” necessity. Even though individual protagonists cannot control the symbolic exchange in its entirety, the difference between the generosity of gift giving and the punishment of stinginess remains noticeable nonetheless. The exchange as such, of course, takes place either way. Yet the generous gift—that is, the act in accordance with the rules of symbolic exchange— bestows a glow on the gift giver that could not arise as the mere effect of a

Marcel Mauss: Symbolic Exchange; or, Civilization Under Water—1 0 5

naturally caused, mechanical necessity. Hence, Mauss tries to define and name a power that operates beyond the opposition of spirit and matter—a power that controls symbolic exchange. This power supposedly forces us against our will to exchange symbolic values. At the same time, however, it must remain possible to determine through the effect of this power whether we are dealing with a voluntary renunciation or an involuntary loss.


Claude Lévi-Strauss: Mana; or, the Floating Signifier


t t h e v er y be gi n n i ng of t h e gi f t, m aus s himself already indicated the trajectory that future research should pursue. He formulated the central question for his further investigations thus: “What force is there in the thing given which compels the recipient to make a return?”1 Mauss called this power mana, a term he borrowed from the Polynesian languages. The concept of mana later emerged as the most controversial and the most productive among all of Mauss’s ideas. He defined mana as “magical, religious, and spiritual power,”2 a power the inhabitants of Polynesia believed to be inherent in a gift, forcing it to return to the gift giver at some later point. Once the gift is offered and received, it supports and helps the recipient for a while— the mana of the gift, we might say, remains magically positive. Later on,

Claude Lévi-Strauss: Mana; or, the Floating Signifier—1 0 7

however, the soul of the gift (hau) longs to return to its origin, to the gift giver. The gift wants to leave the recipient and return to the giver. From this point onward, the gift becomes dangerous to the recipient—its mana turns magically negative. This signals that the moment has arrived for a countergift or for passing the gift along. At some time, the gift will have completed a circular path—by being continuously passed along—and will return to its origin, even though it is actually impossible to speak of a specific origin because all gifts incessantly circulate in the cycle of the gift economy.3 In any case, it is mana—meaning the inner power within the gift itself—that continuously propels symbolic exchange forward. It certainly is not the free will of the individual gift giver or the “external” conventions of any particular civilization or the lawfulness of nature. The orbit of Polynesian culture, from which Mauss derived the terms mana and hau, was relatively closed. Under these conditions, the passing on of a gift indeed had to lead this gift back to its origin at some point, that is, after it had been passed around the entire circle. At first glance, this constitutes an economic exception that may not be generalized. Mauss was therefore often charged with adopting terms from archaic cultures for his own theories instead of analyzing them from a secure, scientific distance. And it is true that Mauss was prone to assimilating all possible terms and figures of thought that appeared suitable to him and that possessed the kind of mana he needed for the gloss of his own theory. He then passed on these terms and figures of thoughts as gifts to others by publishing his writings and thus releasing them to be quoted and circulated further. However, at this point we will not discuss the more detailed analyses and proofs Mauss provided to justify his theory of mana—or, we should say, his theoretical reconstruction of the Polynesian myth of mana. The idea that various things are possessed by the spirits of their former owners, which might render them dangerous to their new owners, is a wellknown suspicion often thematized in today’s mass culture as well. Steven Spielberg’s fi lm Poltergeist is only one example among many, yet it is particularly interesting in that the spirits use a television to communicate with the new owners of a house that was built on top of an old graveyard.

1 08 —The Economy of Suspicion

Whenever there are no TV programs on the air to establish a medial surface and protect the exterior from the interior, the spirits of the graveyard’s dead emerge from the interior of the TV. Obviously, this is a case of negative mana—indeed, things and signs that are possessed by their previous owners are generally experienced as negative. There are, however, some counterexamples, such as the movie Beetlejuice by Tim Burton, in which the spirits of the previous owners of the house prove to be kind and helpful to the new owners and present them with the gift of positive mana. It is of crucial importance to Mauss’s theory of mana that the character of the spirits alive inside the gift must change over time. At first, the mana within the gift is always kind, but later it necessarily begins to exert a negative effect—precisely when the connection between the gift and the giver begins to be forgotten. The good mana is guaranteed for as long as the strangeness of the gift has not been forgotten. The gift as a new, alien sign in the midst of an intimately familiar context seems to provide insight into the interior, which bestows on this sign the good mana of medial sincerity. The inevitable domestication of the gift later on leads not only to the loss of positive mana but also to the rise of negative mana. We might say that as soon as the sign of the new and strange becomes part of the familiar medial surface, it also emerges as the locus of a particularly intense suspicion. We encounter the same phenomenon in the cycle of fashion: those who dress themselves according to the latest fashion appear hip and attractive, but nothing is more detrimental to one’s image than last year’s fashion. Decades-old fashions, by contrast, may “return” and thus reacquire positive mana and become attractive again. In fact, fashion is nothing more than a particular form of the economy of symbolic exchange, which forces everyone to exchange signs constantly so that those signs appear forever strange, which prevents them from losing their ability to refer to the rift between the exterior and the interior. And since all socalled cultural creativity is ultimately dictated by fashion—and even defines itself with regard to its sensitivity vis-à-vis this dictate—culture functions as a space of symbolic exchange even in modern times.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: Mana; or, the Floating Signifier—1 0 9

To be sure, most authors commenting on Mauss’s writings criticized and rejected the term mana as he used it. The most radical, most profound and, at the same time, most theoretically consequential critique was formulated by Claude Lévi-Strauss.4 Unlike most critics, however, Lévi-Strauss did not want merely to abandon the term mana but sought to endow it with a more precise defi nition. What bothered Lévi-Strauss most about the term mana as Mauss defined it was that it implies the effectiveness of a real, “material,” “natural,” albeit hidden power. LéviStrauss suspected that not only did Mauss use this term for the construction of his theory but that he himself secretly believed in the reality of mana. Lévi-Strauss diagnosed this as an old error of reason: “The notion of mana does not belong to the order of the real, but to the order of thinking, which, even when it thinks itself, only ever thinks an object.”5 According to Lévi-Strauss, mana does not belong to the order of reality but solely to the order of signs. Like Mauss’s theory, this view is based on a totalizing vision of the symbolic order, namely the totality of signification. At a certain moment in time, according to Lévi-Strauss, the entire universe suddenly became saturated with signification. Prior to this Big Bang [English in the original] of signification, there were no meanings at all in the world; from that moment on, there has been nothing but meanings.6 All things instantly became signs or, rather, signifiers that ever since have been waiting for their signifieds. Thus the world after the Big Bang of signification offers us an infinite number of signifiers, but we do not know what they mean—they are signifiers without signifieds. We only know that they signify. The progress of thinking, says Lévi-Strauss, consists of “the work of equalising [sic] of the signifier to fit the signified,”7 that is, in the gradual filling of empty signifiers with particular meanings, with signifieds. Yet the progress of thinking is very slow, always fi nite and partial. Although it takes place “inside a totality which is closed and complementary to itself,”8 it can never completely fill the infinite number of empty signifiers with signifieds, because every labor of thought is carried out in a finite lifetime. Hence an infinite surplus of empty signifiers always remains that cannot be fi lled by any progress of thinking. This infi nite surplus of empty signifiers also means an infi nite surplus of empty, future moments

1 1 0—The Economy of Suspicion

that must be experienced in order to fill all empty signifiers with meaning— moments that cannot be experienced, however, because human life is finite. Thus the basic condition of humans in the world—understood as a world of signification—is that they always have far too many signs at their disposal to which they cannot assign meaning: “There is always a nonequivalence or ‘inadequation’ between the two [signifiers and signifieds—B.G.], a non-fit and overspill which divine understanding alone can soak up; this generates a signifier-surfeit relative to the signifieds to which it can be fitted.”9 Hence there is always a “supplementary ration”10 of signifiers without signifieds that marks the difference between the infinite divine and our finite human reason—a difference with which humans must cope somehow. According to Lévi-Strauss, mana is nothing else but the name for this surplus of empty signifiers that have no concrete meaning. Mana is the “fl oating signifier ” that represents the entire infinite surplus of signifiers and “which is the disability of all fi nite thought (but also the surety of all art, all poetry, every mythic and aesthetic invention), even though scientific knowledge is capable, if not of staunching it, at least of controlling it partially.”11 Hence, mana is “a zero symbolic value, that is, a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content.”12 Lévi-Strauss considers his interpretation of mana to be a “translation” of Mauss’s conception into a more timely theoretical language that remains “rigorously faithful to Mauss’s thinking.”13 The immense significance of this interpretation of the term mana for the later emergence of poststructuralist theory is self-evident. It suffices to recall the central role the term supplement would later play in Derrida’s Of Grammatology, where it internally governs the entire discourse of deconstruction. And I hardly need mention the popularity that the term fl oating signifier has retrospectively enjoyed.14 But apart from that, the vision of an infi nite surplus of signifiers without signifieds has had theoretical consequences that Lévi-Strauss most likely could not have anticipated entirely at the time. This vision also deprived the finite number of signifiers—those that Lévi-Strauss still assumed to possess a sense, a referent, a signifier—of all meaning. At some point, people asked themselves

Claude Lévi-Strauss: Mana; or, the Floating Signifier—1 1 1

how a finite number of meanings could possibly be stabilized, given the total and infinite play of empty signifiers. Thus the infi nite surplus of empty signifiers swept away all finite meanings into the infinity of meaninglessness and deprived all signifiers of their signifieds. The entire progress of thinking revealed itself as senseless and pointless, because it is merely fi nite. Poetry, understood as a game with empty signs—of signifiers without signifieds—triumphed over science. Naturally, one may ask to what degree Lévi-Strauss’s interpretation of mana corresponds to the basic intention of Mauss’s model of symbolic exchange. In any case, one thing remains certain: although for Lévi-Strauss, mana is an infinite value, even finite spirits can operate economically with it. This is because we are no longer dealing with a hidden power that belongs to the order of reality and works behind the backs of the protagonists of symbolic action, but with a surplus of empty signs that lies before these protagonists’ eyes as their infinite future—as the “progress of thinking.” And even though this perspective must remain unredeemable and unlivable, it is possible to operate with it—it can be exchanged, displaced, opened up, or closed down. The main question is the degree to which one is really entitled to refer to such a perspective as the infinity of “floating signifiers.” According to Lévi-Strauss, these signifiers are “floating” because they are not connected to particular signifieds and specific meanings. Yet, obviously, this can not mean that these signifiers are literally, “materially,” floating—that they can flow and swim like martime plants and fish in water, as implied by the metaphors Lévi-Strauss took over from Mauss. Even if not all signifiers are fastened to specific signifieds, all signifiers are, in any case, firmly anchored in terms of their medium. As material signs, they inevitably have a specific locus in the topography of the medial surface. Even if signifiers are allowed to float with regard to their sense, they nonetheless remain immobile as such—unless they are in the process of being transferred through specific medial channels. But if, on the other hand, the number of signifiers is supposed to be infi nite, then we must not presuppose that all signifiers are structurally distinct from each other, because we cannot fully control the infi nite number of differences that emerge from this situation. It would be just as possible to think that, in

1 1 2—The Economy of Suspicion

infinity, all signifiers are identical. If we cannot claim with certainty that the signifiers—whose number is infi nite—are distinct from each other, then neither can we presume that they are signifiers in the first place, because according to the basic teaching of structuralism, signifiers are defined solely by the differences that distinguish them from each other. Thus, the assumption that we can speak of an infinite number of signifiers— an assumption that ultimately led from classical structuralism to poststructuralism—turns out to be highly problematic. One should, perhaps, speak less of an infinite number of signifiers than of a potential infi nity of the medial surface, which offers itself to the “progress of thinking” by enabling the inscription of signs and the subsequent correlation of these signs with their respective signifieds. Ultimately, we ought to understand the infinite number of empty signifiers lacking a fi xed meaning only as a paraphrase for the term medium. Because these signifiers have only a medial locus but no meaning, their medium is their only message. Mana, which Mauss understood as a power that inheres in signs and exchanges them, is thus reinterpreted as the mediality of those signs. The medium reveals itself as an infinite temporal perspective, that is, as a projection of infinite media-ontological suspicion onto the medial surface—and the medial economy becomes the temporal economy. The future of the medium is instituted by the suspicion the medium provokes in the observer. This relation between the time of signs and media-ontological suspicion is hardly coincidental, because the submedial carrier can become manifest to the observer only through the durability of the signs it sustains. Not by chance does Lévi-Strauss contend that mana, understood as an infinite surplus of empty signifiers, manifests itself primarily as poetry. In the formalist and structuralist traditions, poetry is often interpreted as the manifestation of the medium of language— contrary to common communication, in which the content, the communicative message, and the auctorial intention stand in the foreground, thus blocking the medium of language from view. Like many other scientists, Lévi-Strauss is too much of a romantic to speak about poetry in terms of competition among individual poets.15 For him, all poetry amounts to a pure loss of meaning, which, as such,

Claude Lévi-Strauss: Mana; or, the Floating Signifier—1 1 3

always radiates the same magical effect, namely mana. Lévi-Strauss knows only one opposition—science versus poetry. That opposition is equal in meaning to the opposition “signifiers with signifieds” versus “freely floating signifiers.” What is more, Lévi-Strauss considers the defeat of the speaker’s own message inevitable, and he deems the mana of poetry, understood as the sign of such a defeat, to be all powerful. In this regard, Lévi-Strauss certainly stands in a great tradition. Later, Paul de Man also described poetry as the involuntary loss of meaning, as the loss of the poet’s own message, a loss that the poet must inevitably endure because the message will inescapably be deconstructed and emptied by the medium of language.16 Poetry, it seems, emerges above all when it is not sought. This overlooks, of course, that the loss of meaning may well be the result of a conscious poetic strategy that aims precisely at replacing one’s own message with the message of the medium. De Man frequently refers to the impossibility of distinguishing one’s own message from the message of the medium, yet this impossibility is not just a poetic accident. Rather, twentieth-century poetry is a competition for the loss of meaning, which, like any other competition, produces both victors and losers. The labor of poetic thought consists precisely in continuing to look for ever-new, floating signifiers devoid of sense. Throughout this process, the poet absolutely cannot count on the notion that the infinite play of signifiers postulated by poststructuralist theory will of its own accord automatically void all previously meaningful signs and then offer them to poetry. Rather, it turns out to be fairly difficult to fi nd a signifier that looks so strange that one cannot ascribe any specific meaning to it—or that, conversely, would be so common and quotidian that it appears no longer to possess any fi xed meaning. It follows that people can deal with the potentially infi nite medial perspective of empty signifiers in at least two ways. A person can either fi ll this medial surplus step by step with experienced moments and fi xed signifieds, in which case the person sides with science. Or the person can thematize this surplus by looking for the empty, meaningless signifier as such, in which case he sides with poetry. And in each case, the person is in competition with other protagonists of symbolic exchange—a competition one can either win or lose.

1 1 4—The Economy of Suspicion

It is interesting, though, that the description of symbolic exchange as a tough competition and not as a communitarian idyll is more characteristic of those authors who have identified mana precisely as a power that belongs to the order of reality. These authors primarily refer—directly or indirectly—to Mauss’s description of the potlatch, which, as mentioned earlier, replaces the exchange of symbolic goods with a competition for their ostentatious destruction. For Mauss, the potlatch functions as a competition among individual actors of the symbolic economy who achieve glory, honor, and social influence from the sacrifices they make during this competition. We are faced with a seemingly paradoxical competition for renunciation and loss that will be won by the person who loses the most. Among the later theorists of potlatch, however, to a certain degree the competition between the individual subjects recedes behind the competition with mana itself. Since mana is understood as a real power that ruins people even if they do not make sacrifices, this competition basically consists of the effort to sacrifice more of one’s riches voluntarily than fate would destroy anyhow. Faced with infinite forces—either spirits or natural powers—one can, indeed, arrange an exchange only in the form of a potlatch. And only somebody who successfully offers an infinite sacrifice can win such a potlatch. Here we encounter a fundamental difficulty that will be discussed in greater detail later on. Every competition requires an independent jury, a list of participants, and results, as well as agreements about the criteria for comparison, memories of previous records, and archives that record these memories. Thus, the competition for loss requires a developed bureaucracy and a well-organized cultural archive. And therein lies the real danger. Even if one were to achieve an infinite sacrifice, one could still expect only a finite prize for it—namely, inclusion in the archives of the competition for loss. Yet this finite prize comes at the cost of an infinite prize, which is to turn the message of the medium into one’s own message in order to become the master of the medium. This, obviously, constitutes the cruel ruse of mana, a ruse that replaces the benevolent ruse of reason that Hegel discussed during his time. This and other annoyances connected to the competition for loss are described most poignantly in George Bataille’s famous book The Accursed Share.17



Georges Bataille: The Potlatch with the Sun

t fi r s t gl a nce , t h e s t a r t i ng poi n t for b ataille’s “general economy” looks very similar to Lévi-Strauss’s approach. Both declare the attempt to cope with an infinite surplus—a much-too-generous gift humans are burdened with even prior to their birth and one they can never pay back—to be the fundamental problem of human existence. The decisive difference, however, is that, for Bataille, the crucial issue is not a surplus of empty signifiers, but a surplus of real energy. For him, it is not the semiotic Big Bang, but the cosmic event of the emergence of the sun that overwhelms humanity—because humans, according to Bataille, receive much more solar energy than they are able to consume. Mauss’s mana thus looses its symbolic dimension and is interpreted as the real, material energy of the sun that operates entirely

1 1 6—The Economy of Suspicion

independently from the human will as it bestows and withdraws wealth to and from humans. Solar energy, for Bataille, is a dangerous, instable, explosive, submedial carrier. Although it supports the signs of our civilization, it constantly jeopardizes them as well. Precisely at times when this carrier endangers the medial surface through submedial explosions that cause rifts, blazes, and losses on its surface, the carrier sun exposes itself most poignantly—and provides insight into its own interior nature. In The Accursed Share, Bataille writes: “The origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the sun, which dispenses energy—wealth— without any return. The sun gives without ever receiving. Men were conscious of this long before astrophysics measured that ceaseless prodigality.”1 The sun provides a surplus of energy that no human civilization can accept, absorb, or utilize in its entirety. Much as humans, in LéviStrauss’s semiotics, constantly try to fi ll the surplus of signifiers with meanings, Bataille’s heroes attempt to make good use of the surplus of energy, to employ it for specific pragmatic purposes—that is, to fill it once again with specific meanings, aims, and utilities. And this attempts always fails, according to Bataille: “The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.”2 Bataille interprets the expansion of the economy, the growth of industry—in short, the entire progress of modernity—as an attempt to absorb and thus to diminish the pressure of this energy surplus. Hence, the major concern of the economy is neither overcoming the scarcity of goods nor creating ever-new goods in order to satisfy human needs, but the struggle against the surplus of solar energy. In his earlier, shorter essay “The Notion of Expenditure,” Bataille noted that the central concept of economics is usually usefulness.3 This nomenclature, however, accepts and incorporates only a limited part of the gift of the sun, because human needs are finite. The other, “accursed” part of the sun’s gift can be ac-

Georges Bataille: The Potlatch with the Sun—1 1 7

cepted only if it is reciprocated through an unproductive, pure expenditure of life’s energy—because pure expenditure, unlike rational use, can be infinite. This is why Bataille seeks to understand aimless expenditure, pure destruction, and self-destruction as economic actions that serve the acceptance and further distribution of solar energy in much the same way as the usual, rational, economic practices. No economy could function over time without at some point encountering a crisis due to overproduction if this overproduction were not expended in a timely fashion through conspicuous consumption and luxury—but also through war and revolution. According to Bataille, however, the practice of pure expenditure and spending is reserved primarily for the rich, because only they are in a position to expend the surplus of energy and to live in luxury. Naturally, individual wealth may also be understood as poetic talent in this context. As we know, a poète maudit [French in the original] is a person with a great talent who ostentatiously wastes it. Bataille’s original title, La part maudite, obviously recalls this figure of the poète maudit. At this point at the very latest, the question regarding the distinction between “interior” wealth and poverty becomes central to Bataille’s economy. If a drunken Rimbaud lies in the street or meets his end in Africa, then we honor him because he wastes a huge talent and thus a great deal of solar energy, thereby providing a big economic advantage to society. Yet if an anonymous drunkard lies in the street whom we cannot expect to be particularly gifted, then we think entirely differently—lying in the street solely on account of poverty is everything but honorable. For Bataille, the only chance for the poor to refi ne themselves through pure expenditure consists of starting a revolution whose goal is precisely the physical annihilation of the rich and their riches. If during the course of this revolution, the poor leave the rich alive or spare their riches, then that action is not a noble one but only the acquisition of other people’s wealth.4 Class struggle, Bataille contends, is part of human nature, yet class struggle as a justified course of action can consist only of wasting the rulers without exception.

1 1 8 —The Economy of Suspicion

Hence Bataille rejects the typically socialist wish to utilize the destructive energy of the impoverished masses for the construction of a new utopian order and a new society so that pure expenditure can no longer occur, because the rich no longer have a place in it. Revolution, for Bataille, is acceptable only when it remains a pure—and politically ineffective— eruption of destructive energies, so that thereafter the old order of wealth can be reestablished. According to Bataille, breaking a taboo or an order is misguided if the goal is to undermine or even change the ruling order, because in that case, the rupture is used only for finite purposes. Basically, Bataille thinks in traditional Platonic fashion: the spirit is law, and matter is deviance from that law—that is, a crime. The rule of the spirit is replaced by the revolution of matter, and the revolution of matter is replaced by the reestablishment of the rule of the spirit grounded on its new glory gained through revolution: “[M]atter, in fact, can only be defined as the nonlogical difference that represents in relation to the economy of the universe what crime represents in relation to the law.”5 The notion of a nonlogical difference, which Bataille understood as the “pollution” and “alteration” of ideas, will later have a great philosophical future in the discourse of deconstruction, as we know. Here, the genealogy of this notion becomes apparent. At issue is mana understood as being both “real” and “material” on the one hand and infinite on the other. Its effects can neither be neutralized dialectically within a new order nor tamed through a countergift. Mana here makes an offer that, much like the famous offers of the Sicilian mafia in the fi lm The Godfather, cannot be refused. In order to reciprocate the original gift of solar energy, humans must enter into a potlatch with the sun from which they can emerge only as losers. For Bataille, the obligation that Mauss discusses—the giving, acceptance, and reciprocation of gifts—is implemented by the unconsciously operating force of the sun, with which no one can negotiate. If a person does not respond to the potlatch of the sun with a countergift (that is, if a person does not respond with self-sacrifice), then that person will be wasted and eliminated against his will due to the surplus of solar energy. Bataille writes, “As we know, death is not necessary. The simple forms of life are immortal: The birth of an organism reproduced through scissi-

Georges Bataille: The Potlatch with the Sun—1 1 9

parity is lost in the mists of time.” 6 The more complicated the living organism, the more vulnerable it is, and the more it is delivered unto death. The development of life-forms continuously increases the likelihood of death. The surplus of energy creates more and more pressure to shape living organisms in such a way as to make it easier to waste and eliminate them. The development of species is the growth of death. This is so not only because species become organized in ever more complicated ways and thus become ever more vulnerable but also because they fight each other: “The eating of one species by another is the simplest form of luxury.”7 The progress of civilization is merely the continuation of the development of species, that is, the growth of death through the luxury of pure expenditure. Civilized life is even more vulnerable than life that is merely organic. Hence, the actual telos of civilization is war, because war alone leads to an effective waste of the surplus of cosmic energies: “After a century of populating and of industrial peace, the temporary limit of development being encountered, the two world wars organized the greatest orgies of wealth—and of human beings—that history has recorded. Yet these orgies coincide with an appreciable rise in the general standard of living: The majority of the population benefits from more and more unproductive services; work is reduced and wages are increased overall…. [M]an is the most suited of all living beings to consume intensely, sumptuously, the excess energy offered up by the pressure of life to conflagrations benefitting the solar origins of its movement.”8 War is the return of humans to the sun in the act of aimless self-cremation. Bataille regrets the “scandalous” way that war is outlawed—a proscription that characterizes today’s civilization. And needless to say, Bataille knows no difference between just and unjust wars. Rather, he believes that any kind of ideological confusion can be justified only through the war it causes. Much like revolutions, however, war is good only if it cannot be utilized for the purpose of peace. Hence Bataille’s admiration for Aztec society, which he describes as an extremely paradoxical society. The Aztec constantly waged war even though they did not strive for territorial or other gains. Aztec war society practiced pure

1 20—The Economy of Suspicion

self-expenditure that had no other goal than returning solar energy to its origin.9 Bataille thus anchors Mauss’s symbolic exchange in an energetic, quasi-physical model not unlike the energetic models by which Nietzsche or Freud hoped to explain the dynamic of psychic forces. Now, indeed, the sun gives us a gift. But it does not know it, and hence it can neither accept nor acknowledge our countergift. The struggle for recognition that according to Mauss is the motor of symbolic exchange is thus lost to all humans from the very beginning. During the potlatch with the sun, we are ultimately destined to lose face in any case. For Bataille, the scientific, disenchanted, mechanical view of symbolic exchange triumphs. In this way, however, we seem to attain insight into the medial. The puzzle is solved. Magic disappears. Humans find themselves in a position they cannot influence but can only understand and accept. Bataille’s tone is intense, dramatic, and ecstatic. Yet this tone obscures the fact that in spite of all rhetorical flourish he remains a particularly traditional, moderate, nondramatic thinker. His goal remains to understand things and thus to calm himself in the face of death. The general economy is designed with the goal in mind to prepare the individual for his death, and this very much conforms to the traditional ideal of SocraticPlatonic philosophy. The path for this preparation is also explicitly Platonic—it is the path of generalization. It is not coincidental that Bataille’s theory is called a general economy (Économie générale). Bataille fully admits that the task of his philosophizing consists of replacing a particular position with a general position, as should be the case for any good philosopher. From this substitution, Bataille expects the same salvation and the same inner peace with oneself that all philosophers at all times have always expected: “As a rule, particular existence always risks succumbing for lack of resources. It contrasts with general existence whose resources are in excess and for which death has no meaning.”10 Thus, if humans suffer, wither, and die, they should be happy about the fact that general energy sources as a whole are still doing fairly well. Such an immeasurable benevolence should certainly be welcomed; it indicates that Bataille is actually a rather nice person. With regard to the central statements of his philosophy, however, Bataille is certainly far

Georges Bataille: The Potlatch with the Sun—1 21

removed from the dramatic, agonistic struggle of magicians for recognition and supremacy of which Mauss spoke in his writing—and of which Bataille’s philosophical teachers, such as Lev Shestov or Alexander Kojève, also spoke in a different tone.11 The general economy, much like Mauss’s model of economic exchange, is also extremely moderate with regard to its explicitly formulated sociopolitical implications. Even though Bataille tried to justify the radical revolution of the poor classes, he nonetheless clearly preferred the generosity of the rich classes because he ultimately preferred social peace. A large part of La part maudite, which was written shortly after the end of the Second World War, consists of the author’s thanking the American government for the Marshall Plan.12 Bataille was fascinated by the Marshall Plan as an act of generous expenditure, because he thought that from an American perspective it must have appeared completely senseless to try to build up Europe after the war. It is hard to resist the impression that Bataille considered his own book to be a kind of countergift—a countergift of European thought given to the generous United States. Bataille himself describes his book as a literary act of pure expenditure.13 He lets the reader know that he even experienced a certain embarrassment during the process of writing and that he was always befuddled when asked what exactly his book was about. Basically, all he could say, Bataille reports, was that he was writing a book that would fundamentally change all of human thought. Yet one is not allowed to say such a thing, Bataille continues, lest one fall prey to ridicule, and Bataille was indeed unable to name a specific theme, a specific “signified” of his writing. Hence, the book itself seems to be a kind of expenditure of text—a pure act of literary generosity. To be sure, Bataille also speaks as somebody who, instead of formulating a specific, subjective, auctorial, and fi nite message, delivers to humans the infinite message of the medium of the sun. At first glance, this message is very disquieting, because it concerns an instable and explosive medium that cannot secure the continuity of culture to the same degree that the media, God, spirit, or nature are able to do (provided we think of nature as lawful and calculable). Rather, the surplus of solar energy pro-

1 22—The Economy of Suspicion

duces the continuous loss of cultural values, of texts, of traditions, and of auctorial messages. But although the content of the message is disquieting, the very possibility of pronouncing the message of the medium has a soothing effect, at least on the messenger himself. If one takes the “general position” of the medium and abandons the limited, individual perspective, one gains an infi nite perspective and can calmly ignore all particular cultural losses. The rupture caused by the transition from “idealist” media, such as God, or spirit, to the “materialist” media, such as the sun, the unconscious, life, the computer, or the Internet thus reveals itself as shallower than one often thinks. Even after “God’s death” the possibility remains of getting a view of the interior and the carrier and thus becoming the messenger of the medium. Even if the various messages of the medium sound frightening time and again, the role of the messenger remains neutral and relatively secure throughout. Even the one who becomes the messenger of nothingness can rest assured that after all beings have vanished, nothingness will remain for all eternity. Hence, his nihilist message will also remain valid forever. And if, in the name of difference, one delivers the message that all individual messages can never say what they want to say, this deconstructive message of difference likewise remains valid forever. The only genuine danger to which the message of the medium is constantly exposed is the permanently acute possibility of being (misunderstood as a mere individual, fi nite, auctorial message. It gets particularly dangerous when the message of the medium is interpreted as an intelligent, well-formulated, particularly interesting message and thus identified as merely the personal message of the author. In this case, the message receives recognition too fast and too defi nitively, which nullifies its infinite meaning. Such an all-too-quick and all-too-eager recognition would have to be understood as a countergift of the message’s recipient that frees him too soon from the infinite obligation of reciprocating the gift of the medial message. This is why such an all-too-generous recognition by the reader is Bataille’s only worry—he certainly does not worry about wars, catastrophes, or revolutions. Only this recognition can render suspicious his status as messenger of the sun. Only the one whose message fails to be

Georges Bataille: The Potlatch with the Sun—1 23

understood indefi nitely may consider himself the messenger of the infinite. Whoever aims to be misunderstood for as long a time as possible looks for appropriate models, primarily in the realm of modern art, particularly in the area of modern poetry. Modern poetry is the last warrior wasting itself and others in order to stage this demise as a celebration. It is certainly not very difficult to criticize, ridicule, and refute this romantic poetic ideal. One can easily show that modern poetry depends on the market just as much as all other human endeavors in modernity—a dependency actually reflected in poetry itself. Meanwhile, there have been countless demythologizations and de-romanticizations of this kind, some of which have fared well, others not so well.14 Yet all of them suffer from a particular flaw that disqualifies them from the very beginning: they leave the romantic poetic ideal as such intact and unquestioned. The key statement of such demythologizing discourses basically contends that the romantic poetic ideal is merely an ideal that cannot be realized “in real life.” But this statement is utterly uninteresting, because it is tautological: the fact that an ideal, being an ideal, does not occur in life is well known. As an ideal, however, the romantic image of the poet remains unscathed by the fact that it cannot be realized—quite the contrary, it is precisely this unrealizability that establishes this ideal as an ideal in the first place. Bataille’s actual achievement, which is also the point that comes closest to the thought of Mauss, is that he economizes the romantic poetic ideal precisely as an ideal, meaning that he demonstrates how the proclamation of this ideal is itself already an economic operation. Of course, he must first reform and expand the notion of the economic in order to be able to situate the romantic understanding of poetry within this new and expanded economy. Only by expanding economy toward a general economy— which allows us to interpret the pure expenditure of values as a legitimate economic operation among many others—can the romantic poetic ideal gain its economic legitimization. Yet Bataille immediately recognizes that, in doing so, general economy itself becomes the ideal of economy—in the form of the ideal potlatch: “[T]he ideal would be that a potlatch could not be repaid.”15 However, even in the expanded,

1 24—The Economy of Suspicion

symbolic economy, such an ideal potlatch cannot be achieved, because according to the laws of Mauss’s symbolic exchange, every sacrifice quasiautomatically yields a reward in the form of rank, honor, and glory. The gift giver is well aware of this reward and expects it from the very beginning. In this sense, the potlatch is never a pure sacrifice, a pure loss, but an economic operation understood as a calculation.16 The poetic ideal, even though it is rendered economic through the potlatch, nonetheless remains an ideal, because it is always missed due to the honor necessarily bound up with the successful potlatch: “Generally, in sacrifice or in potlatch, in action (in history) or in contemplation (in thought), what we seek is always this semblance—which by definition we cannot grasp—that we vainly call the poetry, the depth or the intimacy of passion. We are necessarily deceived since we want to grasp this shadow.”17 This shadow or specter of poetry cannot be grasped because the recognition through others always precedes it, blocks it, and drives it off. For Bataille, the sun alone makes an infinite gift that cannot be reciprocated. The attempt to reciprocate this infi nite gift nonetheless is what turns the person into a poet or a philosopher. For the famous philosophical indifference, too, is an adequate economic operation during the potlatch with the sun, according to Bataille. “The true luxury and the real potlatch of our times falls to the poverty-stricken, that is, to the individual who lies down and scoffs. A general luxury requires the complete contempt for riches, the somber indifference of the individual who refuses work and makes his life on the one hand an infinitely ruined splendor, and on the other, a silent insult to the laborious life of the rich.”18 Bataille, then, seems to be consistent when he argues against any kind of collection, accumulation, or archive. Whatever has been collected must be wasted or sacrificed. If this act of pure expenditure does not take place, then, according to the logic of symbolic exchange, the collected and accumulated material becomes a lethal danger, a negative mana. Yet pure expenditure and sacrifice, too, must be registered and archived as such in order to be implemented ostentatiously, as Bataille himself demands. As part of a competition, the potlatch requires a particularly high degree of care from archives that record sacrifices and pure expenditures. Every

Georges Bataille: The Potlatch with the Sun—1 25

competition requires a cultural memory; records must be specified so they can be broken later. Without a table of record, there can be no sport, no competition, no rank, no hierarchy—nothing of all that Bataille, too, demands for his competition with the sun. So, for Bataille, it is undeniable that the potlatch calls for publicity, exposition, and registration. At one point in his book about the general economy, he raises the question of whether a person gives a potlatch if he destroys his wealth in the seclusion of his own apartment.19 His answer is no, because the potlatch as such occurs only if it takes place before the eyes of others. Each and every destruction of goods must be a spectacle for others. The sacrifice must be offered to the gaze of the other so that the reality of its destruction can be witnessed and registered. Indeed, Bataille makes extensive use of historical archives to demonstrate how far individual authors and entire cultures went in giving potlatches with the sun. In these archives, he fi nds his heroes—the Aztec or the Marquis de Sade— who are credited with world records that remain unbroken to this day. Bataille also discusses numerous other examples and gives different cultures good or bad grades for their achievements in disciplines such as loss, sacrifice, and self-destruction. It was not by chance that Bataille was a librarian by profession. For this reason alone he had to know that infinite expenditure becomes a potlatch only when the archives of expenditure are kept even more carefully than the archives of profits. During the potlatch in particular, it is impossible to disregard the accumulation of loss. Hence, it is also impossible to ignore archives that, naturally, can be included into another, profane economy at any time. Yet Bataille vehemently rejects this obvious possibility—precisely for moral reasons that all of a sudden regain their validity at this point. The vehemence with which Bataille morally condemns Jean Genet for his public admission to have written his taboo-breaking, “evil” texts partly with the intention of earning some money in order to escape from a financial crisis is particularly characteristic in this regard.20 Bataille is even willing to strike Genet’s name from the archives of record losses— the entire poetic of crime breaks down for Bataille if it is bound up with the desire to make money out of it. For Bataille, talent is merely secondary

1 26—The Economy of Suspicion

if it is calculating rather than “explosive.”21 Such a calculation, according to Bataille, is a sign that the author did not receive an infinite gift from the sun or some other original gift that would allow him to explode internally and thereby waste it, but instead carefully calculates his acts of breaking taboos. Naturally, this distinction between explosion and calculation cannot be justified economically, because it does not refer to the ostentatious, economic actions of people but to their inner intentions, opinions, and feelings, defined in noneconomic and purely moral terms. Thus, Bataille is willing immediately to sacrifice the logic of his economic approach and to replace it with vague, moral accusations in order to prevent a retransformation of the general economy into the market economy. In fact, it is impossible to refute the suspicion that in the case of Bataille’s general economy, we are ultimately dealing with an ideology of the bourgeois upstart. The aristocrat, from the very beginning, possesses the gift of high birth, a valuable genealogy, a higher inner nature that he can waste later on during his lifetime. The upstart, by contrast, wastes solely with the goal in mind to make others believe that he, too, received a gift from the sun at his birth—that he, too, is an aristocrat “on the inside.” The aristocrat receives his rank prior to any economy he will join later on, even before his birth—it is already present at the moment of his conception. The upstart receives his rank only because of expenditures and sacrifices, as Bataille himself ardently describes. In this sense, the romantic poet is a paradigmatic case of the bourgeois upstart who transgresses boundaries and breaks taboos in order to make the audience believe that he was born inside these boundaries and taboos—a substitute aristocrat who merely imitates pure expenditure because, in reality, he has nothing to waste. At issue is a peculiar sleight of hand: one makes a countergift in order to imply that one received a gift. One transgresses boundaries and becomes an outsider [English in the original], an other, an outcast [English in the original] in order thus to be acknowledged as an insider. From a historical perspective, too, the exaggerated generosity is primarily characteristic of nouveaux-riches who try especially hard to appear aristocratic. Yet nothing is more bourgeois than precisely this generos-

Georges Bataille: The Potlatch with the Sun—1 27

ity—for what is the bourgeois as such? It is the product of his own achievements. When Bataille considers suicide, death, war, luxury, and pure expenditure as the proper achievements of the self-sacrificing individual, then we are not dealing with overcoming the bourgeois but with the final victory of bourgeois ideology, which considers even its own selfnegations as its proper achievement. Because the potlatch, like any other competition, is essentially a spectacle, the possibility of a calculated imitation and simulation of pure, authentic expenditure remains. It is impossible to distinguish an imitation of a potlatch from a true, authentic potlatch. It is impossible to protect an authentic, pure expenditure from its imitation. A moral demand addressed to the gift giver to waste honestly is of little help, because the gift giver is just as incapable of making such a distinction as the external observer. Hence nobody knows about himself whether he is gifted, whether he has riches he can waste or not. That is why nobody knows about himself whether he really engages in pure expenditure or just imitates this expenditure. The same is true of the poète maudit, who seeks to transcend the market, including the art market, through renunciation, loss, and refusal by means of the gesture of radical potlatch. This gesture, too, remains public and can be suspected of being a simulation—and, moreover, also involves honor, recognition, and (self-)admiration. It is not coincidental that modern artists, who staged a potlatch beyond comparison in the last century, have repeatedly been accused of having no talent and of being nothing but parvenus who are “unable to do anything” (for example, “unable to paint”), meaning that they only staged and imitated the public expenditure of their painterly talent. Yet it is self-evident that an artist who declares about himself that he never possessed a gift, never sacrificed anything, and is only a calculating parvenu may well give rise to an even more radical, subtler potlatch. In this case, the artist additionally sacrifices all honors that pertain to a poète or artiste maudit and thus sets the next record in the competition for renunciation and loss. Hence we may also understand Genet’s statement that he engaged in transgressions solely for commercial considerations, as the next step in the strategy of the potlatch. Moreover, it has now become customary for artists to charge themselves

1 28 —The Economy of Suspicion

with having only commercial interests as a way to reject the traditional role of the misunderstood genius. Here, the radicalized potlatch functions by treating the potlatch ironically. Yet given a concrete, specific case, the observer can never tell with certainty whether he is dealing with an ironic radicalization of the potlatch or with a “normal,” commercial, “marketoriented,” artistic strategy. The ostentatious, theatrical character of the potlatch renders the distinction between a true potlatch and an imitation of the potlatch principally impossible. For Bataille, the medium of solar energy reveals itself through an exceptional case of medial sincerity, through the experience of pure loss that cannot be compensated by anything because it is caused from the very beginning not by dearth, but by surplus. In Bataille’s view, this experience corroborates the general suspicion characteristic of any cultural criticism, namely that cultural values and goods cannot have a guaranteed permanence and must, therefore, all fall prey to fi nal loss. But in the next step, loss itself becomes the object of suspicion—precisely the suspicion of imitation, simulation, theatricalization. The symbolic economy of sacrifice always remains under the threat of becoming incorporated into the market economy. Wherever a bookkeeping of loss takes place, the danger of a hidden, submedial manipulation is indeed palpable. Thus the question emerges if one can find a still deeper, still more hidden, still more original medial level that announces itself through the possibility of simulating a loss. The medial analysis of such a simulation promises to lead to a new moment of medial sincerity that demonstrates how the inability to distinguish between the authentic and the simulated is generated.



Jacques Derrida: The Lack of Time and Its Specters

n h i s b o o k g i v e n t i m e: i . c o u n t e r f e i t m o n e y , Jacques Derrida performs an analysis of the inability to distinguish the authentic from the simulated within the context of the symbolic economy. In that book, he also names the medium that manifests itself through this undecidability. For Derrida, it is the medium of the event— understood not as an action that happens “in time,” but rather as the source from which time flows to us in the first place. Yet according to Derrida, the medium of the event never provides enough time for the observer to be able to distinguish the authentic from the simulated. The surplus of energy is thus replaced by the scarcity of time, because the time span of the event is finite and therefore cannot provide the infinite time necessary to distinguish authenticity from simulation.

1 3 0—The Economy of Suspicion

Like Bataille, Derrida also looks for an ideal, absolute, authentic potlatch that cannot be reciprocated. And in this search, Derrida is willing to go further than either Mauss or Bataille ever dared to go. Derrida looks for a gift that eludes the ostentation, theatricality, and visibility of the symbolic exchange. He looks for a gift that cannot be consciously given and received. Only such an invisible, unidentifiable gift that cannot be simulated would open the way for a potlatch that cannot be reciprocated. It would open the way for the poetic per se. Such a gift must also be able to elude every possible economy, because the notion of economy presupposes the figure of circulation, of the circle. It presupposes “circular exchange, circulation of goods, products, monetary signs or merchandise, amortization of expenditures, revenues, substitution of use values and exchange values.”1 The term economy, therefore, does not really account for the sense of the gift, according to Derrida: “If there is gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giver… . It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged…. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics, the gift must remain aneconomic.”2 The recognition of the gift by the giver and the receiver of the gift annuls the gift as gift. Yet even the mere anticipation of this recognition by the gift giver, the mere intention of offering a gift, to give, annuls the gift just as much. Even if I myself am the only observer of my gift, this gift is nonetheless already invalid, because it is always already being compensated by a kind of moral complacency: “At the limit, the gift as gift ought not appear as gift: either to the donee or to the donor.”3 Not even a repressed memory of the gift should remain in the unconscious of either of them—otherwise, one would merely “substitute for the economy of perception-consciousness an economy of the unconscious.” 4 It is hardly surprising, then, that Derrida strictly rejects Mauss’s model of symbolic exchange along with the economization of the gift implied by this model: “One could go so far as to say that a work as monumental as Marcel Mauss’s The Gift speaks of everything but the gift: It deals with economy, exchange, contract (do ut des), it speaks of raising the stakes, sacrifice, gift and countergift—in short, everything that in the thing itself

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impels the gift and the annulment of the gift.”5 Yet even Bataille’s radicalization of Mauss’s model is not spared by Derrida’s critique: “All the gift supplements ( potlatch, transgressions and excesses, surplus values, the necessity to give or give back more, returns with interest—in short, the whole sacrificial bidding war) are destined to bring about once again the circle in which they are annulled.” 6 This diagnosis is certainly not new; it merely repeats what Mauss and Bataille have previously said about their own theories. Still, this diagnosis elicits the question of whether one may be able to conceive of the gift otherwise than in terms of an economic operation understood as an expanded, symbolic economy. Derrida hints at the possibility of a positive answer to this question at the very beginning of his book by emphasizing time as a possible gift. For “time, in any case, gives nothing to see. It is at the very least the element of invisibility itself. It withdraws whatever could give itself to be seen.”7 Thus, the path is cleared for yet another repetition of the famous phrases “There is time” [Es gibt Zeit] and “There is Being” [Es gibt Sein], with which Heidegger played to great effect during the later phase of his philosophical development. In his book, Derrida recapitulates the most important moves in this play—namely that time itself is not temporal and that Being itself is not a being—and arrives at the predictable conclusion that time is the best and, in fact, the only gift that can be given: “What there is to give, uniquely, would be called time.”8 The gift is often also called “present”: time is presented to us as a present, as presence. Here we are dealing with an original gift, the event of the giving of time that cannot be registered or identified: for Heidegger, the forgetting of Being and time is the main condition of human existence, of being there [Dasein]. The time of presence is given to us as a gift par excellence, because the prerequisite of this gift is the absence of memory of the act of giving. A memory of the act of giving time is impossible, because in general, an act of giving can be remembered only if it was at one time present and cognizant to the recipient. For Derrida, however, presence itself becomes the object of giving, and hence the gift of time eludes all possible memory. An asymmetry emerges between forgetting and remembering. Forgetting can do something that remembrance cannot: it can make

1 3 2—The Economy of Suspicion

something forgotten that can never be recalled—precisely, the giving of time. And this asymmetry enables us to elude the circle of the economy. The original giving is equated with the original forgetting. Thus, Mauss’s model of symbolic exchange is dismantled with the help of Heidegger’s analysis of time—through the present that does not inscribe itself into the circle of gifts and countergifts because it precedes the memory that is indispensable for this circle to function. Therefore, the gift of time that, in principle, one cannot recall also cannot be reciprocated. At the same time, Derrida considers this gift the prerequisite for any possible economy, including the economy of the gift, because every economy happens in time. Thus, economy looses its cohesion—the circularity of the economy is inaugurated by a gift that itself does not partake of this circularity. In this sense, the analysis of time as a gift also functions as the deconstruction of every possible economy. A consistent way of thinking in economic terms becomes impossible if the economy is never granted enough time to form a closed circle. This is why Derrida’s analysis of time as gift also functions as a basic objection against any attempt to think of culture as some kind of economy. Such an attempt would indeed only be justified if it could be shown that the gift of time, too, can be received and reciprocated—or, put differently, that time, too, can be dealt with economically. The degree to which Derrida’s analysis of time as gift may appear accurate or inaccurate to his readers depends primarily on their relation to Heidegger—which varies, as we know. The truly amazing, unexpected, and thus genuinely interesting aspect of Derrida’s argument, however, is that—contrary to his initial pronouncements and after having agreed with Heidegger that only the “It” [Es] can present time as a gift9—he immediately proceeds to demonstrate that the gift of time, too, can be reciprocated. At the end of the book, Derrida develops a kind of temporal economy after all—without, however, admitting as much. And this temporal economy does actually not differ very much from Mauss’s model of symbolic exchange or from Bataille’s general economy, both of which Derrida so vehemently rejected at the beginning of his book. But how

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can human beings return the favor of the “It” that has given them the gift of time? In the second part of his discussion about the gift of time, Derrida provides a commentary about a short story by Baudelaire entitled “Counterfeit Money.” The text of the story runs as follows: As we were leaving the tobacconist’s, my friend carefully separated his change; in the left pocket of his waistcoat he slipped small gold coins; in the right, small silver coins; in his left trouser pocket, a handful of pennies and, finally, in the right he put a silver two-franc piece that he had scrutinized with particular care. “What a singularly minute distribution!” I said to myself. We encountered a poor man who held out his cap with a trembling hand. –I know nothing more disquieting than the mute eloquence of those supplicating eyes that contain at once, for the sensitive man who knows to read them, so much humility and so much reproach. He finds there something close to the depth of complicated feeling one sees in the tear-fi lled eyes of a dog being beaten. My friend’s offering was considerably larger than mine, and I said to him: “You are right; next to the pleasure of feeling surprise, there is none greater than to cause a surprise.” “It was the counterfeit coin,” he calmly replied as though to justify himself for his prodigality. But into my miserable brain, always concerned with looking for noon at two o’clock (what an exhausting faculty is nature’s gift to me!), there suddenly came the idea that such conduct on my friend’s part was excusable only by the desire to create an event in this poor devil’s life, perhaps even to learn the varied consequences, disastrous or otherwise, that a counterfeit coin in the hands of a beggar might engender. Might it not multiply into real coins? Could it not also lead him to prison? A tavern keeper, a baker, for example, was perhaps going to have him arrested as a counterfeiter or for passing counterfeit money. The counterfeit coin could just as well, perhaps,

1 3 4—The Economy of Suspicion

be the germ of several days’ wealth for a poor little speculator. And so my fancy went its course, lending wings to my friend’s mind and drawing all possible deductions from all possible hypotheses. But the latter suddenly shattered my reverie by repeating my own words: “Yes, you are right; there is no sweeter pleasure than to surprise a man by giving him more than he hopes for.” I looked him squarely in the eyes and I was appalled to see that his eyes shone with unquestionable candor. I then saw clearly that his aim had been to do a good deed while at the same time making a good deal; to earn forty cents and the heart of God; to win paradise economically; in short, to pick up gratis the certificate of a charitable man. I could have almost forgiven him the desire for the criminal enjoyment of which a moment before I assumed him capable; I would have found something bizarre, singular in his amusing himself by compromising the poor; but I will never forgive him the ineptitude of his calculation. To be mean is never excusable, but there is some merit in knowing that one is; the most irreparable of vices is to do evil out of stupidity.10 The commenting strategy Derrida uses in his book—a strategy that can only be represented here in a very abridged manner—essentially consists in making plausible the hypothesis that the friend lied when he said that he had given a counterfeit coin to the beggar. In Derrida’s view, this assumption can, above all, be substantiated historically: At the time, it was customary particularly in Baudelaire’s circle to hate the poor, especially beggars, because they exerted an unbearable violence on the observer solely on account of their physical appearance. This violence is paradigmatically displayed in the description of the beggar Baudelaire provides in his story: the sight of the beggar was unbearable, torturing; he looked like a beaten dog, and so on. To the observer, the display of poverty appears like a demand difficult to ignore: one has to overcome one’s impulses in refusing to give money to the beggar. Derrida quotes Mallarmé in this context, who confesses that he wants to beat up the poor and eradicate the beggars.11 In this sense, a gift to the beggar is not a real gift

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at all. One merely gives in to a psychic and social pressure and thus demonstrates not generosity but inner weakness. Insofar as begging is at least tolerated by society and the state and may even function as a sponsored institution, one submits to this institution as to any other if one gives money to a beggar simply because one does not have enough will power to resist the pressure exerted by this institution. Thus, hatred for the poor and particularly hatred for beggars is a kind of hatred for social institutions in general. This is why hatred for the poor and resistance to the violence exerted by beggars perfectly matches the general anti-institutional consensus of the alternative Parisian artistic community of the time. Derrida considers it likely that the friend of the narrator simply did not want to admit that he gave the beggar too much money and thus succumbed too easily to institutional pressure, because such a conformism might be judged negatively in his own milieu. Perhaps, Derrida suggests, we are dealing in this case not with a counterfeit coin, but with a counterfeit answer: after the narrator had expressed his surprise about the excessive generosity of his friend, the latter warded off a potential reproach that might have resulted from his action by giving a false account of it. Naturally, such a suspicion could be rejected as completely inappropriate, as Derrida himself readily admits, because it violates all literary conventions to pose questions about the truth content of literary texts. In Derrida’s view, however, Baudelaire styles his story as being about a real event. He thereby invites the reader to imagine another account of the story: maybe it was indeed a counterfeit answer and not a counterfeit coin. Maybe Baudelaire had been cheated and not the beggar. The suspicion that Derrida formulates in his commentary thus refers to the sincerity of the friend, who accuses himself of having given the beggar a counterfeit coin: the friend might in fact be “better” that he makes himself out to be. The usual suspicion is thereby radicalized: it is not just the surface of the authentic that may hide the false, the simulation, the imitation behind it. The false and simulated, too, may hide the authentic. Obviously, this constitutes another twist in the medial economy of suspicion. At the moment at which the medium becomes the message, there emerges, first of all, an effect of sincerity; later on, however,

1 3 6—The Economy of Suspicion

there emerges again a heightened suspicion about manipulation. Hence, at first, the friend of the narrator is automatically considered to be truthful when he admits to being bad and false inside. But then the second suspicion arises, namely that the bad and the false might, in turn, hide the good behind it, so that the gesture of the friend appears twice as generous, because he thereby not only renounces the money, but also the recognition for his present. The story, in fact, is concerned throughout with the message of the medium: it concerns the authenticity of the coin and the inner nature of the metal that supports on its surface a particular sign of money as well as the sincerity of the friend. All of these medial messages form a complicated economy. At first, the friend’s revelation that the sign on the coin has no “true” value because there is no “authentic” interior hidden behind this sign sounds sincere, because this revelation confirms the general media-ontological suspicion. But then this suspicion is radicalized because the reader of the story suspects yet another manipulation behind the friend’s revelation and, therefore, comes to the conclusion that the coin might actually be authentic. Yet the reader can arrive at the conclusion that the friend possibly might have lied only because he, at the same time, does not know whether he is dealing with a “true” literary text or with a false one, that is, whether he is dealing with “pure literary fiction” or a story “from real life.” It is not coincidental, Derrida argues, that in his story Baudelaire talks about the gift of imagination that his friend allegedly lacks, whereas the narrator, evidently, does have this gift. At issue here is actually a genuine literary talent for fiction, for storytelling. But the gift of fiction, too, might potentially turn out to be false. Like any other gift, literary talent can be simulated and falsified—precisely due to literary conventions and due to literature as an institution. In our culture, the literary work is defined as a text that stands in a literary context. Hence, this text does not necessarily have to be a “true” present of the author to the reader—a present that, in turn, presupposes a gift of imagination received by the author. A completely normal, quotidian, nonimaginary story “from real life” that does not have its origin in the gift of imagination can also function as a literary text—provided it is read according to the conventions of the institution of

Jacques Derrida: The Lack of Time and Its Specters—1 3 7

literature. This tension between reality and convention that, for Derrida, emerges during the reception of any text, creates for the reader a confusing situation of undecidable uncertainty in which all other elements of the story are also involved: the coin, the statement of the friend, the friend himself. That is why the reader cannot reassure himself whether on all these levels the act of gift giving—of writing, of charity, of conversational sincerity—has actually taken place or not. At issue here is a gift that cannot be identified and thus cannot be reciprocated—a gift beyond all presence, all evidence, and any chance for a countergift. And this means that not only the Heideggerian “It” but also the institution of literature can make us an infi nite present we cannot reciprocate, for it can give us the infinite time of undecidability. In Derrida’s view, the institution of literature and its conventions prevent the revelation of the medium. The impossibility to distinguish between a literary text and a story “from real life” undermines all other differences between the authentic and the simulated, the sign and the medium, and so on. Derrida merely uses Baudelaire’s story as one example of this indistinguishability [Unentscheidbarkiet]—much as McLuhan, mentioned earlier, used cubist paintings merely as examples of the messages of the medium. Yet Baudelaire’s story is obviously not just one example among many others but rather a literary readymade, because this text, as Derrida writes, looks very “natural” and does not exhibit any special signs of literacy, which we certainly cannot claim to be true of all literary texts. Hence, Derrida also writes that much like other analogous texts, “Counterfeit Money” should remain “eternally unreadable, absolutely indecipherable”12 for the reader, so that such a text “could be the object of an infinite speculation.”13 These formulations at least hint at the fact that only very specific texts not only take from the reader some real time of his life during the process of reading but can also give to him an infinite, eternal time of suspicion, of doubt, of uncertainty, a time he does not possess in “real life.” These texts are precisely those that “analogously” to Baudelaire’s text explicitly thematize the impossibility to distinguish between literature and reality. One can (and should) go further, though: it is Baudelaire himself who produces the very indistinguishability between art and reality by means

1 3 8 —The Economy of Suspicion

of his story, an indistinguishability that Derrida then ascribes to the entire institution of art. It is often said that the readymade, being transported from the profane realm of reality into the realm of art, exposes the conventions of the institution of art. Yet the assumption that certain conventions of the institution of art have always already existed prior to the emergence of readymades and are only “revealed” by them is more than problematic. At first, the readymade certainly constituted an infringement against the common artistic conventions that had been valid previously. It was only after the emergence of Duchamps’s first readymades that it became common to use texts or objects from the realm of non-art within the context of art without an explicit and recognizable alteration of their form. Hence, the indistinguishability of art and life does not result from some fateful original condition of the institution of art or the institution of literature. Rather, this indistinguishability is produced consciously and deliberately by certain authors precisely in the hope of bringing about the revelation of the medial. Thus, all the confusion about signification of which Derrida speaks is actually caused by a consciously executed medial operation, namely the transference of a specific text from the realm of the “quotidian” and “natural” to the realm of the “literary” and “conventional.” Such a transference, however, is precisely not an operation in the field of signification, but a displacement on the medial surface pure and simple, a displacement that activates media-ontological suspicion—the infinite suspicion of a submedial manipulation. It is not literature as an institution that produces such a moment of medial sincerity; rather, specific literary or artistic works prove particularly suited to thematizing media-ontological suspicion, and this suspicion determines the relation of the observer to any possible medial surface in each and every case. The gift of indistinguishability is neither provided by the “It” nor by “literature” as such but by Baudelaire as the author of a text able to function as a readymade. This process, however, integrates the time of infi nite doubt—which corresponds to the undecidability of the readymade—into the general medial economy, because the author of the readymade, who is the protagonist of this economy, thereby proves able to give the gift of infi nite time.

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Using readymades to produce both literary texts and visual works of art offers the best way to reveal the truth of the medial. By transporting an object of everyday life into the realm of art without changing the exterior appearance of this object, as Duchamp did for the first time, the artist demonstrates how medial processes—that is, displacements and transferences of signs across the borders that delineate the topography of the medial surface—create disturbances on the levels of signification and categorical attributions. Thus, producing readymades constitutes a particularly important case of medial sincerity and medial truth, because it thematizes the medial surface in a most explicit manner. It is certainly possible (yet at the same time, completely superfluous) to ask about the “meaning” of a readymade—whether it is reality or art, nature or convention, the everyday or the institution. The readymade demonstrates right from the beginning that the question of “meaning” is irrelevant. What matters instead is the question of placement, localization, displacement, and contextualization—that is, the operations beyond all signification that deal with signs as if they were “meaningless” things. Such operations, of course, produce all kinds of confusions with regard to signification. Yet that does not render these operations any less identifiable—instead, they literally show themselves for what they are on the medial surface. The reason that Derrida can use Baudelaire’s story as a particularly fitting example of the infinite confusion of signification lies solely in the fact that Derrida treats this story—whether rightly or wrongly is a completely different question—as a literary readymade. In doing so, he assigns to this story the ability to manifest in a clear and infallible manner the indistinguishability between nature and convention. The analysis Derrida performs here evidently cannot simply be transferred on to all other literary works—the fact that Baudelaire’s story does not display any explicit traits of “literacy” plays a crucial role in this entire analysis. Indistinguishability here turns out to be an auctorial product; it is not just there “originally.” Hence, the gift of indistinguishability does not elude the general economy of the gift—indistinguishability, too, can be given and accepted. And the procedure of the readymade is nothing but such a present of indistinguishability.

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Baudelaire’s story explicitly points to the respective medial operation by telling us that the friend of the narrator distributed his coins in different pockets according to the nature of their sign carriers (such as gold or silver), giving the counterfeit coin its own special place. These spatial assignments and the subsequent spatial displacements are responsible for causing all the confusion of signification. To focus one’s questions solely on this confusion, however, is to overlook that it comes about only due to a particular, finite, and thoroughly identifiable move in the medial play. Although the origin of signification may elude the observer whose gaze remains fi xed only on the signification process itself, this origin can nonetheless be rediscovered on a different, purely medial, nonsignifying and operational level. Derrida’s claim that the story he comments on renders visible the indistinguishability of nature and institution is inadequate. It is this very story that initiates, inaugurates, and creates the condition of indistinguishability in the first place. That is why Baudelaire’s story possesses mana, an aura of medial sincerity, which suggests to the reader that it might allow him insight into the medial. Baudelaire thus gives a present of indistinguishability that Derrida recognizes and accepts as such. Derrida also reciprocates this present—albeit only partially. In fact, the story does not yield an immediate effect of indistinguishability for today’s readers—who identify it instead as part of the literary tradition—for a simple reason: this story is not new enough to look as if it came directly from everyday life. Or, to put it differently, the story may have had mana previously, but today, it no longer has mana for the reader. Rather, the reader regards the story as a mere quotation from literary history and will hardly mistake it for real life. Hence, the effect of indistinguishability is recreated only by means of Derrida’s interpretation of the story, which reconstructs and re-presents [re-präsentiert] its historical context and thus merely simulates, if you wish, the effect of indistinguishability. It is thanks to Derrida’s re-presentation [Re-präsentation] of the original social context that the story begins to look “like new” again and thus apparently regains its indistinguishability. In this sense, no longer are we dealing with the “old” indistinguishability between nature and culture or between reality and convention but with a thoroughly new indistinguish-

Jacques Derrida: The Lack of Time and Its Specters—1 4 1

ability between the story and its textually (re)constructed social context, provided by Derrida’s commentary. Ultimately, at issue is the indistinguishability of two kinds of texts: a literary text and a commentating text. Obviously, this new indistinguishability is preceded by a new displacement of signs, a displacement that renders visible the topography of the medial surface at another point, namely at the borderline that usually separates “primary” literary texts from “secondary,” commentating texts. It is a widely known fact that deconstructive texts in particular can realize such a displacement. This is precisely how these texts attain their own mana— their own aura of medial truth—and how they create their own kind of confusion on the level of signification. Thus the person who administers the discourse of deconstruction also becomes the master of mana and the messenger of the medium, at least preliminarily. By means of his art of commentary, he is able to endow every literary text anywhere and at any time with the mana of indistinguishability. Yet this is nothing but pure simulation: indistinguishability can be simulated just as easily as authenticity. Derrida reciprocates the gift of indistinguishability that he received from Baudelaire by returning to Baudelaire’s story the indistinguishability it had lost in the meantime. This reciprocation, however, is only a partial one. At the same time Derrida denies that we are dealing with a present from Baudelaire at all, because he ascribes the indistinguishability of Baudelaire’s story to the general nature of the institution of literature as such. Yet Derrida’s own interpretative practice demonstrates that indistinguishability by no means eludes the symbolic economy—it, too, can be produced, identified, and exchanged like any other symbolic good. Naturally, one can also organize a competition in the discipline of indistinguishability. In twentieth-century art, this competition was inaugurated by Duchamp; later on, numerous artists successfully participated in it, all of whom tried to render their artistic work less and less distinguishable from “reality.” But in philosophy, too, this competition was organized long before Derrida—for example by Kierkegaard, whose name Derrida mentions precisely at that point in his book about counterfeit money where he tries to demonstrate that the gift eludes every economy. He states: “There would be a gift only at the instant when the paradoxical

1 42—The Economy of Suspicion

instant (in the sense in which Kierkegaard says of the paradoxical instant of decision that it is madness) tears time apart.”14 But Kierkegaard explicitly argued that the gift of indistinguishability is very much a historically identifiable gift—it is the gift of Christianity. According to Kierkegaard, the radical historical novelty of Christianity is the “naturalness” of the figure of Jesus Christ, meaning the new indistinguishability between God and human introduced by Christianity. Christ does not display any (re)cognizable characteristics of his divinity that would visibly distinguish him from normal human beings. Kierkegaard quotes the human in the realm of the divine—much as Duchamp will later quote things of everyday life in the realm of art. Christianity turns the human into a readymade avant la lettre [French in the original] by transporting the signs of the human across the border to the divine. Thus, Christianity gives a present of indistinguishability to humanity that can and should be accepted and reciprocated through faith.15 For Kierkegaard, the act of faith interrupts the infi nite time of doubt. However, this is not “real” time but the time given by Christianity as a gift to the faithful. In addition, Kierkegaard emphasizes time and again that the gift of Christianity can most certainly be identified historically and reciprocated. For Kierkegaard, this reciprocation takes place as the imaginary reconstruction of the moment when Christianity was completely new. He emphasizes repeatedly that this moment was “produced” by Christianity and can be identified historically—it was not an originally self-concealing moment. That is why Kierkegaard believes a complete reconstruction of this moment—that is, the restoration of the radical indistinguishability—to be attainable in principle. He regards the goal of his writing as precisely an attempt to restore the indistinguishability that Christianity introduced but then lost again over time. Thus, each historically identifiable date of indistinguishability does not conceal itself on its own but is instead suppressed or ignored. The gift of indistinguishability is always being given by somebody at some time— precisely not by a secretive and self-concealing “It,” but by specific protagonists of the symbolic economy, that is, by theologians, philosophers, or artists who transport the different signs across the borders of the usual

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medial topography. By means of such medial manipulations, an infi nite time is given, namely the infi nite time of doubt about what these signs could and should mean in their new location. The indistinguishability and infinity of this doubt, however, must not tempt us to repress the medial gesture that made possible the infinite time of doubt in the first place. Although the doubt that emerges with regard to the meaning of signs always remains stuck on the medial surface, it gains the infinity of its time from media-ontological suspicion, which is directed toward the hidden interior behind the medial surface. This suspicion forces us to inquire about the cause for the displacements of signs on the medial surface, particularly about whether these displacements are effects of a conscious and potentially dangerous submedial manipulation or whether they simply happen because signs have the allegedly natural tendency to flow. This deeper suspicion is not all that alien to the thought of deconstruction. In his book Archive Fever (Mal d’archive, 1995), Derrida, for example, talks about the “archons,” who are hidden inside the archive and secretly administer it as well.16 Yet right at the beginning of his book, Derrida notes that the archive is infected with an incurable “archival disease,” similar to what he had already diagnosed with regard to the economy— namely, that the archive can have only a limited time at its disposal. And the archive’s lack of time blocks the observer’s access to the inside of the archive and to the archive carrier. One cannot “remember” [wiedererinnern] the archive carrier, which is why it cannot become a sign either.17 The lack of time transforms the archive into an irreducible event, and it would be senseless to ask about its “extratemporal” foundation. There is [Es gibt] the time of the archive, but the “It” [Es] that gives time is ultimately the event of time itself.18 Yet all signs of the eventful archive must necessarily be eventful themselves. Thus they become specters and begin to haunt19—their appearance and disappearance is surprising. And above all, much like specters, signs are seemingly able to haunt any point on the medial surface, because the specter is nothing but the signifier after the death of the signified—and hence, according to the poststructuralist view, it is not bound anymore, either. Because Derrida thinks of the bond of the signifier only

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in the form of an ideal bond that connects the signifier to its meaning as opposed to a medial, material bond that connects it to a locus on the medial surface, he is free to describe the signs of the archive as haunting without restraint. Yet the archive is above all a specific locale—a memory bank that arrests signs on a purely material level even when they have been liberated from any meaning. The archive emerged from the very beginning as an effect of the transference of numerous signs onto a memory bank predestined for this transference. Hence, it is indeed impossible to ask about the general origin of the archive or to try to remember it. The history of the archive is the history of the transference of signs from other loci into the spaces of the archive. So the origin of the archive cannot be anything other than the sum of these transferences. How the signs “originally came into being” is entirely irrelevant to the inquiry about the archive—only transference into the archive counts, and this transference repeatedly recreates the effect of indistinguishability and of the origin’s inaccessibility. And in any working archive, such transferences not only took place in the past but continue to be performed continuously. Although Derrida enjoys talking time and again about the unexpected, the unforeseeable, and the incalculable, he almost never talks about the New. The unexpected occurs because signs haunt, because their appearance is unforeseeable. These haunting signs, however, cannot be new; they are old specters of the past. But even the surprise effect of haunting occurs only because it necessarily results from the—at least partial—disconnectedness of signs from their meanings. Thus, as far as the theory of haunting signs is concerned, we are actually dealing with the eternal recurrence of the surprising, the unforeseeable, and the unexpected. This corroborates Nietzsche’s insight that any thought trying to liberate itself radically from ontological suspicion is condemned to think the figure of the eternal recurrence of the same—albeit as the figure of the recurrence of the unexpected (whose surprising quality, however, always remains identical in the end). Basically, a sign could only ever be truly new if it could become the message of the medium. Yet this possibility is explicitly foreclosed by the discourse of deconstruction, so that the sign has no choice but to continue to haunt the medial surface, always in the same surprising manner.

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And yet the sign, understood as a haunting specter, is still nothing other than a new message of the medium. This sign, too, provides a specific answer to media-ontological suspicion, an answer we tend to believe because it confirms once again that submedial space remains closed to us. However, it is not even necessary to have access to the archive carrier by means of remembrance [Wiedererinnerung] in order to create the effect of peeking behind the medial surface. Kierkegaard in particular provided a radical critique of the Platonic figure of remembrance—a figure that still continues to haunt the thought of deconstruction as an “impossible remembrance”—in the name of the New. According to Kierkegaard, Christianity is new precisely because it is founded neither on the figure of remembrance nor on surprise. The figure of Christ cannot be remembered because Christ historically appeared in the world for the first time; yet this figure is also not surprising, because it looks common, like a normal human. Here, ontological suspicion is not refuted by a remembrance of the primordial but by the radically New. The sign of the human [des Menschlichen] is thereby transported into the realm of the divine. It is precisely because the usual characteristics of omnipotence and chosenness are missing that this situation creates the effect of transparency, of an insight into the interior of the message of the medium that produces trust. When we are looking for the message of the medium (that is, for the signs of medial sincerity), we are not looking for the remembrance of the past, but for the foreign, simple, poor, reductive, and lowly. We seek to transport these signs into the archive and hope to rediscover them in the future in order to make reference to the medial. We are certainly willing to accept Derrida’s description of the specter as a new, suggestive sign able to grant us insight into the medial and thus tell us about the fate of all other signs. The reason for this is obvious. The specter is something foreign to us—and, at the same time, something poor, reductive, and lowly, because we are used to regarding the loss of life as privation, reduction, and defeat. Thus, when we observe how Marx or Freud are transformed into specters by means of Derrida’s texts, we believe we have finally achieved an insight by recognizing what these figures really are—namely huge and fear-inspiring signifiers with highly

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problematic, unclear and actually half-dead signifieds. Make no mistake, however: ultimately, it is media-ontological suspicion itself that grants these signs the time to haunt, because all signifiers, from the very beginning, are suspected of denoting signifieds that are always already dead. It is true that suspicion renders the archive finite, because we cannot trust the “living” duration of the archive. Yet the same suspicion also enables the archive to haunt forever, because we simultaneously suspect the archive of not harboring any life behind its surface and of being nothing but a specter. Thus, the specter becomes a message of the medium that forever tells us that submedial space is only a finite event. We are not concerned here with whether or not Derrida is “right” about his theory of specters. Rather, our question is why this theory, much like the entire discourse of deconstruction, appears so tempting and so convincing—why it possesses so much mana. The answer is clear: because the discourse of deconstruction perfectly stages the sincerity of the medial by coaxing the medial to admit its irreducible insincerity in a particularly trustful manner. Just as the observer or reader cannot resist media-ontological suspicion, he cannot resist the effect of medial sincerity once it explicitly confirms this suspicion. Because the observer of the medial surface is involved in the economy of suspicion from the very beginning, he must follow all operations of this economy. The same economy that forces us to be suspicious also forces us to be trusting, because trust is merely a figure of suspicion: only suspicion can be trusted. And although suspicion takes time away from us insofar as it questions the ability of a particular medial carrier (whether God, nature, or the “It”) to give us time, suspicion nonetheless grants us time, too, by making us aware of the infinite ground for suspicion, even though that ground may ultimately be only death itself. However, in order to function as references to a deeper ground, signs must not only look different or surprising; they must also be genuinely new, that is, they must become messages of the medium—much as the specter has become such a new sign of the medial through the discourse of deconstruction. The specter truly haunts only when it haunts as a new readymade inside the archives. The fact that the postmodern theory of

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the medial stands in the tradition of the avant-garde—insofar as it ultimately performs and proclaims its own actuality by means of a modified, avant-garde practice of readymades—has certainly not remained unnoticed by theorists of the postmodern. It is the theory of the sublime—developed by Jean-François Lyotard as a means to resurrect the avant-garde in postmodern times—that demonstrates particularly well what the avant-garde begins to look like once the New of the avant-garde has been replaced by a surprise effect under the auspices of temporal scarcity.


Jean-François Lyotard: The Roller Coaster of the Sublime


n h is cr i t iqu e of j u dg m en t, K a n t defi n e s t h e sublime as follows: “That is sublime which even to be able to think of demonstrates a faculty of the mind that surpasses every measure of the senses.”1 At issue here is a surplus of imagination compared to the possibility of verification via the senses. As we know, Kant further distinguishes between the mathematical and the dynamic sublime. The mathematical sublime transcends every numerical estimation of quantity: Now, for the mathematical estimation of magnitude there is, to be sure, no greatest (for the power of numbers goes on to infi nity); but for the aesthetic estimation of magnitude there certainly is a greatest; and about this I say that if it is judged as an absolute measure,

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beyond which no greater is subjectively (for the judging subject) possible, it brings with it the idea of the sublime, and produces that emotion which no mathematical estimation of magnitudes by means of numbers can produce.2 The sublime recognizes such an aesthetic estimation of quantity whenever we feel that our senses are no longer capable of fathoming the infinity of an “idea of reason.” Whereas the mathematical sublime eludes our senses, the dynamic sublime eludes our lifespan. The dynamic sublime offers us an insight into our own finitude and the paucity of time given to us. To give examples of the dynamic sublime, Kant mentions powerful natural events such as storms, volcanic eruptions, and other catastrophes that directly threaten our lives and thus immediately make us aware of our finitude and our lack of time. Yet it is not the threat itself that is sublime but merely the “idea” of this threat, which, instead of letting us experience our own demise, gives us the chance to think it, imagine it, and maybe even to enjoy it aesthetically. We thereby encounter the sublimity of our own reason, which we are able to recognize when facing the catastrophe that threatens our lives: the sublimity, for Kant, “is not contained in anything in nature,” but in “the capacity that is placed within us”3 to judge the things that threaten us without fear. For Kant, the subject of the infinite ideas of reason is sublime, because it can think more than it can live through, imagine more than it can experience—and thus proves its superiority, its sublimity vis-à-vis nature. In another passage of his treatise, Kant points out that peasants who have spent their entire lives in the mountains do not deem them sublime and “had no hesitation in calling all devotees of the icy mountains fools.” 4 To be sure, Kant states, “But just because the judgment on the sublime in nature requires culture (more so than that on the beautiful), it is not therefore first generated by culture and so to speak introduced into society merely as a matter of convention.”5 Yet he admits nonetheless that the ability to experience powerful natural events as sublime requires a particular culture. We evidently experience storms, volcanic eruptions, or avalanches as sublime both because they present themselves as natural

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events that directly threaten our existence as natural beings and because they appear as thoroughly conventional, romantic images familiar to us through art and literature. Sublime events are, so to speak, inverted readymades transported from art into life. It is precisely this double coding of sublime images that gives us the chance to fear and enjoy them at the same time. However, in his treatise “The Sublime and the Avant-garde,” JeanFrançois Lyotard has tried to interpret the sublime not as a recognition of art in life but rather as a recognition of life in art—not as an artistic sign that threatens our lives but as a sign of life that threatens the institution of art.6 Lyotard begins his interpretation of avant-garde art by pointing out that art—much like any other social institution—presupposes a certain longevity of existence, a particular temporal perspective that permits this institution to plan, calculate, and shape its future. In the case of art, this function is served by schools, programs, projects, and styles that determine the future development of the institution of art and that are, therefore, basically nothing other than regulatory systems for the further production of art. If one follows the rules of these regulatory systems, one knows exactly what the next step should be and what the next product should look like. And through such a regulated and predictable production the institution of art reproduces itself further and further into the future. Hence, every institution, including the institution of art, has something mechanical, something automatic about it—it just keeps on going (presuming that it can go on going for as long as nothing extraordinary happens). For Lyotard, the “It happens” [Es passiert] thus serves the same function that “There is time” [Es gibt Zeit] serves for Heidegger. As Lyotard says, at issue is an event in the Heideggerian sense. For institutions— much like machines—cannot notice that they receive the time they need to keep functioning from the “It” [Es]. They just keep on going. Yet there is no guarantee that they will keep on going forever, and hence it may happen that their time runs out. The institutions try to occupy their future, to plan it, and to control it—yet they do so not under their own power but because “It” gives them enough time to do so. To think of

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time as event thus means to disempower (programmatic) thinking7 and simultaneously to think the lack of time [la privation], namely the possibility that neither thought itself nor anything else will go on. Thus, the original lack of time also plays a crucial role for Lyotard, even though it does not—as for Derrida—negate the possibility of the origin’s return. Rather, it negates planning the future. Lyotard understands the sublime of the artistic avant-garde as the refusal to let things go on the way they always already do—that is, to produce new works of art according to old patterns and to carry forward old projects, schools, trends, and programs into the future. This understanding of the avant-garde as a refusal, as a rejection, of the attempt to prolong the past into the future is decisive for Lyotard’s argument, and I shall return to this point later. But first we must confront the question of what, precisely, is supposed to be sublime about this refusal. At the beginning of his short treatise, Lyotard launches into a relatively long excursus about terminological history, in which he seeks to locate a notion of the sublime that would correspond to the artistic practice of the avant-garde. As a starting point, he uses the writings of Barnett Newman, who characterizes his own art as sublime. Lyotard emphasizes in particular that the avant-garde does not have a poetics, meaning that it does not possess a regulatory system for the production of art. Instead, it aims to leave an immediate impression on the observer that is supposed to shock him. The avant-garde shocks, causes insecurity, and upsets. And indeed, this understanding of the avant-garde seems to correspond to the Kantian understanding of the sublime: although the life of the observer is not directly threatened, his cultural expectations are disappointed in a shocking way. Thus, one may certainly assume that, at least for the faint hearted, such an aesthetic shock might be big enough actually to scare them. According to Lyotard, then, the avant-garde demonstrates that “It happens” because it shows that under different circumstances “It” might possibly stop happening. Thus, finitude and the eventful nature of time become evident to the observer in a shocking manner. In this scenario, the Kantian “idea of reason” consists of conceiving of artistic schools,

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projects, and methods as constantly repeating themselves. This expectation is then shattered by a sudden interruption of the old program announced by the avant-garde work of art. In order for the observer to be able to experience the feeling of the sublime, that observer, according to Kant, must desire and imagine that the institution of art will continue to function the same way it functioned previously—as if the rupture that the avant-garde work of art caused had not happened at all. Kant defines the sublime as a feeling “within us”—and not within things. Avant-garde works of art, therefore, cannot be sublime under any circumstances, because they, too, are merely things. The feeling of the sublime can emerge only within the observer of these works and only on the condition that the observer feels and thinks consistently in an anti-avant-garde fashion. If the observer of art feels sympathetic to the activities of the avant-garde and accepts their works of art without objection, then he cannot experience the shock of rupture. Only a person who perceives a particular avantgarde work of art as the end or, better still, as the death of art is able to experience the feeling of the sublime on seeing this work. Hence the avantgarde can evoke the feeling of the sublime (as interpreted by Lyotard) only in the eyes of its worst enemy, who wishes for and imagines art after the avant-garde as the continuation of what art was prior to the emergence of the avant-garde. Only in that case is it possible for the observer to experience the avant-garde’s threat against the continuation of the old art as sublime. This also clarifies why Lyotard is anything but happy about the social success of the avant-garde. For him, the avant-garde thus loses its most competent observers, that is, its enemies. Lyotard notes with regret that the avant-garde meanwhile has established its own traditions—the famous tradition of the New. For him, the emergence of this tradition signifies precisely a perversion of the authentic avant-garde. If the end of the Old is understood only as a moment in the production of the New, then the avant-garde can no longer manifest that “It happens” or that “There is time.” The fi nitude of all projects and programs is utilized merely in order to start up new projects and programs. The fundamental lack of time, the fundamental failure, the fundamental finitude, the fundamental mor-

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tality, and the fundamental event are thus integrated into the capitalist art market, which itself has a constant interest in relinquishing the Old and letting the New emerge in its stead. The fact that “It happens” is no longer of any interest to anybody; instead, people ask themselves “What’s New?” about what happens. Capitalist innovations absorb the sublime and render it ineffective. This polemic against the utilitarian use of the sublime through the art market is reminiscent of Bataille’s polemic against the utilitarization of wars and revolutions through politics. No art may exploit the end of art. That sounds as if we said, No peace may exploit the consequences of war. But what else may we exploit instead? One senses that Lyotard has extreme intellectual difficulties with finding an adequate answer to the danger posed by the capitalist market’s annulment of the sublime, an answer that would rescue the eventfulness of the avant-garde. One possible answer he ponders but does not expand on systematically would be to interpret capitalism itself as sublime: “There is something of the sublime in capitalist economy.”8 Referring to Marx, Lyotard emphasizes that capitalism is above all destructive, negative, critical, and self-critical—and likely to bid farewell to the Old in its search for profits. In this sense, capitalism has been a model for avantgarde art from the very beginning. Ultimately, however, Lyotard still considers the confusion between event and innovation harmful.9 Yet the distinction between event and innovation in Lyotard’s thinking emerges as a mathematical, that is, as a quantitative and not as a qualitative difference, to use Kant’s language. Lyotard argues that the art market and its agents, the art mediators, promote only the kind of new art that combines elements of the New with a repetition of the Old. However, this art—usually called postmodern—is not avant-gardist enough for Lyotard. It produces only little differences and a “petit frisson” [minor tingling] of innovation as opposed to a huge shock: “The avant-gardist task remains that of undoing the presumption of the mind with respect to time. The sublime feeling is the name of this privation.”10 Much, of course, could be said about this passage, which occurs at the end of Lyotard’s essay. First of all, it contains an appeal to the avant-garde to remain what it always has been, namely a manifestation of the event, of

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the lack of time, of finitude. (Evil tongues might even speak of a program that seeks to prescribe what art should and should not do in the future.) In Lyotard’s view, an avant-garde that understands itself as a program and reflects on its function as a commodity is not a real avant-garde, because it shockingly disappoints the observer’s expectation to experience something sublime. And second, Lyotard demands that the observer be truly shocked only in the face of big and true differences. Yet this is a strange demand, which, as Kant would say, confuses the mathematical assessment of size with the aesthetic assessment of the sublime. One can well imagine certain observers to be shocked precisely by those works of art that cause Lyotard only a “petit frisson.” One may speculate that Lyotard, like the peasants in the mountains of whom Kant speaks, has simply spent too much time with art—or too little, who knows?—to be able to be shocked by it. As Lyotard repeatedly emphasizes, the ability to experience the sublime stays exclusively with the observer. Yet this fact alone prevents us from drawing any conclusion from the notion of the sublime for the production of art. If one follows Lyotard’s analysis in detail, one will have to admit that only the observer’s reaction to an artwork can determine whether it is a traditional or an avant-garde work of art. If one experiences a work of art as the end of everything that has been planned and programmed previously, then this work is avant-gardist. If, however, one experiences this work of art as the continuation of everything that has been planned and programmed previously, then it is not an avant-gardist work of art. This response must not be an effect of the external, controllable, technical qualities of the work. Or, to put it differently, only the reaction of the observer can be avantgardist, but not the art itself. Yet, because Lyotard denounces postmodern art as an art of too little difference and also criticizes the neoclassical, neoromantic art of totalitarian states during the 1930s and 1940s as entirely anti-avant-garde, his whole argument becomes unstable. One may very well imagine somebody who would be deeply shocked and frightened by totalitarian art— and immediately, according to Lyotard’s own criteria, this art would be thoroughly avant-gardist. Still, it evidently makes little sense to advance

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such petty logical objections, because Lyotard only voices what everybody else has been saying, too—the only difference being that nowadays, no one believes anymore that the artistic avant-garde might be able to withstand the capitalist art market. Rather, it is considered self-evident today that the avant-garde finally was shipwrecked on the market. At present, advanced art in particular celebrates its supposed demise and its liquidation through the market as a particularly sublime event. Lyotard merely succeeded in clarifying in various ways the widespread and general sentiment that the avant-garde is finished. We are already familiar with Lyotard’s general argument: essentially, the avant-garde is the sign of the end, of loss, of the lack of time—the sign that shocks us, the observers of art. However, the characterization of the avant-garde as a shock that supposedly results from the unexpected termination of an operative artistic program is based on a highly problematic presumption. At issue is precisely this alleged “idea of reason” that Lyotard discusses both at the beginning and at the end of his treatise. This “idea of reason” allegedly means that every event follows the course of a plan. However, at second glance, it appears that the general ideas of reason correspond to something completely different within the context of historical time, namely to the insight that all things change over time and that nothing happens the way it was planned. If there is any idea of reason at all with regard to time, then it is this: that everything present is transitory and that all plans for the future must fail. In contrast, the notion that things will continue to work as planned is a very unusual idea— actually, it is an avant-gardist idea. Indeed, the avant-garde reacts to the well-known transitory nature of all historical art forms and styles precisely by trying to escape from historical time and by launching an infinite virtual temporal perspective for art—the future as program, project, and plan. It was precisely the radical avant-garde that founded schools and proclaimed manifestos in which programs and projects were formulated that, similar to technical programs, were supposed to announce and produce a new, programmatic future by following strict rules. These programs and projects were undoubtedly reductionist and thus ended much of what was valid before.

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But in order to formulate a clear and realizable program, one must concentrate exclusively on the essential and get rid of a good deal of ballast, including all that is accidental or bound to a specific place and time. The classical avant-garde began with such clearly defi ned projects of reducing everything to essentials: cubism, suprematism, De Stijl, Bauhaus—they all formulated such projects. And the very artists and art forms mentioned in Lyotard’s text, including Barnett Newman, Daniel Buren, and the artists of American minimalism, also developed a clear and easily understandable program in the tradition of the classical avant-garde. Thus, the avant-garde is reductionist not because it seeks to end the tradition of art in a shocking manner so as to evoke the feeling of the sublime in the soul of the observer but because the avant-garde presupposes that all regional and time-based art traditions are doomed to perish in the future anyhow. In fact, the avant-garde tries to rescue the few bits and pieces it still can. It does not seek the demise of tradition, but, on the contrary, tries to escape this inevitable demise—albeit equipped with only the lightest gear. Only somebody who does not realize that his historical house is burning will think of the rescuer—who tries to save whatever possible—as the arsonist. Yet it is precisely this confusion that underlies Lyotard’s theory of the avant-garde. That is why Lyotard is not at all interested in the concrete programs of the avant-garde. He is not interested in the promise of the future that is immanent in avant-garde works. He is interested only in the baggage they left behind—what was burned rather than what was saved. And thus he does not notice that the past can be understood as a program and a project of its own only in hindsight and with reference to the avant-garde and its programs. Only after the emergence of the avant-garde can the past be understood as a project for the future, namely by means of a conservative revolution that treats the artistic styles of the past as if they, too, had been avant-gardist programs and projects. Totalitarian art, by the way, was nothing else but such a redefi nition of the past along the lines of an avant-gardist, futurist program. Thus, the avant-garde does not celebrate the demise, the end, the shock, and the sublime. Enthusiasm for demise rather characterized the fin-de-siècle atmosphere prior to the emergence of the avant-garde. In con-

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trast, every avant-garde group developed its own project and its own program for the future, and each often tried in particularly dogmatic and aggressive ways to implement its program. In this regard, one might more aptly refer to a fundamentalism of the future that distinguishes all avant-gardists. We should emphasize that this is a fundamentalism of the future and not a belief in progress, which is often deemed essential for the avant-garde. But the avant-garde specifically did not believe in progress, because progress means historical change, transformation, the exchange of styles and artistic procedures over time. Instead, the avant-garde sought to reveal the minimum—Lyotard, too, refers to this in his essay—of what distinguished art as art at any particular time. And for the avant-gardists, art was supposed to hold fast to this minimum at all costs for all time to come. The program of the avant-garde consists precisely of an attempt to downgrade the progress of art to its point zero by reducing art’s changing historical characteristics. The avant-garde sought to attain this zero level of art in order to withdraw the institution of art from historical change and thereby render it resilient in the future.11 To put it differently, the avant-garde sought to reveal the medium that had supported art prior to the emergence of the avant-garde—and which it believed would continue to support art in the future. The radical avantgarde is not interested in the originality, the specificity, or the particular nature of different artistic signs. Rather, it strives to formulate the message of the medium and thus to thematize the carriers of art able to sustain all of these different artistic signs, regardless of how these carriers were previously understood—whether as the plane of the canvas, as the unconscious, as the institution of the museum, or as pure nothingness. The avant-garde opens up a future for art precisely by indicating the medium that can continue to sustain art, to give it time, and to secure a temporal perspective that renders something like a project or a program possible in the first place. Even though this potentially unlimited temporal perspective cannot be lived or experienced because it transcends any imaginable lifespan, it always already remains present here and now in the form of a temporal opening, as a futurist perspective—like those signifiers that lack meaning or like solar energy, which cannot be entirely

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consumed. This infinite temporal perspective endows avant-gardist pictures with a particular glow of sincerity, of honor, of mediality, and with a particular value, a particular charisma—or, to put it differently, with mana. Only the foreknowledge of such a temporal surplus and the promise of future endurance renders an avant-gardist image attractive, cool, sexy—but not necessarily sublime. The avant-gardist image is attractive to observers, but not because it takes time away from them, shocks them, or confronts them with an image of the end or of death. Rather, it is attractive because it indicates the medium that can sustain art into the future— and thus grants time to art. Essentially, Lyotard describes art as a roller coaster that always frightens observers anew and takes their breath away— and their time. Yet the avant-garde understood itself as delivering us from the roller coaster, as saving us from a situation saturated with the feeling that it cannot go on, that it cannot last, that we are finished because we are always confronted only with surprises and shocks. The artwork of the avant-garde is truly new only when it transmits the message of a new medium and thereby promises art a new longevity. As mentioned above, images can create the effect of an insight into the interior and the material support—that is, into the medial of the medium— only when they look foreign, radically different, unexpected. That is why the observer can always claim that these images are merely original, different merely on a formal level, meaning that they are utterly incapable of providing insight into the interior or of promising a new longevity. The forever recurrent question is, Does this particular image have the aura of mediality and the mana of time—or not? But this question has no clear answer. Once again, we are dealing with the economy of suspicion, and every economy is bound up with risks. Regardless of how the observer answers this question in each individual case, he will always encounter risks. He might fail to recognize the mana of the artwork—or he may endow an artwork with mana even though the artwork does not possess it. Yet it can never happen that somebody attains such power that he could declare which artwork has mana and which artwork does not. Such power over mana is just as implausible as absolute control of the entire financial market. Occasionally, a person

Jean-François Lyotard: The Roller Coaster of the Sublime—1 5 9

might be able to accumulate a great deal of mana through a series of right decisions—but never enough to insulate himself against all risks. By the way, decisions about the mana of signs cannot be equated with historical change or fashion cycles. It is naïve to believe that historical change alone would suffice to bestow mana to or withdraw it from a sign. One often hears that this or that particular image, text, or theory is being pushed aside: “Why are they still talking about this? It is already over. Nobody is interested in it anymore. This is all passé.” And indeed, if one lives after the historical time when an image or a text was produced, then one feels superior to that image or text simply for that reason alone. An image that possesses mana, however, can become “passé” only when another image emerges onto which this mana can be transferred according to the economy of suspicion. Yet how long should it take until such a new image appears? Such a historical moment is exceedingly difficult to determine because it, too, is suspected of not having any mana on its own. Thus, we may certainly claim that even today, the image of Jesus Christ is by no means obsolete. Even after decades of subsequent artistic production, the first works of the artistic avant-garde, such as Malevich’s Black Square or Duchamps’s Fountain, are still not considered passé. Are images of race struggle, or class struggle, or science, or the unconscious passé? Hardly. The reason for this relative stability certainly does not reside in the ghostlike ability of these images to keep haunting. Rather, these images refer to the submedial, the hidden, to what lies under the surface— and this reference can be neither verified nor refuted defi nitively. Because there can be no proof that these images ever provided insight into the interior, neither can there be proof that they ever ceased to provide such an insight at some point. Thus, the economy of suspicion cannot simply be equated with the events of historical change. When Heidegger spoke about time as an event, he had the specific goal of questioning the infinite temporal perspective of the phenomenological investigations opened up by Edmund Husserl’s description of “phenomena.” Later on, in the lectures on Nietzsche that he gave during the Nazi period, Heidegger used the same arguments to try to combat the infi nite vision of an all-comprehensive will to power, of the New Man, the

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Superman (Übermensch).12 Later, Heidegger also argued against the “humanism” of the postwar era—again with reference to the scarcity of time.13 And, indeed, one can use the argument of time scarcity to rail against any and all future-oriented projects, whether from the left or the right, democratic or totalitarian. Given the influence of Heidegger’s philosophical theme of the lack of time and even more so in light of the reception of this philosophy by authors such as Derrida or Lyotard, people today prefer not to talk about the future at all but rather about the past. Yet how Heidegger diagnoses the end of an epoch in each case remains unclear. It actually looks as if he simply followed a certain academic tradition that describes the historical shifts of philosophy and divides them into epochs and periods that are inaugurated or terminated by certain “essential” thinkers. But which thinkers are “essential”? Supposedly, those who inaugurate or terminate each new period of thought. Thus, it appears that the circle is closing.14 Subsequent messengers of the scarcity of time elude this circle simply by not advancing any periodization and by not defining any specific historical time periods at all. Instead, they note in the most general terms that all projects must fail at some point because they are inherently short on time. However, since the sign carriers must remain constitutively hidden and unknown, we cannot ascertain with certainty the duration of their ability to support signs. This uncertain, yet potentially infinite, surplus of time gives rise to both hope and enthusiasm as well as a feeling of infinite boredom and monotony that is well known to every lover of geometric abstraction, minimalism, or Barnett Newman. The radical avant-garde is precisely not a roller coaster of evernew shocks or of the eternal recurrence of surprise but rather an infinite perspective of monotonous, medial boredom that emerges after all that is superfluous, accidental, historically determined, and enjoyable has been reduced or even entirely eradicated in order to create space for the pure message of the medium.



The Time of Signs

o t o n l y d o w e h av e a t o u r d i s p o s a l a l i m ited lifespan given to us by God, by nature, by our physical constitution, by Being, or by the “It.” We also have an infi nite, albeit uncertain, temporal perspective, an excess of time—temporal mana— that is constantly traded within the symbolic, medial economy. Because it provides itself with time, this economy cannot be interrupted or suspended due to a lack of time. The medium of this economy is not time but media-ontological suspicion, which, as mentioned earlier, is not “real” and thus infinite. The signs that appear to confirm this suspicion acquire the ability not only to take time but also to give time, because they open up an infinite temporal perspective—understood as the indeterminate durability of the hidden carrier—due to the effect of medial sincerity they

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create. Such signs, by the way, also receive a longer medial lifetime, that is to say, better artificial sign carriers and broader dissemination. For the medial distribution of an image is also a form of its duration. An image that has been copied and distributed a million times acquires many media carriers that are better equipped to guarantee its duration than just a single, unique media carrier, even if the latter is particularly well protected. Thus, all medial operations with images and signs can be described in terms of temporal economy. The duration that is assigned to an image in medial reality is its crucial characteristic. Popular opinion about why different signs are assigned a different durability presupposes that the duration of signs depends on—or, at least, should depend on—the relevance of these signs for extramedial reality, that is to say, the degree to which these signs can testify about important facts of history. The medial archive is thus understood as historical memory—as the sum of documented recollections about what occurred outside the archive and in so-called “historical reality itself.” This definition of archival signs as medially fi xed testimonies and recollections—whose value and duration is supposedly determined by their function of transmitting individual and collective memory to future generations—provides the horizon of almost every discussion about memory, archive, and media. These discussions raise questions about what is historically important and relevant. They examine which cultural codes, prejudices, and dispositions predetermine the selection and evaluation of historical recollections, which is why these codes should be critically examined and dismantled. These discussions examine the relations between individual and collective recollections, between recollections of perpetrators and those of victims, between conscious and traumatic recollections, written and oral testimony, and so on. Finally, these discussions generally question the possibility that a medial, written, iconic testimony could ever correspond to a living historical experience that is the Other of the archive and whose distinctiveness cannot, in principle, be documented or domesticated within the archive. These discussions of historical memory, of the status of memory, of the kind of inscription of historical experience in the archive have become almost impossible to survey, particularly over the last few

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decades. In the course of these discussions, it seemed that everything that might have something to do with the problematic issue of historical memory was questioned radically and rendered suspect. Yet one general, normative presupposition remained unquestioned throughout: that the duration granted to a sign is supposed to correspond to this sign’s significance for reality. It follows that signs as such cannot have a time of their own. They always receive their time only from the outside, from reality, society, and institutions. The same presupposition, by the way, also controls our daily mediacritical debates. The overall sentiment that regularly manifests itself in these debates can be summed up in a single phrase: the media lie. This general suspicion of insincerity does not primarily concern the notion that media misrepresent specific events. Such accusations could easily be verified for each specific case. Rather, the media are charged in general with a false distribution of time among medial signs. We constantly hear that unimportant things are granted more time in the media than important things. For one reason or another, critics maintain that the media do not distribute time among individual texts and images according to the importance of these texts or images for the “real,” extramedial life of people. But precisely therein lies the fundamental misunderstanding. Under the influence of structuralism, it has become customary nowadays to determine the meaning of a sign with regard to its position in a particular system of signification—and not with regard to its relation to so-called reality. The same principle, however, must apply to the time of the sign: the sign is granted its time and its duration with regard to its own position in the temporal economy of suspicion—and not with regard to its testimonial function or its role as a recorded memory of real events. The signs in the archive have their own time. They receive this time because as signs, they are what they are—and not because they are reminiscent of or testify to something else. Signs receive their very own virtual and medial time because they seem to provide insight into the inner, submedial space—and thus also into the durability of the medium. It follows that the duration of signs is a bonus they receive for their preliminary victory in the potlatch of the medial

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economy. Yet this potlatch is won precisely by those signs that seem to possess the least value—signs that are poor in meaning, expressivity, or traditional features of quality and relevance. Only those signs that are “poor in spirit” refer most radically to the medium itself instead of referring to something extramedial. The temporal economy of signs alone yields an explanation as to why so much trash [English in the original], so much stupid and superfluous stuff, is being permanently transported to and recorded in the media. It is precisely this stupid stuff that possesses the mana of infi nite time, because it refers to the infinity of empty signifiers that cannot be saturated with meaning and to the infinite temporal perspective of the medial durability that cannot be fi lled by any “experience.” For example, when Diana, Princess of Wales or Monica Lewinski were constantly shown on TV, people got annoyed, because they believed that the media should be concerned with more important things. Yet these so-called more important things have always been nothing but politically or otherwise always already thoroughly institutionalized signs. Rich in content, these signs are thus unable to indicate the mana of the loss of meaning. Pictures of famine, of death, and of suffering that people think ought to be shown in order to “make a difference in the world” have exactly the same institutional character, as Derrida convincingly demonstrated with reference to Baudelaire’s beggar. Diana and Monica, on the other hand, evidently had no specific institutional significance “as such”—and that is precisely why they were able to attain, within the institutionalized context of the media, the function of the “empty signifier”; they expressed the mana of the infi nite temporal perspective that appears in the form of a pure medial surface and a surplus of empty signifiers. Let me provide one more example of such an empty signifier: Hitler. The image of Hitler never ceases to fascinate the media, and the mana of this image remains pristine even decades after its first appearance. This mana, too, obviously results from the eminently everyday, private, profane, and one-dimensional character of the figure of Hitler. Hitler and his public hysterias; his interminable, impenetrable speeches; his comical, self-parodying manners and grimaces; and his muddled, self-made ideology seem to be a piece of everyday life, a piece of cultural profanity that

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was transported into the institutional context as an empty signifier. In this regard, Hitler remains radically distinct from the much more conventional, thoroughly institutional and highly bureaucratically codified figure of Stalin, with whom Hitler is so often compared—which is why Stalin could never achieve the same medial mana as Hitler. Whereas Stalin continues the aesthetics of the constructivist, scheming, manipulative avant-garde enacted behind the stage and its spectacular effects, Hitler partakes of the post-dadaist aesthetics of a totalized stage production in which the medium itself is present on stage and screams. The entire aesthetic of rock concerts, which has exerted such a deep influence on the postwar era, along with the concomitant hysteria of the audience, are genuinely modeled after this stage production. The more the rock singer presents himself as “empty,” the more “medial” he becomes. In this process, the capability of self-parody, that is, for a strategically conducted purging of the content of all used signs, plays a crucial role. It is precisely the “empty” signs that allow people to believe that they can see the medium itself. These signs provide the spectator with a perspective on the virtual empire with a time span of a thousand years—even if this time span far exceeds any “real” life. This infinity of empty moments that cannot be experienced corresponds to the infinite surplus of empty signifiers that cannot be fi lled with meaning, as described by LéviStrauss. It also corresponds to the infinite surplus of solar energy, as described by Bataille. To be sure, such an empty, virtual infinity hardly looks appealing to most people. Hence, the theories of the scarcity and the lack of time that have enjoyed such a tremendous dissemination over the last decades have indeed had a calming effect on these people—even though these theories present themselves as dangerous and subversive. The empty, infinite, virtual future, whose time is heterogeneous to factually experienced and experienceable time, is a truly sublime vision, both scary and fascinating. The more a sign is deconstructed, exposed, stripped of its aura, and devalued, the more mana and medial power it absorbs. The ancient Greek tragedies became interesting again only because of the Oedipus complex, and people wanted to reread Rousseau’s writings only after their deconstruction by Derrida and de Man. The attractiveness of a sign

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grows with each critique of its meaning. Hence, critique is an excellent advertisement for a sign. Of course, one may ask about the source of the infinite surplus of time that confronts the spectator in the form of the infinite, medial future of signs. The source of this surplus is located in the dark, submedial space of suspicion. Signs that do not appear at their proper place evoke this suspicion and become messages of the medium—and thus credible. At issue is not what these signs signify, what their content and their meaning is, but that the signs, by means of a peculiar act of kenosis, of self-reduction and self-impoverishment, create the effect of having almost vanished. This effect allows the medium itself to become visible. And in a media-saturated culture, a sign can become relevant only as such a message of the medium. It is not by accident that precisely the most interesting authors of modernity have declined to transmit their own, individual messages in favor of proclaiming messages of the medium—the messages of colors, of words, of noise, of movements, of sounds. To be sure, some critics of modernity claim that this amounts to the death of the author, because the message of the human gets replaced by the message of the medium. Still, the very author who seeks to proclaim the message of the medium achieves a level of intimacy with his readers or viewers that remains utterly unattainable to those who want only to transmit their own message. Readers and viewers in everyday life use the very same media that authors use for their artistic works. This is why readers experience the text of a writer who lets language itself speak as the expression of their own innermost sincerity—their own language. Thus the writer bridges the usual gap between author and reader. He is no longer a communicator among other communicators, all of whom want to transmit their own messages, but the messenger of the medium who says only what everybody else must say, too, if they want to speak at all. The messenger of the medium does not talk to the reader but speaks from within the linguistic unconscious of the reader, from within the reader’s innermost self. The medium establishes a still greater proximity to, a still greater intimacy with people than any of their “own” intentions, opinions, and consciously phrased messages could ever claim to

The Time of Signs—1 67

have. The medium is the essence of the human. In this sense, medial sincerity is the deepest possible form of sincerity. Hence, an author can be successful only if he eclipses his “own,” auctorial, subjective message in the most radical way and exclusively presents himself as a messenger of the medium. To put it differently, precisely the author who most meticulously kills his living “personality” has the best chance of surviving the death of authorship. The reader always has a surplus of real lifetime in comparison with the author. Temporally and spatially, the text is always limited and self-contained and thus, by definition, belongs to the past. Once the text is fi nished, its author as such is dead—even if he is still alive as a person. The author of a finished text has no future as a living being. The future belongs to the reader. In this future, the reader is even free to choose whether to read the text at all. And even if the reader decides to read the text, it still, in addition to that, will have to be “understood” by the reader. In this way, the author is indeed done with, fi nished, relegated to the past, deprived of subjectivity. As Sartre rightly pointed out, to be subjective means to have a future. Thus, only the reader or the viewer appear to be subjective, whereas the author presents himself as dead—much like any other dead thing that one can “understand” or “interpret.” Hence the reader, at first glance, appears to the author as a judge whose verdict can never be appealed. Yet the signs of the medium open up their own, infinite, virtual, temporal perspective. These signs cannot be “understood”—one can only profess allegiance to them, one can only trust them. In particular, these signs refer to the entire medial surface, to the entire mass of the still unread, unseen, and not understood. Faced with such a virtual, medial, infinite future, the reader or viewer now feels fi nite, self-enclosed, and lost, because the medial future exceeds every human lifespan. The usual economy of relationships between author and reader, which takes place in a normal lifetime, is thereby reversed. By declaring the message of the medium to be his own message, the author outlasts the reader, viewer, and recipient of virtual, medial time. Thus we can say that Christ, but also Marx or Freud, remain alive forever, because they transmit the message

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of the medium, which, by necessity, must always be sounded anew as soon as somebody aims to say something personal. Thus we can claim that somebody who paints a picture must simultaneously, without fail, also paint the “Black Square” by Malevich, or that somebody who exhibits a work of art thereby also automatically exhibits a readymade by Duchamp. During his lifetime, the author is subject to the whim of the reader, whereas in medial, virtual time, the reader is subject to the whim of the author. If we want to produce our own texts or images, then we also inevitably use these signs of the medial and depend on their medial, virtual duration. When we write, we necessarily use particular words, images, figures of thought, names, and citations of which we know that they have the mana of the medial. One certainly does not use them in order to be “understood,” because these signs are quite obviously even less comprehensible than all others. Rather, one uses these words, names, and citations like the amulets, necklaces, and fetishes that were used by Polynesian chieftains in their symbolic economy, as described by Mauss. At issue here is not a relationship to an audience, to a possible reader. At issue is not a relationship that belongs to the lifetime of the author. Rather, the author enchants the piece of paper—that is, the media-carrier that supports his writing. Thus, this piece of paper is endowed with a magical power to carry and to endure—and for the writing to be transported, due to this power, into an infi nite, empty, virtual future of complete boredom that no longer offers space for the reader and his intrusive desire for understanding. Yet, even as the messenger of the medium, the author certainly continues to raise suspicion. In this, he is much like all of medial culture, which presents only its medial surface to the viewer who, in turn, cannot but suspect the dark, submedial space underneath it. The entire secret of medial culture lies in the fact that precisely this radical suspicion provides the best guarantee for the messages of the medium to be considered credible and thus for it to achieve permanent validity. Whenever submedial suspicion becomes radicalized, it is also confirmed—and this confirmation generates a trust that is as impossible to resist as the original suspi-

The Time of Signs—1 6 9

cion. The entire dynamics of the symbolic economy of time emerges from this compulsion for trust, which is generated by radical suspicion. Indeed, what transformed the works of the avant-garde into true, authentic messages was the very fact that they were at first considered suspicious, problematic, dubious. It is precisely by manifesting itself as explicitly dubious, incredible, and self-parodizing that the message of a medium wins our complete trust, because this manifestation legitimates our assumptions, fears, and insinuations. This is why the time of medial economy must not be confused with the time of market activity, a lifetime that indeed is provided by the “It.”1 The market appeals to living people who shop and sell, produce and consume during their lifetimes. The medial, virtual time of signs, however, exceeds the time reserve of each and every living spectator—and also that of all humanity as audience. Although we constantly hear that the author is dead, because his text functions without his living presence and beyond his auctorial intention, one still must not forget that, in this sense, the reader or the spectator are just as dead—precisely because the signs continue to present themselves even when they can no longer be seen by any living viewer. Indeed, no reader, no viewer, and no consumer is given a lifetime long enough to compete with the time of signs. This is not to deny that every book and every artwork is created with the expectation of a reader or a viewer. Yet this does not automatically mean that it is being created for the market, that is, for the audience that consists of people living here and now. One can easily imagine signs that are both produced and read exclusively by “dead” machines. One can also imagine signs that can only be read by God. As such, medial signs are not defi ned primarily by the fact that they present themselves to a particular target group of living viewers. Rather, they possess a potentially infi nite surplus of time and an infinite, virtual, temporal perspective that renders them visible in general. We know that some artworks survive the civilizations that created them. Thus, these works present themselves even when their “natural” audience has been dead for a long time. All medial signs refer to the virtual time after the death of those who were still alive at the time of the work’s inception—in

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fact, they refer to the time after every life in general. And that is why all possible variants of reception theory or of the sociology of art are basically naïve, regardless of how smart they hope to be. We do not know— and we can never know—who will perceive and judge, using what criteria, the texts and images we are producing here and now. We know nothing about possible viewers or readers, because they get lost in the virtuality of medial suspicion. Maybe the possible viewer will be merely the blinking can of sardines of which Lacan speaks in his analysis of the gaze of the Other. But even Lacan does not venture to say what the can of sardines is thinking while it looks at him. Lately is has been fashionable to interpret the artistic production of signs in the context of cultural studies [English in the original] or the sociology of art—and thus to view art as a part of the culture in which it is created. It is thus insinuated that the author produces for a particular social environment from which he expects recognition for his achievements.2 The explicit aversion to satisfying the taste of the contemporary audience along with the rejection of the audience’s approval—endorsed by the historical avant-garde—is accordingly interpreted as a particularly coy, market-oriented strategy: the avant-garde artist, so goes the claim, deliberately seeks to insult and shock the audience only because he already understands that the shock of the New will yield more recognition and success on the modern art market than following old rules. This explanation of avant-garde strategies may even be partly correct—but only partly. This is because the modern artist’s disregard for the audience’s taste emerges rather from the justified suspicion that the historical validity of this taste is extremely limited—a suspicion that is further strengthened in times of historical change. Thus, avant-garde artists do not particularly seek to shock or provoke their audience, that is, their own social milieu, because they assume (or at least hope) that their work will possibly outlive that audience. Avantgarde artists try to divine the taste of an audience that is not yet born, because they hope for their essential viewers and readers to emerge in an uncertain, virtual, potentially infinite future. Hence, avant-garde artists consider the reactions of their contemporaries to their works generally

The Time of Signs—1 7 1

amusing but not particularly relevant. Indeed, the avant-garde was much more concerned about a positive reaction of its contemporary audience than about a negative one. To be evaluated positively by one’s contemporary viewers meant that the avant-garde artist was in danger of no longer appearing up to date [English in the original] in the future. And although this waiting for the future viewer was a particularly intense experience during the time of the avant-garde, a certain indifference vis-à-vis the judgment of the contemporary audience characterizes every artist who works with sign carriers that he expects to outlast that audience. For modern artists, this waiting for the future was inspired above all by the museum system, which seemed to guarantee the lasting medial protection of artworks beyond their immediate social environment. In our own time, this feeling of relative indifference vis-à-vis the current audience is actually exacerbated by the multiplication of storage devices and capacities, because each particular audience has no other option but to see what is available for it to see. What is available for that audience to see depends above all on the possibilities for medial storage and transmission, on which the viewer remains completely dependent. Kant talks about the sublime as an idea of infi nitude that humans discover in themselves in response to an acute threat to their lives during an event such as a snowstorm in the mountains. But what about a camera that perhaps also stands all alone in the mountains recording images of a snowstorm while its existence is thus jeopardized? Is this camera sublime, too? It would have to be, because it provides insight into another, medial, virtual time after death, a time that transcends every real lifespan. The same question emerges with regard to suicide spaceships that are sent to Jupiter or some other planet in order to record their own demise while sending those images back to earth so they can be evaluated. It also emerges with regard to cameras that, like kamikaze pilots, fly together with their bombs toward their target in order to document the explosion that will destroy them, too. The exclusively scientific or military-strategic evaluation of such images evidently overlooks their aesthetic dignity as images of the sublime. We are dealing with an archive that was not created for any audience—and that nonetheless manifests itself as sublime.

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Moreover, the common distinction between nature and the media world is highly problematic. Signs of culture are themselves nothing but material objects. It is difficult, if not entirely impossible, effectively to distinguish archival signs of culture from things of nature. All things of culture, such as texts, images, films, or computers, are simultaneously things of nature. Conversely, all things of nature can be interpreted as archival things of culture: stars, oceans, mountains. As we know, this function of nature as a sign carrier for the presentation of nature’s images is readily exploited by the tourism industry, which has already transformed the entire earth into an exhibition hall. Nature also preserves the signs of historical cultures after their demise. There is no difference in principle between geology, paleontology, and archeology. Nature is a cultural archive just like any other. And if nature, too, were to vanish, then this event would still be noted down somewhere in God’s archives, because nature as such can perish only if there is a God. Overall, then, humanity need not fret too much about preserving cultural archives, because we ourselves will perish much sooner than all the cultural archives we seek to rescue. The fate of the archives depends on submedial space, which allows us to predict neither the preservation nor the demise of the archives with certainty.



Suspicion Is the Medium

uspicion is gen er a l ly c onsi der ed a t h r e a t t o all traditional values—to the elevated, the spiritual, the noble, the beautiful, the creative, and the morally good. Suspicion forces us to assume that something else is hidden behind these values that perhaps does not look all that nice or beautiful. The critique of reigning values inspired by such a general suspicion necessarily sounds convincing and ultimately has no problem prevailing over and degrading those values. By contrast, any defense of the reigning values sounds dubious, because it denies the reality of the suspicion and denounces the “lowly motifs” that the critique claims to have exposed as malevolent insinuations pure and simple. To be sure, there can be absolutely no doubt that we are, indeed, dealing with mere insinuations, because the “progressive” criticism of

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values is just as incapable of looking behind the medial surface of tradition as is the “conservative” defense of values, which tries to guarantee the integrity of this medial surface. Yet the signs of the lowly, the poor, and the reduced—signs that, as shown above, progressive criticism places in the context of tradition—automatically generate the effect of medial sincerity, which the observer is unable to resist. Precisely these signs corroborate the media-ontological suspicion that determines our relation to the media in general. We have no choice but to sense and suspect a dark and dangerous space beneath the medial surface. Everything we perceive on the medial surface automatically falls under suspicion. This suspicion is not a subjective attitude of the observer that can be changed by force or by will; rather, it is constitutive of the very act of observation as such. We are unable to observe without becoming suspicious. Yet if any critique that directly or indirectly appeals to this suspicion necessarily prevails in the end, then we must ask about the actual meaning of such a victory. Essentially, criticism is an attempt to uncover, expose, unmask, or reveal the hidden—all the way to exposing the illusory nature of the hidden itself as practiced by deconstruction. Yet the gesture of exposing necessarily presupposes a belief in the possibility of revelation, of testimony, of self-exposure. Criticism transforms the lowly, the reduced, the poor, the quotidian, or the vulgar into a sign of the interior that finally reveals itself after having remained hidden for a long time beneath the surface of high values. In order to be effective, criticism has no choice but to believe in its ability to compel the revelation of the medial. Thus, every criticism necessarily situates itself within the great tradition of voluntary and coerced revelations—and, at the same time, inscribes itself into the general economy of suspicion. However, every critical exposure automatically produces a new value, because all values are ultimately nothing but revelations of the hidden. Philosophy began with Plato denouncing the sophists and their alleged wisdom. Christianity began as the self-revelation of God in “simple” human form, which undermined the claims of the old deities. The modern “ego” revealed itself in Descartes only after all traditional opinions and principles had been ques-

Suspicion Is the Medium—1 7 5

tioned and “abraded.” Further revelations of the will to power, the unconscious, or the inner structure of language are also well known. Hence, it makes little sense to defend inherited values against their critique, because this critique necessarily produces its own new values— precisely the kind of values that themselves must revalidate and help support the old values. These new values are the messages of the medium that sustained the old values and remained hidden behind them. Yet the medium would no longer be a medium if it were unable to sustain the signs it is supposed to sustain. A particular critique remains unsuccessful and thus bound to self-destruct if it cannot explain why the “lowly” it reveals and proclaims should be able or even be condemned to support the “high.” Nietzsche, for example, ascribes to the Übermensch all the qualities of a rationally planning and strategizing reason, because otherwise, the Übermensch could not realize the will to power. For the same reason, Freud reestablished as the “return of the repressed” the old rights of the cultural tradition with all of its taboos and authorities, immediately after these rights seemed to have been torn asunder by the powers of the libidinal. And in Derrida, the very cultural tradition that has been deconstructed continues to haunt the medial surface forever in the form of a specter—a specter that, on top of it, looks at people with a firm and reproachful gaze that signifies the “dead” law from which no living person can escape. The conservative defense of values is thus not only impossible—it is completely superfluous, because the values that are supposed to be defended are both undermined and supported by suspicion. Every suspicion is simultaneously a waiting for revelation. Suspicion can exist only if a revelation of the hidden is thought possible and desirable—even if this hidden is thought of as a great Nothingness. That is why trust, faith, and hope are also figures of suspicion from which we cannot escape, much as we cannot escape from suspicion itself. We are always already involved in the economy of suspicion, which is, so to say, the medium of all media. It is not just that all values fall under suspicion but that suspicion supports all values medially, because submedial space (the submedial carrier) is nothing but the space of suspicion. Hence, the

1 76—The Economy of Suspicion

values that suspicion effectively supports are necessarily as compelling as suspicion itself. However, in order to be truly compelling, values must repeatedly renew the mana of medial sincerity. That is, they must repeatedly confirm the suspicion that submedial space “essentially” looks different on its inside than it appears to be on the medial surface. It follows that values have to have a glow of strangeness, the uncommon, and the New in order to attain the mana of credibility and to be truly compelling. Given the influence of 1960s sociology and that of Foucault in particular, people today are inclined to think of everyday, common, ordinary norms as truly compelling ones. The Other beyond these norms, by contrast, is thought of as the suppressed, the censored, the excluded, which can and should achieve social acceptance only through the special efforts made by social critique. In reality, however, one does not believe at all in common norms, but only in the uncommon. This connection was much more clearly addressed in older sociological discourse, which was preoccupied with the problem of the sacred. Gods, saints, prophets, and priests were traditionally considered particularly credible precisely because they constantly appeared to be strange, uncommon, and even transgressive. Hence, they were suspected of transmitting the true knowledge of what is hidden behind the common.1 In traditional societies, the common was accepted only because it was legitimated by something extremely uncommon—divine revelation, for example. It is not coincidental that saints and priests lost their mana only after they had been exposed as common, ordinary humans. This exposure itself shattered the traditional order of the common. The common is socially accepted thanks only to the mana of the uncommon, which confirms the suspicion that something entirely different—and foreign—hides behind the common. It is a well-known fact about the economy of the sacred that if somebody kills a high priest and succeeds in escaping punishment for a certain period of time, then he will himself become a priest.2 A successful critique of ideology is nothing more than such a murder of earlier representatives of the hidden. This is why, following the murder, the mana of the earlier values is transferred onto the successful critic. Science, too, at-

Suspicion Is the Medium—1 7 7

tained its mana by murdering the “old god” and later even surpassing religion with regard to its mysteriousness. In modern society, the economy of suspicion does not function any differently than in so-called traditional societies. When Foucault seeks to defend the rights of insanity against the sane, normative, scientific worldview of modernity, he completely disregards the fact that science and scientists in particular are regarded as completely crazy in the “normal” mind of the masses—which is precisely why scientists are widely respected. The figure of the mad scientist is a firm fi xture of modern mass culture. It was hardly an accident that Einstein became the icon of modern science, first because he, in many respects, embodies this familiar figure, and second, because he is widely considered the person who finally rendered science utterly incomprehensible—that is, crazy. Modern science, in fact, was fi nally able to establish its power only after it had become even less comprehensible than the old religions. For “normal people,” the worldview of today’s science is indeed “unimaginable,” hence crazy—which is precisely why this view is socially accepted. Compared with modern physics, even the theories of the unconscious and the Other appear to be much more comprehensible and more “common,” which is why these theories slowly begin to lose their mana. The economy of suspicion is all-encompassing not only in the sense that it includes the figures of trust, faith, and sincerity but also in the sense that it renders all beings suspect. Everything that appears automatically falls under the suspicion that in its very act of appearance, it also hides something else behind it. This suspicion, as was stated earlier, can neither be confirmed nor refuted. Yet the purest form of suspicion, as was also mentioned earlier, is the assumption that behind the medial surface is not only a more deeply entrenched, supporting medium but also the manipulative, deceptive, and dangerous subject that poses an acute, if hidden, danger to the observer. It seems no longer possible to entertain an economic relationship with this subject but only a purely political one that consists of protesting against it, accusing it, holding it accountable, and combating it. Politics gets a real chance only when we begin to sus-

1 78 —The Economy of Suspicion

pect that things are the way they are not simply because that is just the way they are but because everything is being manipulated internally in a particular way. Yet, obviously, such an ur-decision in favor of politics also can neither be confirmed nor refuted: there are no compelling reasons to believe in a hidden and universal world conspiracy, just as there are no reasons to deny this possibility. However, because the suspicion of a hidden subjectivity secretly working inside things is the highest and most radical form of ontological suspicion, it cannot simply be ignored or ridiculed, as some participants in public discussions all too often try to do. Rather, one must recognize that even this radicalized form of suspicion nonetheless partakes of the general economy of suspicion. Many religions provide evidence that this hidden subjectivity is not only feared as a threat but is also interpreted as the source of the most elated bliss. These religions enable the world observer to converse with this hidden subjectivity and entertain direct relations with it instead of having to be satisfied with forever observing only the external image of the world. We know that such relations can certainly be of an economic nature: the sacrifices we offer to the gods express our gratitude for their help or compensate for our sins. Even more important, however, is the fact that the choice between economy and politics always remains an economic choice: the suspicion that hidden “behind everything” lurks a subject that makes political decisions and that, therefore, can only be confronted by political means. This suspicion is itself an integral part of the general economy of suspicion and thus appears more or less credible at different times. At first glance, then, the primacy of the economy that becomes apparent in these thoughts seems to become absolute. Indeed, if all relations among the signs on the medial surface are economic in nature, and if the relations between the medial surface and its submedial Other can also be described in economic terms, then it looks as if there is no limit to the absolute power of economy. Nonetheless, economic pressure works differently from the forces of “nature.” Even the expanded economy is unable to exert the relentless and inescapable force that Bataille ascribes to it. Economic necessity works in an entirely different manner from the necessity of natural laws: the economy does not have a materially and naturally

Suspicion Is the Medium—1 7 9

defined substance—be that physics, the forces of production, or solar energy. Human culture is based on exchange. All cultural procedures are exchange procedures, and cultural values are interchangeable. This obviously means that there are no eternal values, because all values will be exchanged sooner or later. But is there not a continuous flux, a becoming and a desire that cannot be exchanged? Whenever we start talking about the unstoppable flux of all signs, meanings, and values, we understand this flux itself as an original process that cannot be exchanged as such. Although deconstruction questions a good many things, it holds fast to the belief in the unexchangeable—even if this unexchangeable is now called “the work of difference” or “the Other.” Other theories of our time celebrate the self-withdrawing, self-concealing, and the uncontrollable. Those theories, too, remain prisoners of a particular traditional search for the unexchangeable. They only use new names for this unexchangeable. Yet flux can be exchanged very well—precisely against the self-repetitious, automatic, and identical. Just as there cannot be a philosophically grounded guarantee of the eternal validity of particular values, there cannot be a guarantee of eternal flux. Economic thought transcends the old opposition between identity and difference, or being and becoming, or stability and flux by showing how these terms can be interchanged. The increasing economization of all areas of life that so many today decry as being antithetical to culture in fact manifests the economic nature of culture as such. The economy is characterized above all by the fact that it enables a personal decision about whether or not a particular exchange should take place. Economy offers the possibility of exchange, but it does not enforce this exchange. The fact that all values are interchangeable does certainly not mean that they must, in fact, be exchanged all the time. In this sense, all cultural exchange operations must have an operator, an author who is suspected of having initiated a particular economic operation and who is deemed responsible for this operation. For us, the entire world of the media falls under the suspicion of manipulation. We necessarily interpret media signs as clues indicating a hidden crime. It is not coincidental that the detective-story genre is clearly the leading source

1 8 0—The Economy of Suspicion

of entertainment in contemporary culture—in literature, film, and TV. In order to be successful today, a work of art must be constructed like a detective story. Today’s culture is the culture of medial dissemination. The point is that only the formulation or the confirmation of a suspicion can be disseminated quickly enough in this culture, because only suspicion appears credible and convincing to us right away. The actual hero of medial culture is the private detective, who constantly looks for new clues to confirm his suspicions. The private detective is the symbolic representative of the medial public—he embodies the suspicion that defines the relation of this public to the media as such. The media theorist, too, acts as a private detective because he claims to have uncovered the most sublime and most perfect of all crimes—the crime without a criminal, the crime of language, of media, of codes that undermine and falsify our messages. Yet we suspect even this theory of the perfect crime of simply trying to provide cover for the real criminal by denying his very existence. Even a sublime—that is, a media-theoretical, deconstructionist—suspicion is only one suspicion among many and can be exchanged within the economy of suspicion. The media theorist can never become the perfect private detective who uncovers the perfect crime, because not even media theory can escape from the economy of suspicion. To be sure, all decisions made within the economy are of an economic nature. However, this certainly does not mean that all of these decisions must necessarily be oriented toward economic success. One might well decide against economic success, even though such a decision remains, of course, an economic decision—one that may even result in a high amount of mana within the overall framework of the symbolic economy, as demonstrated earlier. The most difficult and most sublime ascesis is precisely that which renounces even symbolic goods. We know that it is particularly difficult for a philosopher or an artist to renounce all mana; almost nobody is willing to write texts or produce works of art meant not to seduce their readers or viewers. But even the decision to produce such sublimely ascetic works still remains an economic decision that cannot protect their authors from remaining objects of suspicion.


Translator’s Preface: Dead Man Thinking 1. Boris Groys, Politik der Unsterblichkeit (München: Hanser, 2002), 35. All translations of Groys’s German publications are my own, unless noted otherwise. 2. Boris Groys, Über das Neue: Versuch einer Kulturökonomie (München: Hanser, 1999). 3. Groys, Under Suspicion, 11. 4. Boris Groys, Einführung in die Anti-Philosophie (München: Hanser, 2009), 36. 5. Boris Groys, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin: Die Gespaltene Kultur in der Sowjetunion (München: Hanser, 1988). Originally translated as Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism, trans. Charles Rougle (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992); reprinted under the same title by Verso Press in 2011. 6. Groys, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, 14.

1 8 2 —Notes

7. Groys, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, 81. 8. For a paradigmatic version of this critique, see Peter Wollen, “Stalin at the Movies,” London Review of Books, 21, no. 23 (Nov. 25, 1999). Available at www.lrb .co.uk/v21/n23/peter-wollen/stalin-at-the-movies (accessed September 8, 2011). 9. Boris Groys, Ilya Kabakow: Die Kunst der Installation (München: Hanser, 1996), 43. 10. Groys, Ilya Kabakow, 12. 11. Boris Groys, Topologie der Kunst (München: Hanser, 2003), 260. 12. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991); Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). 13. Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008), 94. 14. Einführung in die Anti-Philosophie, 91. Throughout his work, Groys emphasizes that the contextual nature of art is ahistorical and not limited only to (post)modernity: “Traditional art worked on the level of form. Contemporary art works on the level of context, framework, background, or of a new theoretical interpretation. But the goal is the same: to create a contrast between form and historical background, to make the form look other and new” (Groys, Art Power, 40). 15. Groys, Topologie, 37. 16. Groys, Art Power, 63. 17. Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript, trans. Thomas H. Ford (London: Verso, 2009), 123. 18. Groys, Politik, 114. 19. Boris Groys, “The Immortal Bodies,” in Thinking in Loop. Available at www.scribd.com/doc/18529754/Immortal-Bodies (accessed September 8, 2011). 20. Boris Groys, Die Kunst des Denkens, ed. Peter Weibel (Hamburg: Fundus, 2008), 38. 21. Groys, Die Kunst des Denkens, 39. 22. Groys, “The Immortal Bodies,” n.p. 23. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Essays on Ideology, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1984), 1–64. 24. Groys, Politik, 106. 25. Groys, Politik, 102. 26. Groys, Politik, 91. 27. Garland Fiedler, “Review of Art Power by Boris Groys,” in Art Lies 60 (Winter 2008). Available at www.artlies.org/article.php?id=1713&issue=60&s=1

Notes—1 83

(accessed October 14, 2011), n.p.; Matthew Jesse Jackson, “Public Image LTD,” in bookforum (June/July/Aug 2008), n.p. Available at www.bookforum.com /inprint/015_02/2496 (accessed October 14, 2011); Brian Dillon, “Art Power,” in frieze 117 (September 2008), n. p. Available at www.frieze.com/issue/article/art_ power/ (accessed October 14, 2011). 28. The Art of Thinking is the English title of the still untranslated collection of Groys’s essays published in 2008 as Die Kunst des Denkens (see note 20). 29. Groys, Anti-Philosophie, 16. 30. Groys, Anti-Philosophie, 250. 31. Cf. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1968). 32. Groys, Politik, 168. 33. Groys, Politik. 34. Groys, Politik, 151ff. 35. Cf. Susan Blackmore, Conversations on Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). 36. Groys, Politik, 149. 37. Groys, Politik, 149. 38. Groys, Politik, 150. 39. Fredric Jameson, “Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue,” in The Cultures of Globalization, ed. Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998), 55–77: 60. 40. Groys, Über das Neue, 16. ˘ iz˘ek and Glyn Daly, Conversations with Zizek (New York: Polity, 41. Slavoj Z 2004), 147. 42. Groys, Politik, 200. 43. Groys, Under Suspicion, 179. 44. Boris Groys, Über das Neue, 41. 45. Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” in Signatures of the Visible (New York: Routledge, 1992), 9–34: 23. 46. Cf. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). 47. Groys, Über das Neue, 37. 48. Groys, Politik, 138. 49. Groys, Under Suspicion, 3. 50. Richard Rorty, Truth and Progress (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 87.

1 8 4 —Notes

51. Similar to Groys, Rorty insists that “it is contexts all the way down” and “historical contingency all the way through” (Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991], 100, 188). Like Groys, Rorty champions creative productivity over critical analysis. Yet Rorty’s embrace of liberalism is clearly at odds with Groys’ skeptical, if not cynical, view of Western democracy. 52. Groys, Politik, 74. 53. Groys, Art Power, 7. 54. Groys, Art Power, 153. 55. Groys, Art Power. 56. Peter Sloterdijk, Regeln für den Menschenpark: Ein Antwortschreiben zu Heideggers Brief über den Humanismus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1999). 57. Jürgen Habermas, Die Zukunft der menschlichen Natur: Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugenik? (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2001), 43. 58. Peter Sloterdijk, “Die Kritische Theorie ist tot,” Die Zeit 37 (Sept. 1999). 59. Peter Sloterdijk and Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs, Die Sonne und der Tod: Dialogische Untersuchungen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2001), 64. 60. Cf. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988). 61. Nobert Bolz, Weltkommunikation (München: Fink, 2001), 31. 62. Norbert Bolz, Die Konformisten des Andersseins: Ende der Kritik (München: Fink, 1999). 63. Norbert Bolz, Das Konsumistische Manifest (München: Fink, 2002), 12. 64. Bolz, Weltkommunikation, 43. 65. Bolz, Das Konsumistische Manifest, 16. 66. Norbert Bolz, “‘Money as God-Term’: Wie das Geld Gott ersetzte, Kultur stiftet und Probleme löst,” in Gott, Geld, und Gabe: Zur Geldförmigkeit des Denkens in Religion und Gesellschaft, ed. Christof Gestrich (Berlin: Wichern, 2004) 89– 103: 101. 67. Bolz, Weltkommunikation, 169. 68. Groys, Under Suspicion, 89. 69. Groys, The Communist Postscript, 85, 86. 70. Groys, The Communist Postscript, 22f. 71. Groys, Politik, 108. 72. Groys, Anti-Philosophie, 113. 73. Groys, Anti-Philosophie, 12.

Notes—1 85

74. Groys, Anti-Philosophie, 15. 75. Groys, Anti-Philosophie, 8f. 76. In spite of the widespread and grotesque misunderstanding of relativism as the nihilist-postmodern belief that “everything is equal” and “anything goes,” relativism demands a philosophical pedigree and complexity impossible to develop in the present context. Michael Krausz, in his marvelous essay “Mapping Relativisms,” distinguishes at least “five sorts of variables” in the history of relativism, of which epistemology is but one. Michael Krausz, “Mapping Relativism,” in Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology, ed. Michael Krausz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 13–30: 13. 77. Groys, Über das Neue, 108f., 162ff. 78. Groys, Politik, 200. 79. Groys, Politik, 83. 80. Krausz, “Mapping Relativisms,” in Relativism, 29. 81. Groys, The Communist Postscript, 6ff.; see also 18ff.; and Groys, Topologie der Kunst, 252. 82. Groys, Art Power, 4. 83. Groys, The Communist Postscript, 113. 84. Groys, Politik, 150.

Introduction 1. Boris Groys, Über das Neue (Carl Hanser: München: Carl Hanser, 1992). 2. Translator’s note: Here and throughout the book, I have marked the distinction between Groys’s use of the “other” (der Andere, referring to another human person), and the “Other” (das Andere, referring to the Symbolic Order and/or some abstract, metaphysical entity) by capitalizing the latter.

1. The Submedial Subject and the Flux of Signs 1. Jean-François Lyotard, for example, celebrates the taboo- and frontierbreaking movement of capital that cannot be distinguished from the movement of desire. See Jean-François Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 92–93.

1 8 6—Notes

3. Media-Ontological Suspicion and Philosophical Doubt 1. Translator’s note: Fear and Trembling is the English title of one of Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophical texts. 2. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992), 209.

5. The Gaze of the Other 1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 276ff. 2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968). 3. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 11, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1998), 95. 4. Lacan, Psychoanalysis, 96. 5. Roger Caillois, The Mask of Medusa, trans. George Ordish (London: Victor Gollancz, 1964), 119ff. 6. Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, Echographies of Television, trans. Jennifer Bajorek (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), 120–21. Regarding the discussion of the picture that looks at us, see Georges Didi-Huberman, Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde (Paris: Éditions de minuit, 1992). 7. Jacque Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 4. 8. Regarding the topic of death through photography, see Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. and ed. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 47–63. 9. Derrida and Stiegler, Echographies of Television, 120. 10. Derrida, Specters of Marx, 51. 11. Translator’s note: Contrary to the German verb “spuken,” its English equivalent to haunt is transitive and requires a direct object. Hence, there is no adequate way to translate “Das Gespenst spukt ” other than by means of the—grammatically incorrect—expression “The specter haunts.”

Notes—1 87

12. Hence, the specter of Hamlet’s father does not give an answer to the question regarding its ontological nature (Derrida, Specters of Marx, 6ff.). 13. Derrida and Stiegler, Echographies of Television, 120–23. The question of the nature of the space behind the specter (that is, behind the signifier) is answered differently by authors more grounded in the Marxist tradition than Derrida. Contrary to Derrida, for example, Fredric Jameson argues that what remains hidden behind cinematographic specters is not the law, but the possibility of a world conspiracy that is both threatening and promising. See Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995). It is far from accidental that in his response to Derrida’s Specters of Marx, Jameson again refers to “conspiratorial futures.” See Fredric Jameson, “Marx’s Purloined Letter,” in Ghostly Demarcations. A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s “Specters of Marx,” ed. Michael Sprinker (London and New York: Verso, 1999), 65. Régis Debray, in his mediology, attempts to describe the submedial forces that may lead a particular signifier to secular victory. See Régis Debray, Cours de la médiologie générale (Paris: Gallimard, 1991). 14. Derrida and Stiegler, Echographies of Television, 121–23. 15. Derrida and Stiegler, Echographies of Television, 117.

6. The Medium Becomes the Message 1. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 13. 2. McLuhan, Understanding Media. 3. McLuhan, Understanding Media. 4. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 12. 5. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian, vol. 4, Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957–1969 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 85–93, esp. 86. 6. By the way, both Greenberg and McLuhan were primarily influenced by modern Anglo-American poets (T. S. Eliot in particular), who understood their poetry as an investigation of the medium of language. See Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1998); and Florence Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg: A Life (New York: Scribner, 1997).

1 8 8 —Notes

7. The Case of Exception and the Truth of the Medial 1. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M. T. H. Sadler (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1977). 2. Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992). 3. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage, 1955).

8. Marcel Mauss: Symbolic Exchange; or, Civilization Under Water 1. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison (London: Cohen & West, 1954). 2. Mauss, The Gift, 3. 3. Marcel Mauss, “A Category of the Human Mind: The Notion of Person, the Notion of ‘Self,’” in Sociology and Psychology: Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), 57–94. 4. Mauss, “Category,” 81ff. 5. Mauss, The Gift, 4. 6. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Anti-Christ,” in The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1–68. 7. Mauss, The Gift, 63–81. 8. Mauss, The Gift, 75. 9. Mauss, The Gift, 78. 10. Mauss, The Gift. 11. See Annette B. Weiner, Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of KeepingWhile-Giving (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); and Maurice Godelier, The Enigma of the Gift, trans. Nora Scott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). 12. See Mauss’s discussion in “L’échange: De la civilité à la violence,” in Critique 596–97 (Paris, 1997): 6ff. 13. This fact is criticized by Bourdieu, for example. See Pierre Bourdieu, “Mariginalia—Some Additional Notes on the Gift,” in The Logic of the Gift: Towards an Ethic of Generosity, ed. Alan D. Schrift (New York & London: Routledge, 1997), 231ff.

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9. Claude Lévi-Strauss: Mana; or, the Floating Signifier 1. Mauss, The Gift, 1. 2. Mauss, The Gift, 8. 3. See Rodolphe Gasché, “Heliocentric Exchange,” in The Logic of the Gift, 100–20. Gasché’s position is actually counter to Bourdieu’s. Rather than charging Mauss with ignoring the free decision of the individual, Gasché charges him with over-anthropomorphizing symbolic exchange. 4. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, trans. Felicity Baker (London: Routledge, 1987). 5. Lévi-Strauss, 59. 6. Lévi-Strauss 57–59. 7. Lévi-Strauss, 62. 8. Lévi-Strauss, 61. 9. Lévi-Strauss, 62. 10. Lévi-Strauss, 63. 11. Lévi-Strauss. 12. Lévi-Strauss, 64. 13. Lévi-Strauss. 14. Translator’s note: Depending on the English translation of French authors, the term fl oating signifi er is sometimes replaced by “flowing signifier,” “sliding signifier” or “shifting signifier.” 15. A convincing description of the competition among poets can be found in Harold Bloom, Anxiety of Influence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973). 16. Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984). 17. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy (New York: Zone, 1988).

10. Georges Bataille: The Potlatch with the Sun 1. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 28. 2. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 21. 3. Georges Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” in Visions of Excess. Selected Writings 1927–1939, ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 1985), 116–29.

1 90—Notes

4. Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” 126–28. 5. Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” 129. 6. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 32. 7. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 33. 8. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 37. 9. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 46. 10. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 39. 11. Lev Shestov in particular seeks to unmask the lie of philosophy that pretends to allow philosophers a getaway from their personal tragedy by staging their impossible escape into generality. See, for example, Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1966). 12. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 163–90. 13. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 9. 14. As we know, Walter Benjamin’s exploration of how art and poetry supposedly suffered the “loss of aura” under the conditions of modernity has been particularly successful. 15. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 70. 16. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 71. 17. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 74. 18. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 76–77. 19. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 69. 20. Georges Bataille, Literature and Evil, trans. Alastair Hamilton (New York: Urizen, 1973), 145–75. 21. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 74–77.

11. Jacques Derrida: The Lack of Time and Its Specters 1. Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 6. 2. Derrida, Given Time, 7. 3. Derrida, Given Time, 14. 4. Derrida, Given Time, 15. 5. Derrida, Given Time, 24. 6. Derrida, Given Time. 7. Derrida, Given Time, 6.

Notes—1 9 1

8. Derrida, Given Time, 29. [Translator’s note: Both the English and the German translations of Derrida’s text repeat this phrase three times, italicizing different words each time. Groys, in contrast, quotes the German translation without using any italics.] 9. Translator’s note: Heidegger’s famous phrase “Es gibt…” in Being and Time literally translates as “It gives.…” It is this “It” to which Groys refers in this and subsequent passages. The standard English translation of Heidegger’s phrase, however, is “There is…,” meaning that the connection to Heidegger’s “It” gets lost in English. This “It,” moreover, must not be confused with the Freudian “Id.” 10. Charles Baudelaire, “Counterfeit Money,” quoted in Derrida, Given Time, 31-33. 11. Derrida, Given Time, 134ff. 12. Derrida, Given Time, 152. 13. Derrida, Given Time, 164. 14. Derrida, Given Time, 9. 15. Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), 58–61. 16. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 2. 17. Derrida, Archive Fever, 100. 18. Translator’s note: See translator’s note 9 above. 19. Translator’s note: See translator’s note 11 in chapter 5, “The Gaze of the Other.”

12. Jean-François Lyotard: The Roller Coaster of the Sublime 1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 134. 2. Kant, Critique, 135. 3. Kant, Critique, 147ff. 4. Kant, Critique, 148. 5. Kant, Critique, 148–49.

1 92 —Notes

6. Jean-François Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” in The Lyotard Reader, ed. Andrew Benjamin (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 196ff. 7. Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” 197. 8. Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” 209. 9. Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” 210. 10. Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” 211. 11. See: Boris Groys, “Strategien der künstlerischen Askese,” in Im Rausch der Sinne: Kunst zwischen Animation und Askese, ed. Konrad Paul Liessmann (Wien: Zsolnay, 1999), 145–70. 12. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, vols. III and IV, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins, 1991). 13. Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 213–66. 14. See Boris Groys, “Über den Ursprung des Kunstwerks. Wesen ist, was sein wird: Martin Heideggers Beschwörung wesentlicher Kunst,” in Neue Rundschau 108, no. 4 (1997): 107–20.

13. The Time of Signs 1. Translator’s note: See note 9 in chapter 11 on Derrida above. 2. Such an insinuation can be found in Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996).

14. Suspicion Is the Medium 1. Roger Caillois, Man and the Sacred, trans. Meyer Barash (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 37ff. 2. Caillois, Man and the Sacred, 47ff.


academic discourse, commodification of, xxi–xxv The Accursed Share (Bataille), 114–128 Adorno, Theodor, xix, xxii advertising, 76 aesthetic innovation, xx aesthetics, x–xi, xxi–xxii, 82 agnosticism, 21 alien signs, 53–55, 66–67, 88–90 Althusser, Louis, xiv antimodern propaganda, 85 Anti-philosophy, xxii–xxvi antithesis, 27 anxiety, 29

archaic societies, 94–95, 101, 103, 107 archives: destruction of, 9–10; external spaces, 11–13, 30; as historical memory, 162–163; inclusion in, 1–7, 36; medium sustaining, 7–11; origin of, 143–144; reality and, 30–31; sign carriers of, 10–15; temporal economy of, 88 art: avant-garde, ix–x, 73–76, 78, 81–85, 100–101, 150–160, 170–171; contemporary, x–xi; cultural economy of exchange and, xviii–xx; modern, xv–xvi, 6, 74, 85; originals and copies, xi, xxv–xxvi; as propaganda, xxiii;

1 94 —Index

art: avant-garde (continued) reality and, xx–xxi; Russian, x–xi; topological nature of, xi–xii art market, x–xii, xviii–xix, xxi asceticism, 100 atheism, 21 authenticity, 56, 129–130, 136. See also sincerity authentic messages, 14–15 author/reader relationship, 166–168 avant-garde, ix–x, 73–76, 78, 81–85, 100–101, 150–160, 170–171 Aztec society, 119–120, 125 Bataille, George, 114–128, 131 Baudelaire, Charles, 133–141 Beetlejuice (fi lm), 108 being, 45, 46 Benjamin, Walter, xi, xxii Big Bang theory, 109 Black Square (Malevich), 82–83, 159 Bolz, Norbert, xxi, xxii–xxiii boredom, 160 bourgeois upstart, 126–127 brain, xvi Buren, Daniel, 156 Caillois, Roger, 64 capitalism, xviii, xxiii–xxiv Cartesian worldview, 42–44, 45 Christianity, 99, 142, 145, 174 circular exchange, 130, 132 civilization, 119 classical ontology, 12 classical structuralism, 24–25 coercion, 94, 102–103 cognition, xvi commentating texts, 141 communication media, xvi

Communist Manifesto (Marx), 64 competition, 113–114, 124–125 consciousness, xvii, 39, 44, 87, 130 conspicuous consumption, 101 consumerism, xxiii contemporary art, x–xi “Counterfeit Money” (Baudelaire), 133–141 countergift, 95–96, 102, 121, 130–131 critical theory, xxi–xxiii, 9 criticism, xxiii–xxiv, 174–175 cubism, 73–75, 78, 81–82, 84 cultural archaeology, x cultural archives. See archives cultural economy of exchange, viii, xvii–xxi, xxvi, xxvii–xxviii, 1, 7 cultural identity, 56 cultural innovation, 7 cultural institutions, xviii–xx cultural production, x–xi cultural revisionism, x cultural studies, 170 cultural values, xviii culture: mass, 22; media, 29, 57; nature and, 172 darkness, 64 data storage, 10 death, 64–66, 79, 104, 118–119, 158 deconstruction, xxiv, 22–23, 30, 47–48, 110–111, 118, 141–147, 174 deism, 21 Deleuze, Gilles, 70 De Man, Paul, 113 demythologization, 123 Derrida, Jacques, 64–66, 110, 129–147, 164, 175 Descartes, René, 42–45, 174 desire, 70–71

Index—1 9 5

dialectics, 104 discourse, 25–27 disembodiment, xiii–xvi dissolution, of the subject, 23–24 divine memory, 10 doubt, 41–48, 138, 142–143 Duchamp, Marcel, 5, 81, 85, 138, 139, 141, 159 dynamic sublime, 149–150 East, divide between West and, xii–xiii embodiment, xiii–xvi empty signifiers, 109–113, 115, 164–165 epistemological relativism, xxv–xxvii epochs, 160 exception, 39–40, 80–90, 93 expenditure, 116–117, 125 face, 98 fashion, 108, 159 fear, 20, 22, 28–29, 43, 46, 49, 62–63 fi lm, 22, 57–59, 65 fi niteness, 5, 6, 9 flexibility, 28–29, 31 floating signifier, 106–114 flux, theory of, 23–31, 37 forgetting, 131–132 Foucault, Michel, x Fountain (Duchamp), 159 Frankfurt School, xxii Freud, Sigmund, 5, 44 gaze, of the other, 60–68, 88, 170 general economy, 120–126, 132 Genet, Jean, 125–126 genetic research, xvii, xxii German academia, xxi–xxiii Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (Groys), ix–x ghostly, 65–66

gift: economy of, 89, 93–105, 130–131; of imagination, 136–137; mana of the, 106–108; from the sun, 115–128; of time, 131–134; of undecidability, 139–143 God, 43–44, 60, 99, 122, 142, 161 Gombrich, Ernst, 73–74 Greenberg, Clement, 73–74, 81 Groys, Boris Efi movich: biographical information, xii–xiii; personal identity issues for, xii–xiii; writing style, xiv–xv Habermas, Jürgen, xxii–xxiii, xxii Hansen, Mark B. N., xv hauntology, 65 Hayles, Katherine, xv Hegel, G. W. F., 114 Hegelian dialectics, 104 Heidegger, Martin, 45, 131, 132, 150, 159–160 historical memory, 162–163 history, 3 Hitchcock, Alfred, 58–59 Hitler, Adolf, 164–165 Hollywood movies, 22, 57–59 honesty, 55 Honneth, Alex, xxii honor, 98 Horkheimer, Max, xxii human culture, xviii humanism, xvii, 160 Husserl, Edmund, xvi, 159 ideology, xiv infi nite suspicion, 101 infi nite values, 89–90, 111–112 infi nity, 6–9, 112 inner values, 9, 94–95

1 96—Index

innovation, 54–57, 153 intellectual conformism, xxiii–xxiv interior, 82, 84–85, 92–94, 97–98, 100 Jameson, Frederic, xi, xviii, xix Jesus Christ, 99, 142, 159 Jones, Carolyn, xv Kabakow, Ilya, x Kandinsky, Wassily, 83–84, 85 Kant, Immanuel, 148–152, 154 Kierkegaard, Søren, 43, 141–142, 145 Kittler, Friedrich, xxi Kracauer, Siegfried, xxii labor market, 102 Lacan, Jacques, 63–64, 70 language, 10, 25–27 Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 106–114, 115, 165 light, 63–64 literary texts, 136–141 Lyotard, Jean-François, 147–160 Malevich, Kazimir, 82–83, 85, 159 Mana, 106–114, 118, 124, 140, 141, 158–159, 164, 176–177 Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso, 85 market behavior, 27 market economy, xviii, xxiii, 9, 89, 95–96, 128, 169 market failure, 29 Marshall Plan, 121 Marx, Karl, 5, 44, 64, 153 Marxism, xiv, xvii–xviii masks, 60–61, 98 mass culture, 22 mass media, 9, 75, 76 Massumi, Brian, xv materialism, xxiv

mathematical sublime, 148–149 Mauss, Marcel, 89, 93–109, 114, 118, 120, 130–132 McLuhan, Marshall, 69, 71–74, 78–79, 81–84 meaning, 33–34, 36, 70, 139 media: gaze of the, 64–65; mass, 9, 75, 76; submedial space and, 36–38; understanding, 71–72 media carriers, 33, 35, 37–38, 70–71 media culture, 29, 57 medial economy, 32–34, 79, 90, 93, 112, 135–136, 161, 169 mediality, 15 medial sincerity, 49–61, 75 medial surface, 13–14, 19–21, 36–37 media-ontological atheism, 21 media-ontological suspicion, 13–15, 20, 29–31, 37–49, 55, 59–60, 78, 145. See also suspicion media ontology, 12–14 media theory, viii–ix, 11–14, 37–38, 70–72, 75–79, 84, 180 medium: meaning of word, 68; as message, 69–79, 84, 122, 166–168; suspicion as the, 173–180 Menke, Christopher, xxii Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, xvi, 63 metanoia, xii–xvii metaphysics, xvi military, 96, 98 mimicry, 64 mind, xvi–xvii minimalism, 156 modern art, xv–xvi, 6, 74, 85 modernity, 15, 101 Mondrian, Piet, 82 money, xxiii, 28 morality, 66

Index—1 9 7

mortality, 5 museums, xi, xix–xx, 4 National Socialism, xxii nature, 57, 172, 178 negative utopianism, xix new, 4–8, 30, 88, 144–145, 152–153, 170, 176 Newman, Barnett, 82, 151, 156 new media, xv–xvi Nietzsche, Friedrich, 44, 99–101, 144, 159, 175 noncontradiction, xxvii objectivity, 38, 39 obscurity, 59 observation, 59 observer, 50, 71; relationship between Other and, 59–60 October Revolution (1917), ix On the New: An Essay on Cultural Economy (Groys), xviii–xix, 1, 2, 7, 30 ontological suspicion. See Mediaontological suspicion; Suspicion ontology, 12, 65 opinions, sovereignty of, 27–28 Other, 10, 21–22, 29, 41, 176; gaze of the, 60–68, 88, 170; interior of the, 53–54; relationship between observer and, 59–60; sincerity of the, 49–61; suspicion of the, 62 painting, 68, 74–75, 81 paradox, xxv–xxviii paranoia, 28–29 passion, 8–9 periodization, 160 persona, 98

personality, 98 phenomenology, xv–xvi, xvii; of sincerity, 49–61 philosophical doubt, 41–48 philosophy, xxii–xxv photography, 65 plagiarism, 89 Plato, xiii, xxiv, 10 poète maudit, 117, 127–128 poetry, 112–113, 123–124 political campaign commercials, xxi politics, 20, 46, 177–178 Poltergeist (fi lm), 107–108 postmodernism, xxii, xxvii, 74, 146–147, 154 poststructural discourse, 22–23 poststructuralism, 23–27, 30, 34, 110–111, 113 potlatch, 98–100, 114–128, 130, 163–164 poverty, 117–118 power, x, 2–3 primitive societies, xviii, 89, 103 profane space, 1–5, 7, 10–13, 30 projection, 19 proletariat, 5 propaganda, xxi, xxiii psychoanalysis, 10, 50–51, 70, 71, 87 public opinion, 7–8 quotation, economy of, 88–90 readymades, 5, 81, 85, 138–139, 142, 147 reality, 3–5; archive and, 30–31; art and, xx–xxi reason, 149, 155, 175 reductionism, 56–57, 100 referentiality, 53–54, 74, 80 Reinhardt, Ad, 82

1 98 —Index

relativism, xxv–xxvii remembering, 131–132, 145 repetition, 65, 80 reproductions, xi revolution, 117, 118 romanticism, 8, 96 Rorty, Richard, xx, xxvi Russian art, x–xi Russian culture, ix–x, xiv Russian Orthodox Church, xiv sacred, 93 sacrifice, 97, 99–101, 128 Sartre, Jean-Paul, 23, 62–63, 65–66 scarcity, of time, 129–147, 151, 160 science, xvi, 12, 38, 56–57, 111, 176–177 scientific reductionism, xvi–xvii, 57 scientific truth, 80 scientistic discourse, 37–38 Seel, Martin, xxii self, loss of, xii–xvii self-concealment, 46–47 self-observation, 59 self-realization, 84 self-reflection, xvi self-revelation, 49, 51 self-sacrifice, 99–101 shame, 62–63, 66 sign carriers, 10–15, 32–35, 40, 54 signification, 13, 24–25, 30–34, 45–46, 48, 109, 138–140 signs: alien, 53–55, 67–68, 88–90; context of, 55–56; empty, 164–165; fi nite, 33; flow of, 23–33, 70–71; hidden, 37; infi nite, 32–33; materiality of, 34; meaning and, 33–34, 36; operational level, 33–36; recopying of, 88–89; referentiality of, 53, 54; sincerity of, 72; time of, 161–172

sincerity, 14, 49–61, 75, 88, 167; forced, 82; in the media, 72; repetition and, 65, 80; signs of, 67–68 Sloterdijk, Peter, xxi, xxii social conventions, 103 socialism, xvii social isolation, xiv socialist realism, ix–x, xxi Socrates, 99 solar energy, 115–128, 165 Soviet Union, ix–x speaking, 51–52 specters, 64–67, 143–147 sponsoring, 102 Stalinist culture, ix–x Stallabras, Julian, xi state of exception, 39–40 structuralism, 24–25, 112, 163 subconsciousness, 87 subject: dissolution of the, 23–24; hidden, 43–45; powerless, 25; signification and, 24–25 subjectivity, viii–ix, xvi–xvii, xxvii–xxviii, 19–21, 63 sublime, 148–160, 171 submedial space, viii, 10–15, 19–23, 30–31, 34–36; media and, 36–38; nature of, 37–38; obscurity of, 59; of painting, 68; suspicion of, 53; truth of, 80 submedial subject, 19–31, 49, 71 sun, 115–128 Superman, 99–100, 159–160 supplement, 110 suspense, 59, 87–88 suspicion, 13–15, 19–22, 28–29, 37–48, 55, 59–60; avant-garde and, 84–85; economy of, 82, 87–89, 158–159, 177–180; infi nite, 101; media and, 78,

Index—1 9 9

87–88; as medium, 173–180; of the Other, 62 symbolic economy/exchange, 89, 93–105, 108, 113–114, 120, 124, 129, 130, 132, 168–169 temporal economy, 88, 112, 132, 162–164 testimony, 49–50, 57, 82 textuality, 25 theological discourse, 60 thesis, 27–28 thinking, 51–52 time: as gift, 131–134; scarcity of, 9, 129–147, 151, 160; of signs, 161–172 transcendentalism, xvi transparency, 55 The Truman Show (fi lm), 29 trust, 50 truth, xxiv–xxv, 39–40, 44, 70; of the medial, 80–90; of referentiality, 80;

scientific, 80; of submedial space, 80 unconscious, 10, 71 undecidability, 129, 137–143 values: cultural, xviii; inner, 9, 94–95; traditional, 173–174, 175 violence, 82, 83 virtual space, xv–xvi war, 97, 102, 119–120 wealth, 117 welfare state, 101–102 Wellmer, Albrecht, xxii West, divide between East and, xii–xiii Western philosophy, xxii–xxv Western society, xxiii Žižek, Slavoj, xviii

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