First, can you walk me through who you are and how you ended up where you’re at?
Well, I was born in Seattle into the white middle class. I had little contact with art, but I knew I wanted to be a writer from an early age. The family of my best friend had an art collection—one of the first of twentieth century art in the Northwest. So one primal scene that I tell is this: one day when I was about twelve or thirteen I happened to be at his house, alone in his living room. And there were these things on the wall and on the floor that I knew were paintings and sculptures, but I’d never seen anything quite like them. There was one in particular—I later came to know it as an abstract painting (it was a Rothko in fact)—and I had this sudden feeling, a rush of pleasure, the fabled aesthetic experience: “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” And then right on top of that feeling, I thought, “Why do they have it and we don’t?”
The take-away of this primal scene—which, like most primal scenes, is part real and part fictive—is that, at that moment, I became a critic rather than an artist. To be a good critic you have to have a strong sense of the aesthetic, of course, but you also must have a hit of social resentment, a dose of political spleen. Even though I wanted to write fiction, it was clear that whatever intelligence I had was more critical than imaginative.
Although my parents were well educated, they were hardly intellectual. My mother was interested in culture, though; she turned me on to nineteenth century novels and classical music in particular. She also had books by a few New York intellectuals that I stumbled across. Writers like Susan Sontag were important to me even as a teenager. The edgy voice of her prose, you know? Also the sense that there was another culture out there to explore, not just mass or pop material–that there were “styles of radical will,” as she put it. The idea of an avant garde—even then that was thrilling. And I suppose I had a moment of aspirational identification then too. I mean, I was locked up in the Northwest miles away from anything that Sontag wrote about, but she made me think, “Wow, there is a place where stuff like this happens, a place where I won’t be alienated. Someday I should go there and see what it’s all about.” My parents were Easterners, but they wanted to get away from the East, its society, its history. I went the other way. Even though I love the Northwest, I needed to get to New York, to Europe. (How naïve this all sounds now.) So I came East to college, and right after college, I went to New York and began to write criticism. I was foolish enough—hubristic enough—to think that I could just do it. And I did. If lesson #1 is that spleen isn’t all bad, lesson #2 is a little arrogance is sometimes necessary. The young me was a bit of a prick.
Do you remember the very first piece of criticism that you wrote?
I don’t really. I’m sure it was pretentious as hell. I began to write reviews for Artforum, and I know I was very taken by Minimalism. That was my primary point of artistic initiation, and Minimalism has remained a crux for me. Even then it allowed me to think historically about abstract art—but also to experience art focused on embodiment and space. It also opened on to Conceptual art, to institutional critique, to so much. It was a good point of entry. But I was just a kid in the galleries. I wrote about what I could.
Though I obviously entered at a different moment, I think for me, Minimalism was kind of the entry point as well. Or I was like, “whoa, this is something very special.” You say that Minimalism was a way to “think historically.” What do you mean by that?
Well, that it was radically abstract, which led me back to modernist abstraction, and that will to abstraction—to transformation that was difficult to differentiate from annihilation—fascinated me. At the same time minimalism wanted to break with painting, and this forced me to think about a whole other set of practices that I didn’t really learn about in college, like Dada and Constructivism. Minimalism reoriented the historical material in a way that was still fresh then, and that connection between contemporary art and historical work became important to me; right away I knew I wanted to work on the relay between the two.
Okay. So, back to the timeline. You’re writing reviews in New York …
This was the late 1970s, and, as luck would have it, I fell in with the artists and critics that came to be known as the Pictures Generation—although that’s not my favorite appellation (I think “appropriation art” is more to the point). We just happened to come together—elective affinities, you know? Some people were already in New York; some people came from Buffalo (the Hallwalls gang) and others from LA (the CalArts grads).
This was a New York that had more in common with New York in the 1950s than it does with New York today. Life was relatively cheap—after all the city was bankrupt in the mid-1970s. We all got by, but in such a way that we could hang out together, sometimes deep into the night. It was fractious like any young community is, but we also sensed that we were on to new things and that it was a collective thing. And that was such a gift. I hope that new generations have that, like, forever. I think it’s so much harder today, though, and I’m so impressed that young people are still able to make it happen.
And so with the ’90s, what began to shift? How did the city begin to change? The art world, art criticism, and art production—what was that like? And that was around the time that you officially became involved with October, right?
I was part of the October orbit by the early 1980s. At the time I was an editor at Art in America alongside Craig Owens, and in some ways we confronted the moment together. We were part of a new downtown scene, but one that was coeval with Reagan and Thatcher—it was the early days of neoliberalism. So we witnessed a sudden rise of an art market that just didn’t exist in the same way in the 1970s, and it was difficult to see our little scene acquired, as it were, bought out. I mean, it was great to see all this attention given to artists of our generation, but it was tricky for them to negotiate, and tricky for us critics to mediate. It made the scene volatile, and by the late 1980s it began to break up. Our group needed a time out and took it.
The art world became a very different place. I came of age at the tail end of the age of the New York intellectual when you could still be independent as a critic or a scholar. That became more difficult, indeed almost impossible, as time went on. At that point the academy began to look more like a sanctuary and less like a mausoleum. In any case, critics like Craig and me began to gravitate towards the university; we wanted out of an art world dominated by the art market.
The other important event of the late 1980s into the ’90s was, of course, the AIDS epidemic. It was really AIDS that drove the politicization of art during that time. It was one factor that shifted the focus away from “pictures” and “texts”—pictures as texts—to bodies, bodies in pain, bodies in a plague, to a body politic that was diseased as well. That was when I began to write about “traumatic realism.” Everything before seemed to be “image” and “sign,” but then there was a “return of the real,” to coin a phrase.
I was thinking about that a lot as I was revisiting different texts of yours and reading the new book. I’ve had this nagging overarching question about the “real” and the relationship between that moment in the ’90s and now. It sounds like there was a renewed necessity to confront the real in that respect; but now in some ways, it feels to me that we’re living in the hangover of that ’90s pivot. On the one hand there’s a rise in understanding “reality” as having this simulacral quality—the unreal and the image, all this stuff—but we’re still kind of having certain conversations as though it’s still the ’90s. Even in liberal arts college in the 2010s, the conversation was very much about “bodies,” “reality,” and “performance.” It seemed very ‘90s to me. So, I guess my question is, in your view, what the legacy of that moment is? How have we—let’s say specifically in a contemporary art discourse—moved forward with our tools or is there a weird relationship between now and then in terms of the conversation that happens?
That’s such a good question, one I haven’t thought much about. To go back to my point of initiation with Minimalism: its historical complement was Pop, and so right away one was confronted with a dialectic between an art focused on the phenomenological and the spatial and an art given over to the imagistic and the virtual. That dialectic was worked out in different ways in the decades that followed. Yet there was a real turn in the ’90s—again, a turn to the real—and it was complicated by a call-out to identity, by identity politics. It’s not only now that we toil over questions of cultural appropriation; that was on the table then too. So, yes, there is that continuity, but then, if you live long enough, you begin to see patterns in artistic formations and critical problems as they come and go and come back again. It’s hard to capture what the rhythm is, why it is that they return with a difference, what that transversal across time really means. It’s hard simply to graph. Take political art: certain signs, gestures, acts, and spaces return at different moments; there is a “mnemotechny” of the political. Grasping such recurrence is one thing that art historians should attempt.
I’d love to hear you say more about the return of the ’90s …
I’ve tried to think through it. I hate going to the “because of the internet” argument, but I do think that maybe there’s something about the introduction of a new layer, an additional apparatus for identity to be expressed through that one is in turn beholden to that has caused a doubling down on the anxiety around the body and around identity that probably existed in the ’90s for different reasons. So this 2010s return to identity and the body is a staving off of the actuality of the technologized body or subjectivity. In order to stave off this anxiety, maybe people have largely stuck with the ’70s and ’90s ideas about how we talk about the situation of the body, the self, and the image.
There is often an insistence on the body—on its actuality, materiality, presence, performance—at times of technological transformation, as though each wave of new media might be countervailed by a call to our old carnalities. In that sense it’s no accident that minimalism and pop emerged together, or that, closer to the present, we’d insist on the body when the internet seems to disembody us so thoroughly.
This reminds me of the section of your latest book What Comes After Farce? about Harun Farocki. You go into the Eye/Machine work and talk about mechanized computer vision. I think that’s a really interesting way to think about the body/image/media stuff too. I guess there’s something in the way that Farocki thinks about images and the informationalization of seeing–how that impacts how we’re capable of categorizing bodies; maybe it’s less about what we are but the limits of our perception, which now is so impacted by machinic logics.
It’s difficult to know how to approach the world that artists like Harun Farocki, Hito Steyerl, and Trevor Paglen present to us because it is almost post-human. There is a way in which seeing—perceiving and knowing—exceed us now; they are outsourced in ways we don’t—maybe can’t—understand. Part of me is reactive, and wants to insist on an old humanism, but part of me, the modernist part, believes that we have to go through this condition, Old humanism or new accelerationism? Neither alone is satisfactory to me. I don’t think we can simply pass beyond Post-Fordism the way that Gramsci and Benjamin once thought that they could go through Fordism. What other side did they imagine? What other side might we?
Bleak. [Laughs.] I wanted to talk about postmodernism as well, in general, but also this specific idea you’ve proposed of a “resistant” versus “reactionary” postmodernism. In Anti-Aesthetic, you talk about these two different forms of postmodernism. What you were just saying here about going through or not, made me think of that distinction between postmodernisms. Is the goal to return to evade modernism through a return to tradition, or to circumvent or move beyond modernism through what you phrase as “critical deconstruction,” “critique of origin,” and a “questioning of cultural codes?” Maybe it’s pessimistic of me, but that made me think a lot about how in terms of contemporary art and visual culture, there’s not a lot of that “resistant” postmodernism in play, that questioning or deconstructing tradition, origins, the things that make up the world at scale. Maybe it’s not necessary because perhaps we’re not even postmodern at all right now, but I feel like—again, even going back to the ‘90s—here’s this overall acceptance of the status quo in many conversations, as though these things aren’t mutable or up for questioning. It’s kind of this continual desire to establish or reestablish some sort of dominance over the narrative rather than questioning the very reality of it all.
That’s a good point. In the 1980s the debate about two postmodernisms—reactionary versus resistant—didn’t allow for a third—accelerationist—option. On the one side, there was a postmodernism that aimed to recover a traditional history, and, on the other, a postmodernism that wanted to critique that traditionalism and to open up new possibilities in the past and in the present. The debate was also about whether postmodernism was simply a stylistic term and a period designation, or a way to think about cultural change and political transformation. I was in line with theorists like Fredric Jameson for whom postmodernism was a way to periodize culture in relation to political economies and social histories. From that point of view, it’s not a dead letter to me at all.
Critical postmodernism was about critique in a sense that appears antiquated to many people today—it was about unveiling and exposing, demystifying and deconstructing. Like everything else, critique needs to be renewed, but I’m not post-critical: I think there’s still a place for that old critical project. Who benefits anyway if we jettison it? That said, postmodernism is obviously not the vital concern that it once was. But then, in a funny way, neither is “the contemporary.” Remember when, not so long ago, we were all so concerned to define the contemporary? Now it’s like “Next question, please.”
There was a piece in Art Review recently that asked, “Are we still contemporary?” “Are we still in the contemporary art era?” I was kind of like, “well, this could be clickbaity in certain ways, but it’s also very interesting.” Even prior to COVID and related crises, there was a sort of necessary question of whether the terms fit anymore. Are we doing the thing that we thought we were doing ten years ago or five years ago, even? I think it’s increasingly difficult–periodization and then classification overall. Are we postmodern in a critical sense or in a temporal sense? Are we contemporary in a critical sense in a temporal sense? Equally so, are we anywhere? Because we’re kind of in this strange wormhole.
I wanted to go back to the question of criticism though. Something interesting about What Comes After Farce? is the length and style of the pieces. I’m wondering about your views on criticism at large right now. Did you specifically choose to write a book in the format that you did—rather accessible and off the cuff in some ways? Do you feel like there’s a possibility for long-form engaged criticism right now? Whither the critic! Whither criticism!
It’s great to talk about problems that people like you and me confront together. For me it’s very important to think about criticism in relation to both theory and history. I always want my criticism to be enlivened by theoretical concerns and grounded in historical questions. And vice versa: When I do theoretical pieces or historical work, that triangulation remains crucial. The emphasis shifts from point to point in the triangle, but to have them in play together, to generate a force field between them, is necessary to me. However pretentious it may sound, I think the task of the critic is still to propose new terms, to sketch new paradigms, even or especially if, as Leo Steinberg once said, they become clichés soon enough. And the best way to do that is through a relay of criticism, theory, and history.
In Bad New Days, the book of essays that preceded What Comes After Farce?, I lay out several paradigms of practice that govern some advanced art over the last couple of decades. They were too exclusive, I now see, but then I didn’t mean them to be comprehensive. Again, I think that’s what the critic should do—point to concerns that orient different practices, to find a common project that renders them not only more legible but also more impactful. Otherwise we’re given over to a world of relativism: “You do this. I do that. I won’t say anything bad about you if you don’t say anything bad about me.” That gets us literally nowhere.
Yes, it seems to me that in art right now, either there’s that attitude or there’s this frustrating judgment function in criticism—which isn’t to say that artists should be just left alone to do whatever they want, and no one can critique them. It’s specifically that people are kind of judging things with a sort of predetermined, often unspoken paradigm in mind, and it’s like, “this is bad because it doesn’t fit in.” It’s a very prescriptive form of criticism, but under the guise of just being like, “I don’t know; this is what I saw!” Paradigm-building is so difficult right now, because it seems like there’s a general unwillingness to be the guy who’s going to go out and say, “I think that this is what’s happening. I’m willing to go out on a limb and claim it.”
It is a strange moment. On the one hand, it’s quite relativistic; on the other, it feels very judgmental. On the one hand, we cut each other too much slack; on the other, no slack at all. On the one hand, we’re indifferent to each other; on the other, one misstep can get you canceled. That said, I’m not down with the complaints about cancel culture; too much of it is a matter of white guys whining about their own free speech–as if their speech was the thing that was most in danger these days.
To go back to your point about writing: For me it’s not only about triangulating the perspectives of critic, theorist, and historian; it’s also about modes of writing. I don’t overthink the reader—that can be dangerous for a writer—but I’m hardly oblivious to her either. When I write for October, for instance, I can go almost as long and deep as I want. Artforum is a different readership, and so a different language is warranted. When I write for the London Review of Books, I know the audience is interested but not informed, and that calls out for yet another way of thinking and writing. These modes have different speeds. Of course, our prose is also affected by shifts in technological media, and mine has become smoother in ways that I’m ambivalent about. Sometimes I wonder if I sugar-coat the pill too much, if I’m more concerned with the lure than the hook.
Yeah. My brain has been smoothed by technology. I also have this fear that no one’s going to read things anyway. And so I’m kind of like, “Am I going to labor over how I’m describing this? I’m not certain that people will read it with any depth of engagement.” Maybe that’s really an unfair thing to worry about. Maybe I’m totally selling everyone short, but I know that even I don’t read everything. I read things, but I often feel that I don’t fully absorb all of it.
You never know how your work will be taken up. Sometimes mine comes back to me in ways that blow my mind: “Wow, that’s what I wrote? Really?” But once delivered, it’s not really yours anymore. It’s the same with any art, a poem, a play, a film, whatever. I think about the process in this way: First I have an intuition, a guess about a practice or a problem. It then becomes an itch, an irritant, that prompts me to think not because I know but because I don’t, and the writing becomes the thinking—it becomes a way to come to know. I’m muddled most of the time, and so the writing is a way to get clear. And then, eventually, it’s no longer my problem; it becomes a problem for whoever picks it up. It’s like a grenade I don’t want to explode in my own head.
Yes. I was just reading your piece “Armor Fou” (1991), and I love that one because you’re just like, “I don’t know. This thing happened that I don’t understand and I have to figure out what went on there.” It’s even kind of hard to read because of that. You’re trying to work through all these things in real time almost, but I think it is really such an important thing. The best writing comes out of that total lack of clarity.
When I look back—which I don’t often do—the pieces I like best are like that. They tend to be ones that indulge a little in wild theory. Like the essay “Torn Screens” in Prosthetic Gods: it’s a bit crazy. The idea is that the symbolic order is like a screen, as Lacan suggests, but that this screen can also be torn, that the real can burn through it in ways that almost blind us. It was a way to think about certain ruptures in images—like the cut-outs in some Pollock paintings or the glitches in some Warhol silkscreens—that have an affective charge that’s difficult to understand otherwise. Part of the joy of criticism is to speculate in this way. Sometimes I want my students to take more risks, not fewer.
At the same time I don’t like it when criticism becomes personal. I’m not an auto-non-fictional writer; I don’t like it when the subject becomes me. Some do it well; Roland Barthes did it magnificently, but we can’t all be Roland Barthes. Tim Clark does it beautifully too, when he stages his own coming to terms with the work in front of him, but even then it can feel indulgent at times.
Yes. I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of the self as it relates to writing-be it philosophy, criticism, etc. So let’s say, if there’s “the critic as self,” or “the self as critic,” are you a mirror? Are you a window? Are you a filter? Maybe it’s not one thing at all at all times, but I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of surface one can be. Or a screen, maybe that’s the best way to think about it.
For me criticism isn’t passive; in fact it’s not even secondary. When critics like me came up, critical theorists were the avant-garde. Not just as writers–the artists most important to us were people like Benjamin, Adorno, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Irigaray…So, even though I don’t see criticism as art, I don’t see it as secondary to art. I see it as a practice parallel to it, and as inventive, potentially, as innovative, as the best art can be.
Yeah, I totally agree. I always find that people are like, “Who are your favorite artists?” Honestly, I have favorite writers and favorite philosophers, but I have very, very few favorite artists—like Robert Morris might be my only “favorite artist.”
Good choice—though, personally, I value his criticism more than his art.
I mean, yeah, he’s the greatest. For me, I think it’s exciting when there’s this intermingling. When you find yourself on this single, flat territory where artworks, theory, political writing, all of it can cross-pollinate. This arises problems, but then it also becomes, at least for writing, really useful. It’s just like “okay, I’m just playing around in this zone.”
How do you decide what should be an art piece and what a writing piece, or is that actually not a problem for you?
It’s something that I think about a lot. I think usually it’s writing first. I write to myself about any given artwork that I’m going to make. I usually write about it a lot before anything’s physically made. I’m never really making much—I don’t have a day-to-day materially-oriented practice. I’ll doodle diagrams. But usually I’ll write to myself like, “Oh, what if there was an object that did this?” Then I’ll often write about all the information that swirls around it, and maybe there’s an essay there, and I’ll publish that. All of those thoughts and concepts are loaded into the object, but the object is never proving those concepts.
I often have to write in order to make sure I’m not making something that’s a didactic, overly hermeneutic kind of object. But this question has plagued me my whole adult life–even in college–and maybe has to do with coming up in this age of the hyper-professionalization of art. It’s felt very necessary to stake out being an “artist,” sometimes in opposition to writing even though writing is central for me and I’m really just into mixing everything up.
The effect of artist-writers on my generation was immense—whether it was Judd or Morris, Smithson or Graham, to name just a few. That was continued in a different key by feminist artists like Barbara Kruger, Mary Kelly, and Silvia Kolbowski. But there are also male figures close to my age who did and do both well, like Mike Kelley—a brilliant writer as well as a radical artist—John Miller, David Salle, Carrol Dunham. And younger ones too like Paul Chan, among others.
I have lots of artist friends who are super smart but not very discursive. And then I have a few who are wonderful interlocutors, who discourse like there’s no tomorrow. Richard Hamilton was a bit like that; Richard Serra is even more so, Thomas Hirschhorn as well. And there are others. That intense dialogue over time is essential to me.
Shifting gears, I wanted to ask about the idea of the avant-garde, which you’ve written extensively about. I’m curious what you think the avant-garde’s status is right now. Is it at all an operational phrase in our time? Is an “avant-garde” something we can even speak of? Is there an avant-garde? Does there need to be an avant-garde? What would it look like?
Yes, I have a primordial commitment to the idea. Maybe it comes with the modernist territory, but I have a special attachment to the notion of the avant-garde because it’s one of the few that holds artistic practice together with political practice and insists that they act on each other and push each other forward. I understand that these moments of connection—like 1848, the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, Mexican Muralism, art around 1968—are almost too privileged, and that people like me are too romantic about them. But it’s a romance I can’t or won’t give up.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to retain the idea of the avant-garde because the field of art is so wide open today. As we mentioned, there’s also the difficulty of the contemporary. While there are so many different time-zones in this now, the idea of the avant-garde still wants to trace a singular timeline for advanced art. I don’t think it ever was a chronological time because the avant-garde was always about returns and projections; nevertheless, it was committed to futurity, you know? Now futurity is captured by finance (“futures”) or techno-science or both, to such a point that, according to Tim Clark, the left should simply give up on all its versions of the future. In that respect, too, the avant garde has become problematic. But I demur on his anti-manifesto “for a left with no future”. I’m intrigued by the way that Tina Campt speaks about the “future real conditional.” In her view the future tense is all about the present. It’s about what we need to make happen for the future right now. That would be my version of an avant-garde of the present: work that does that work.
That Tina Campt thing has always stumped me. I was reading Christoph Cox’s book Sonic Flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics last winter; in it, among other things, he writes a lot about Bergsonian time, becoming, and “non-pulsed” time. Then, more recently, I was reading Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic on the Atlantic slave trade and finance capital—which uses Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history to think about time. These triangulated momentarily with the Campt. Placed together, the three made me think about ways of understanding time and how ours is dictated by speculative finance—a specific form of futures that drag us into the future in every present moment. Campt’s future real conditional almost wrenches us back into the present, into a sense of immediacy despite its long view. Adding Bergson’s sense of durée to the mix, the three circle around a politic where time is only the present, but a present that’s interpolated by these other moments.
But to your point about futurity becoming this bad word in many circles, it’s interesting that the Black futurity conversation hasn’t been entirely foreclosed on. Campt’s work and others continue to make room for it. COVID has sort of slammed us into a present, which has complicated the financialized futurity our sense of time was previously oriented toward. Almost everything was centered on speculation and projection. “What’s happening next?” Now we’re only ever where we’re at. So, perhaps, there’s a renewed possibility for an avant-garde–our time space opening up to a “future real conditional,” in a new way. At the same time, there’s so much despair that, for many, there’s not a clear idea of what one can do to seize the moment.
As Campt thinks it, the future real conditional turns despair into motivation. It’s not a clear program, but that’s another thing a good critic can do–offer up proposals almost as riddles to solve, or sayings that make sense in different ways at different moments. Like when Marx wrote that the importance of the Commune was “its own working existence.” What does that mean? It’s a puzzle that invites you to play with it—and perhaps to perform it in your own way. Or when Benjamin wrote that there’s no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. Or when Debord wrote that spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes an image. What do they mean exactly? When you ask these questions in different situations, you get different answers, and that calls you not only to understand the moment but also to act in it.
Yeah, it’s lines like those that are the art moment for theory and philosophy, Where the text becomes something you can keep returning to and find yourself and the text or object shifting every time.
Maybe Campt and Cox are onto the sonic dimension of that call and response, you know?
Yeah, I think there’s something really interesting that happens when you read Campt and Cox together, or read across them. He’s pulling from people like Deleuze, Bergson and Nietzsche—and, if you want to, you can tease that out and dip over from Nietzsche into Bataille, and so on. After reading them, I feel like I dropped onto this strange, very specific plane of thinking.
But bringing Campt’s work in, along with other work from Black studies, the most interesting part is the many resonances across these networks of thought. I was rereading the “Introduction to Schizoanalysis” section in Anti-Oedipus and there was this whole thing on the paranoiac and schizorevolutionary types as these poles. The schizozorevolutionary “follows the lines of escape of desire; breaches the wall and causes flows to move; assembles its machines and its groups-in-fusion in the enclaves or at the periphery” (Deleuze & Guattari, 277). The text then veers into this strangely racialized language and they say, “what matters is to break through the wall, even if one has to become Black like John Brown” (277). So becoming/being Black is figured as this line of flight or escape, but a last resort option or something. This is very tangential but …
The way ideas and terms come up in one place, cross over somewhere else, and pop up again in a different way—that’s what makes critical theory lively for me and clearly for you too. Huey Copeland has alerted me to how, for example, Black studies—Fred Moten in particular—has repurposed deconstruction.
Yeah, definitely. It’s so lively! To me it’s all raw material, you know? You can have an all-bets-are-off attitude with it. I can try this with that and see what happens—of course while being responsible about it and making sound arguments.
Currently, there’s this widespread—perhaps it’s another hangover problematic from a postmodern period or just simply from the ‘90s—willingness among a younger generation, my generation, to accept the terms as given.
A few years ago, I went to a talk that Angela Davis was giving at Occidental College in LA. In the q&a, this young Black woman stood up and was like “I’m a critical theory major and I’m in this Foucault class right now. They’re making me read Foucault, but Foucault doesn’t care about me. Foucault isn’t for me. Foucault isn’t writing for Black people. I don’t want to read Foucault!” And Angela Davis responded saying that you kind of have read Foucault. And then figure out how to make your argument against it if you want to. But you have to read the Foucault if you want to be in the critical theory conversation. Of course, I don’t think anyone has to do something they don’t want to; there’s no universal mandate to theorize or to engage Western philosophy. But I think it’s interesting that just because of who someone was, when they wrote it, the fact that they were in Europe, the fact that it’s in a Western tradition has so much power right now. The context has so much more power than the actual work for a lot of people.
It’s a good point and a tricky one. The generation of Foucault produced this great theoretical project: the critique of the subject. My friends and I were obsessed with it; we went on and on about how to demolish that subjecthood, But then we were mostly white, mostly male, mostly straight. And our friends who were women and/or of color began to complain, “Well, you might want to ditch this subjecthood, but we’re not sure we’ve ever even experienced it. So let’s slow down here. Let’s think about other ways to develop this critique.” So I get the complaint of the young student about Foucault. In the end, though, I agree with Davis.
The thing with the subject, that problem is such a crucial one. It’s something that, for me and my work, has been really hard. For whatever reason, I’m just like, “yeah, let’s get rid of the subject!” The subject seems useless, but I also understand why people maintain a desire to be constituted as proper subjects. That friction is still so in play today even in contemporary art production. There’s this looming question: Are we trying to open up the circle and let everyone have their moment in the sun? Or are we trying to break down the structure of all of this overall. I still tend toward getting rid of the categories, breaking down the structure, but also that’s not necessarily an enactable program.
So often we project conventions, which are sometimes just smoke and mirrors, as laws, and we fool each other with the apparent stability of things. The old bourgeoisie was so difficult to defeat not because it was so rigid but because it was so fluid: What did it think really? Did it even know? That dilemma was one of the great subjects of Luis Buñuel—the not-so-conscious anarchism of the bourgeoisie. Benjamin made a similar point already in the late 1920s in an elliptical note that stated, in effect, that the brilliant devilry of the bourgeoisie in his time was that it had figured out a way to make even nihilism a tool of domination. In our own moment this is resonant in another way: today it is the right, not the left, that is truly radical, if you see nihilism as radical. As Wendy Brown has argued, the right used to complement its neoliberal policies—tax cuts, deregulation, and the rest—with neoconservative morality, a call to tradition, family values, etc. Now it has ditched that morality and gone full-on nihilistic. What’s the best response to that nihilism? Certainly not more nihilism.
I don’t know if you’ve read any of Calvin Warren’s writing, but he writes about Black nihilism and Hope–Black nihilism signaling an evacuation of the proper political sphere as a realm where there’ll be any redress for the violence of slavery. It got me thinking about this question of nihilism and its different forms. Hope, as a concept, has also been re-configured into a tool of domination. Hope toward what? And I think that’s the thing with the left, right? I mean, it’s really hard to fight against something when you don’t have a positively defined desire on the other hand other than “please, stop.” “Equality” is obviously a positively defined goal, but it also is platitudinal and doesn’t stand up against the Black hole of a complete and total nihilistic death drive.
What you say is really powerful. There’s an old insistence on the left, one often ignored, that it needs to counter the right on matters of the affective and the atavistic. For example, the Nazis were on to a very powerful slogan with Blut und Boden, blood and earth. “Build the Wall” has its own force too. The left is rightly suspicious of such appeals to primordial reaction, but then it leaves open the field to the right, which gladly exploits it.
Yes, hope toward what? I don’t believe in a place called Hope. I also don’t believe that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. And when Obama used to talk about the need to build a stronger union, I wanted to believe him, but, you know, look where we are.
What’s the relation between Black nihilism and Afropessimism?
In my opinion, if Afropessimism makes the structural argument about what slavery does on an ontological level and maps its historical arc from that, I guess Black nihilism would be an affective partner to that. It could also be a programmatic partner in that it brushes up against, and sometimes directly advocates for divestment from the proper Political sphere.
In rap after 2010 or so there is a prominent affectively nihilistic thread—the prescription pills and Lean/Purple Drank/Dirty Sprite affect-discourse, if you will. There’s something in that that carries nihilism; it’s very much very outside of or after political economy, as R.A. Judy would say.
The blaccelerationism that I wrote about a few years ago may be a Black nihilist position more than anything else. Just with an accelerationist influence because my personal intellectual history is so rooted in a lot of Mark Fisher and the network of people who get associated with accelerationism. As has been the case with Afropessimism lately, there’s more room for a Black nihilist position than ever.
What do you think of the position put forward by Kerry James Marshall and others, which, as I understand it, is more or less this: “We’ve had enough representation of Black pathology; you won’t see Black trauma reiterated in my paintings.” Is that wishful thinking on his part? Or is it a position that needs to be out there in dialogue with others?
His position makes sense to me. The necessity of navigating one’s position on that is probably exactly why I’ve often avoided the figure in my own work. I can’t deal with deciding! I think there’s room for it because the value that images of traumatized Black bodies have in the attention economy and again in the realm of actual financial exchange (via the art market, film industry, publishing and so on) is so grossly bloated. I think Kerry James Marshall’s position actually is only increasingly valid in that sense. But at the same time, it also runs the risk of circling back to the old 1970s Black Arts Movement era debate about “positive images.”.
And that’s the problem. Kerry James Marshall is dealing with it in the realm of its effects. Right? But that can be taken up as the prescriptive “we shouldn’t show crime, drugs, single parent households, or promiscuity, anything that reifies negative stereotypes. Ever.” That’s not real, because it’s not whole. But actually, I do find Marshall really interesting, and I really enjoyed the essay you wrote on him in What Comes After Farce?. I had just left MOCA when he had his show, “Mastry,” there; and I got invited to this scholars’ day thing where a small group of writers, artists, and critics came and discussed the show’s hang.
What was it like?
It was good; it was really cool to see people dig in and talk about the works. But at the same time—this was also coterminous with me getting more situated in my own critical point of view—I remember I left the day wanting to make an “anti-catalog” for the exhibition, an alternative set of essays to go with the show. I thought: because he’s painting and because he’s dedicated himself to this idea of the canon, and that idea of not reproducing certain kinds of traumatic imagery, the conversation about the work gets suspended at a really superficial strata.
I think that he’s actually making a really deeply philosophical argument about the nature of painting and the nature of representation, and asking what it means if “Kerry James Marshall” makes his own universe that’s populated solely with these Black figures that are almost visually like “copyright” Kerry James Marshall. What does it do if he creates a whole world that looks that way? Then they’re kind of no longer Black; it neutralizes the whole, neutralizes what sets them apart in the larger canon. He has a rather structural attitude toward the work. It’s a program. He’s trying to flood the server with these images.
Yes, he’s an artist who really works on form too. It’s not just content. He’s thinking deeply about representation while making it.
That’s what I so enjoyed in the essay in What Comes After Farce?, when you talk about Las Meninas and that sort of relay. The history of painting thinking about painting.
Anyway, before we go, I really wanted to talk about fascism. I wanted to talk about it historically and in the contemporary. In the past, I hadn’t noticed this so much, but in your writing—in addition to writing directly about fascism in pieces like “Armor Fou” at times—there’s this thread of constantly considering the specter of fascism in both Europe and in America. Has that been a conscious preoccupation in your work, trying to deal with the question of fascism–politically and in terms of a fascist aesthetic? Also—to go back to what you’re saying about critique of the subject—you used the phrase “men in trouble.” You’ve identified fascism as being at least partially about these “men in trouble.”
“Armor Fou” was written in the early 1990s, in part under the influence of an extraordinary book on the formation of Nazis by Klaus Theweleit. In Male Fantasies, Theweleit argues that the typical Nazi was an incomplete being—that he needed a psychic armor to be held together at all. That resonated for me with the crazier versions of body politics in play in the Reagan-Bush years. But even as far back as Recodings in the mid-1980s I was struck by the famous line in Benjamin about the socialist politicization of art versus the fascist aestheticization of politics, such aestheticization was everywhere to be seen during that period. Sadly, we have become inured to it since.
During the COVID lockdown, I re-read a wide range of writers active in the interwar period, which Gramsci famously called a “morbid interregnum.” We’re in our own morbid interregnum today. Yet “morbid interregnum” suggests that there might be another order in the offing that won’t be so morbid. I’m not sure. What comes after the farce that is Trump? Even that “after” might be too wishful.
One question for me now is the status of ethno-nationalism, the nativist populism, that Trump represents along with his autocratic pals Bolsonaro, Orbán, Erdoğan, and Duterte. Is this ethno-nationalism a turn away from neoliberalism? Or is it the next step in its march, in keeping with a neoliberalism that has shed its moralistic cover? A real turn or just a bend in the road? I ask people who know a lot more about these things than I do and no one’s really sure. Does it lead where uber-capitalists really want to go? For a while the fascists and the Nazis did seduce the capitalists, who backed them, but then they took them into war. So how far do our present economic lords want to go with these nativist politicians? My sense is maybe they don’t want to go all in.
Something that struck me in rereading “Armor Fou” is that these days there is the talk fascism at the level of the administration, then the global rising tide of it, but there’s also this kind of funny “Ugh, your dad’s such a fascist!” ‘90s teen kind of reference to fascism, which has also come back in style. On the left people are constantly calling people fascist, and elsewhere people are calling those who are dedicated to identity politics fascist as well. In re-reading “Armor Fou,” I was reminded that the notion of the fascist subject is a very particular thing that we need to think about. Is the fascist subject necessarily a partisan or party-oriented concept? And pairing fascism and global neoliberalism and its deconstructive, deterritorializing forces, are people primed for fascism?
When we use terms automatically, elastically, they lose meaning, as in “your dad’s such a fascist” (but then again, it depends, maybe he is). However, even if such formations are historically specific, that doesn’t mean they’re historically delimited: they can return at different moments in different guises. Many Trumpists qualify as fascists. The connection is on a psychic level, a predisposition to violence against others, as well as on a political level, an over-investment in a particular leader or a particular party. They are partisan in that bad sense. Trump is no Hitler, but he does resemble Mussolini. And he has a big party out there excessively bound up with his imago. Over seventy-four million Americans voted for him, for different reasons, to be sure—they’re not all white supremacists, not all fascists—but a good number of them are. That’s a darkness that won’t go away anytime soon.