Art in the Time of Generalised Transformism
(translation of “Le Grand Ecart. L’art au temps du transformisme généralisé” in Plutôt que rien, exhibition catalogue edited by Raphaële Jeune, Maison Populaire de Montreuil, 2012.)
One of the fundamental beliefs of our time could be stated as follows: everything changes. Everything, without exception. And this is a good thing. Ontologically true and morally good. In other words, it is not only impossible for something not to change, but to refuse change is reprehensible. In other words …
Not so fast.
Let us abandon these automatic translations, these meaningless substitutions – what do we see if we slow down?
When there is time and space and void, non-place, non-object, nothingness, or even irreversible destruction, the statement “Everything changes” seems to skid to a halt, it loses its bite, becomes obscene. What we call transforming turns out to be continuous distortion, routine, absence of risk. Anything, rather than experiment with the unknown, rather than come to terms with loss, grief, disappearance – anything, rather than unexpected Outsides. Anything, rather than nothing. In this essay I want to question the link between the ideology of transformation and the foreclusion of nothingness. If, in Leibniz’s expression, there is “something rather than nothing”, we have to determine what each existent thing owes to nothingness. Where is nothing to be found? Can it be located?
It is from this point that I shall interrogate art. I tend to think that art could be defined, not as that which seeks to worship nothingness, or to lose itself in nothingness, which is a mystic attitude, but as that which defines the gap between nothingness and that which exists. Art forms or formulates an existent thing inasmuch as it is existent – rather than (nothing). This difference means that art is not a specific product, either to be distinguished from craft and industrial products or to be conflated with them (cf. Duchamp, the Bauhaus), but rather the locus of anti-production, of non-coming into presence, a non-object. In this sense, art, if it were fully realised, expurgated of any imaginary quality or of any failure, would be the negation of itself.
This then is the goal of this essay – to investigate the way in which art resists transformation, not because of an ontological exception but through an affirmation of existence in its relationship to nothingness. This investigation, I feel, is in a certain respect what the exhibition cycle Plutôt que rien was all about.
It would not be difficult to demonstrate how the ontology and the morality of good-change are the foundation stones of contemporary capitalism, requiring flexibility, relocation, a present without a past (too heavy) or a future (hope, it has recently been discovered by neurologists who have preferred not to publish their findings, can lead to revolutionary attitudes). However a too hasty exposé of capitalism and its ideology would run the risk of missing the truth inherent in the ontology I have invoked. It is in fact quite possible to contend that everything changes, everything passes, that the present is purely the becoming of each instant in the sense in which Heraclites, 2600 years ago, stated that “you cannot step into the same river twice”. Everything is in flux, said the Heracliteans, which Lucretius restated as “The whole world flows in eternal flux” (On the Nature of Things). Whitehead commented somewhat later that “elucidation of the meaning inherent in the phrase ‘everything flows’ is one of the major themes of metaphysics” (Process and Reality) and Stengers, in her commentary on Whitehead, wrote “creativity is ‘activity’, but activity asserts the simultaneous and inseparable existence of the river and its banks, without which, whether it overflows or not, there is no river” (Thinking with Whitehead). The problem is the way this ontology of flux and process and creativity has been perverted by our civilization.
As I argued elsewhere, this perversion stems from the manner in which change and creativity are expurgated of all negativity, of any possibility of loss and change of direction. It is certainly true that the proponents of flux and creativity mentioned above are not very interested in negativity, but they have all thought in one form or another about the kinds of controlled fluxes that our societies produce – in Heraclites’s case it was a game and lightning, for Lucretius it was the clinamen, for Nietzsche the creative destruction of art; unresolved disruptions, heterogeneity and chaosmosis in the case of Deleuze and Guattari; while Prigogine and Stengers talk about dissipative structures. These are all forms of becoming whose key characteristic is their ability to be beyond codes, mechanical necessity and deathly unifications and to escape the flux under control built by our societies. I have therefore attempted, in several texts, to keep the promise of unforeseeable becomings by pursuing a critique of the things that are opposed to them, namely: 1) forms of social control, norms, tracing people’s conduct, even preventive actions likely to stop things happening before they do (preventive war, the French law on ”early catching” , police and commercial data mining, etc.), 2) the human being’s natural tendency to avoid the dangerous paths of transformation.
To clarify the second point, what I am maintaining is that real transformation is not possible without loss, sacrifice, or partial killing. Eros (the life force), which is involved in any change that I consider genuine, has to combat not so much the forces of death (which it needs to make use of) as what I call the drive to remain intact. In the living being this does not describe that part that seeks death but that part that tends to avoid it and anything that might lead to it. The drive to remain intact sacrifices love on the altar of fantasised immortality. Concerning the questions of transformation that occupy us here, my argument is that the contemporary assertion of transformation too often designates a process of continuous distortion that avoids any real change or any change of direction that might register what has had to be abandoned in order to be. In such a process, people change without facing up to change, they tinker with their identity without facing the basic question that lies behind the problem of identity, i.e. the question of desire. No object can satisfy desire. It can create agency only by displacing the things it lacks. It is positive only by exacerbation of the negative. Poros is never without Penia.
In spite of appearances to the contrary, many promoters of bio-art only confirm the fantasy of remaining intact. Altering mouse D.N.A. while delegating the scientific operation to laboratories; having horns or an ear implanted – these things confirm the object status of human material as having become indistinguishable from other materials, whether living or non-living. The necessary struggle against humanism and its disdain for other forms of life has slipped into an overall movement of dedifferentiation in which everything is equivalent of everything else, according to the regime of goods subject to universal equivalence in Marx’s schematisation. The fact that everything is an object, as an ontology directed by the depressing passion for flatness would have it, confirms the claim of a kind of overriding constructivism to yoke together anything with anybody, anywhere. Behind the scenes, humanism pursues its colonisation of the world with artefacts or entities that no-one dare describe as natural any longer for fear of being called a reactionary.
To put it another way, the statement that changes of direction are beneficial will not be enough to stem the channelled flow if every scrap that changes direction is itself a process of uniform production, split off from the scraps left stranded, and blind to the ghosts of abandoned futures, sweeping away with it the still river of intactness: the river where people remain and from whose comfort they will never attempt to escape. The basic question has to be not the question of the object, its status or its supposed unrelated substance, but its fundamental exchange with the nonobject – that nothing that haunts transformation and turns every object into a potential ‘objeu‘ (plaything) as Ponge called it.
The founding exchange between art and nothingness
“Why is there something rather than nothing?” That is the question that Leibniz, in the seventh paragraph of Principles of Nature and Grace (1714), suggests is the fundamental metaphysical question. Like all new utterances, this one made waves across the entire tradition of metaphysics. More than that, it interrogates our culture, our ways of living and producing. It interrogates art, formations of art and its production – I would add in passing that art, under the name of ars, is the Latin translation of the Greek philosophers’ term technè. Why, then, is there art rather than nothing?
There are two ways of understanding the meaning of that question. First, following Hölderlin’s “What is the use of poets in times of penury?” which begs the questions of the meaning of art, its function and what politics it commits to. It is well known that a politics of art does not only concern its content. Any art, poetry or filmmaking that has laid more emphasis on doctrinal content than on form will have lost its way as art. Examples are legion but the first that comes to mind is Neruda’s (ridiculous) poems in praise of Stalin. In other words, the meaning of art is inseparable from its form and its production. The politics of art arises out of its form, out of its intervention on the images or the language. Joyce is the emblematic example. He contorted the English language, the language of the ruler, and rearticulated languages without falling into the question of identity exemplified by the Gaelic Revival. Joyce and the thunderclap in language: “(bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk !)” on the very first page of Finnegans Wake. It is a strange signifier, full as an egg, coming immediately after the sub-title The Fall. From what obscure disaster, from what nothingness has the full-signifier fallen? In the light of this, our question has to be understood differently. Art, rather than nothing, is first and foremost an interrogation of its production in that it seeks to replace nothingness.
Heidegger’s reaction, in What is Metaphysics? (1929), to Leibniz’s question was to remind us of the rest of the utterance: “Why something rather than nothing? Because nothing is simpler and easier than something.” Heidegger thought that the opposite was true, that nothing is harder to grasp than something, and Leibniz’s formula merely reinforces the forclusion of nothingness that blights the Western world (and Western metaphysics as identified by Heidegger). Indeed, the Western world of today, or more specifically capitalism in its globalised condition, beyond the topography of a point of the compass, is grounded in a certain idea of undefined production that seems to have no connection with nothingness. We produce, we reproduce, we replace – but everything happens as if the problem were not so much to put something in the place of nothing as to replace one thing by another thing. It is what I have called elsewhere the logic of substitution. Connoisseurs of Derrida’s philosophy might think I am referring to a “supplement”: everything that is produced supplements a nothing that was originally there. But this is not what I mean. I am saying that we live in a civilisation that seeks to substitute with no origin and to do so indefinitely. In this sense Heidegger is right: nothingness is denied, to the point where not only will we have forgotten it but we will have forgotten that we have forgotten it…
Perhaps so, we will say, but what about art? But art is quite capable of matching such a state of affairs – if it confines itself to producing objects. I am not even referring to the art market, the pseudo-critic’s custard pie (art is just merchandise, it is dreadful, etc. etc.) but if we fail to move on from that criticism, we are talking about monetary exchange and money as a universal equivalent. We are not talking about ontological exchange, the exchange that governs the logic of substitution, nor are we talking about production, in other words, poiesis and the way (to go back to the etymological meaning of pro-duction and poiesis) in which something enters into presence. That would be quite wrong and would involve taking the presence of the thing for granted and as being ready to be exchanged for money. What I am referring to here is an interrogation of what comes before that ‘readiness to be sold’. Our question could now be phrased differently: Is there a kind of art able to recognize and to signal its connection with nothingness and able to resist the logic of substitution?
Anti-production and unsubstitutability
I see only one possible answer. Such an art would have to be able to make itself unsubstitutable. But what does that imply? What exchange has to be thwarted? Does art exist only to stem the flow of substitutions?
On the question of the exchange with nothing, one could say that a fetish is something that is substituted for nothing; it takes its place and conjures it away. Art which seeks to be unsubstitutable, and shapes itself to this end, has to cede its place to nothingness – to the nonobject. By incorporating it in the form of a lack, or a wound, or an unassailable darkness, as a sign of nothingness, or rather as a trace of the gap that has opened in order for there to be something and not nothing – the origin of the world is definitely curved (courbée). Except that art does not only generate, or produce in order to substitute itself for generation (for the maternal). It highlights the gap, and in order to do so, does not produce unless it is challenging production, removing itself from production in order to emphasise it. Counter to its etymological background, art has always been the vector of a kind of anti-production. This has been strong enough to lead some artists not to want to add anything to the world. One thinks of Joseph Kosuth declaring that there were enough objects in the world and there was no point in adding any more; or Yves Klein’s Zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility; or Rirkrit Tiravanija and his restroom. And yet the problem is not so much one of conceptuality or immaterialness or conviviality, as that of being able to answer the following question, which is the question of anti-production: How can we keep something at a distance? How can we let the gap open? Not just: rather than nothing but: rather than – an inclination, a deviation (a clinamen, a swerve). The obscure, the hermetic, the darkness (le Noir) that Annie Le Brun discusses in several works are merely traces of this gap,
like the marks of tyres on the ground
at a bend behind the scene.
I see the darkness of Caravaggio, Debord or Godard’s black screens. I see the way the slowness of Gourfink’s dancing goes beyond the very notion of movement. I hear John Cage’s silences, the references that permeate Yeznikian’s work. To say ‘I see’ or ‘I hear’ is already going too far. What has to be taken into account is rather the way in which our senses are called upon by that which is absent, by that which has not occurred in order that something may occur. But just a minute, you will say, is this absence, this non-occurrence, not always a production? The coming into presence of an absence? An object? Surely non-dancing is still dancing? Nothingness, please reassure me, is still nothing, right? And gaps are simply improperly applied standards, if I’m not mistaken. As for the darkness, , you will continue, they only need good lighting and adequate hanging in order to be properly seen on the wall along with the other paintings.
Foreclusion of nothingness, rejection of gaps and denial of darkness cannot be eradicated. Drawing their strength from their rejections, these are the pathogens that eternally reinvigorate the childhood disease that leads people to confuse art with a game of Lego, or some lucrative distraction. Being a doctor only of the forms of concepts, I would like to take care of them through a few memories and thoughts of what has happened – or not happened – during the three sequences of the exhibition Plutôt que rien (Rather than nothing):
1) In the course of working with Raphaële Jeune on setting up the first sequence (Dismantlings), the idea of uninstalling occurred as a way of interrogating the question of bringing into presence – giving only a day of exhibition time to each artist then seeing what happens at the moment of closing – also seeing what doesn’t happen, or more.
2) The four artists of the second session (Formation(s)) could reactivate – or more precisely, ‘could have reactivated’ – their own installations in an evolving format. My attitude to it, I remember, was to interrogate what goes on in the way of transformation during an exhibition. In the course of a public session which found me at the top of a ladder, I asked them: “What would you like not to touch?” What I meant was “What is necessary, what is justified in remaining here, if only for a while?” I even asked, with Nietzsche in mind: Which of your works would you like to see – could you bear to see – return for ever? This, I feel, is one of the best approaches to the idea of unsubstitutability – not what resists the passage of time, destruction and nothingness, but that which fully asserts itself in time precisely because of its transient quality; that which as a consequence can endure nothingness.
3) In spite of their name, the work of the twosome, Art Orienté objet seems to me to belong within an eminently relational cosmological perspective. Far from being isolated or substantial, the objects they use – or rather that they solicit – implement their artistic and political field of operation. The title of their contribution to the exhibition was Plutôt que tout (Rather than everything). There we have something that resonates with my question about necessity; rather than take everything and see everything, better to select what is important, establish a hierarchy. In this case, improve the image of the political ecology issue – one of the elements of their participation in the exhibition had been to request the classification of Lake Clifton, a lake in Australia, as a UNESCO world heritage site. Unlike some philosophers of Object-Oriented-Ontology, their concern was not to think about the fact that a quasar and a toaster belong to the same flat object ontology but, on the contrary, that there is a value that energises each existent thing, especially when it is in danger of disappearing. We should not start with being but with existent stuff, in all its finiteness, its body and/or its spiritual remanence. Although Art Orienté objet summoned up mythical tales, it was not an attempt to blend them into a homogeneous discourse but rather the desire to magnify the importance of Lake Clifton as the heartland of Aboriginal creation myths, to create something unsubstitutable – not only in the fact that there is only one Lake Clifton, which is also the home of some of the last specimens of living thrombolites in the world, and that for the Aborigenes these thrombolites represent the eggs of the Serpent Creator (and their death: the end of the world), but because the art event that Art Orienté objet created stirred this place, in all its faltering singularity, out of itself and towards some spectators in Montreuil.
In fact, we have here what I feel sets the work of Art Orienté objet apart from other artistic activities that tie art to the challenges of the living. Que le cheval vive en moi ! (May the horse live in me!), a performance piece in the course of which Marion Laval-Jeantet injected herself with horse’s blood, was not about increasing physical strength in order to produce a post-human body that would confirm the ‘obsolescence’ of the human body (as Stelarc argues). On the contrary, it was about experimenting with the ‘extra-human’ (‘out-of-human’) state as a fallible encounter, an ‘incorporation of meaning’. In this sense, ‘out-of-human’ is the opposite of ‘out-of-body’. Where the latter designates the fantasy of a repudiation of body and living, the former uses the body to experiment with the limits, starting from which – not without which – the body encounters an otherness. Just as I would insist on the priority of existent stuff (with emphasis on the etymological sense of ex- meaning ‘out of’) over being, I am keen to signal the primacy of the ex-periment over the result: the unsubstitutable is the effect of an exit into the world, the effect of an ex- which is the mark of a ‘rather than’.
Between concept and metaphor
Exhibition, existence, experiment: ek-art itself, l’ek-art même, the gap at the heart of art. This is what I was attempting to contribute to with my ‘anti-lecture’ (anti-conférence) on 2 February 2011. I had presented it, on the Maison Populaire de Montreuil website, as follows:
“A concept, according to Nietzsche, is the residue of a metaphor. A frozen fire. But philosophy is nevertheless about creating concepts say Deleuze and Guattari, who were Nietzschean authors par excellence. Question: how do you maintain philosophical creativity without it hardening into cut-and-dried judgements about being, the world, and meaning?
Answer 1: by giving primacy to the Rational Principle (which attempts to explain that there is something rather than nothing) over the Identity Principle, which suppresses what it discusses on either side of the ‘equals’ sign. “x = x tells us something about ‘=’ but nothing about ‘x'” (Heinz von Foerster).
Answer 2: by operating between metaphor and concept, where take place their asymmetric exchanges. This is philosophy as transaction, both turning back and becoming, productive and destructive at the same time. Anti-productive. Giving a glow to the negative.
The etymological meaning of ‘confer’ (as in ‘conference’ – conférence is the French word for a lecture) is ‘carry together’ or ‘carry to the same point’. An ‘anti-conférence’ (an ‘anti-lecture’) would therefore be something that tends to ‘carry away’ or ‘carry further off’ – to act as a metaphor in that sense, but without seeking to unify; rather to disseminate: by seeking out disseminating metaphors that stimulate conceptuality without freezing it.
There is reason here to challenge an age that is installing itself for the duration – absolutely, immunologically and totally (intégralement) – in the flux of transformation from which negativity, nothingness, loss and the untransformable are banished. An age of liquid substitutes; of meta-more-fun (métamorfun); an age of the post-self that knows no consequences.
OK, if it’s neither fixed nor fluid, what is it? The answer: rather than“.
I will not repeat here what I said then. I will just add that a metaphor, in Aristotelian thinking, implies a previous meaning that is transported (carried away) in order to turn it into a figure, and in Nietzschean thinking the metaphor is primary. It occurs above a lack of ground, unwarranted and with no point of origin. It is already in tune with the gap. From here on, I shall use the term the metaphoric to refer to the very formation of existence. Far from being reducible to the paradigmatic verticality to which Jakobson consigned the metaphor, the metaphoric designates that which each existence brings to the world, that which in-forms it, that which gives it its precarious and contingent life(-form), paralyzed by the nothingness from which it has deviated in order to exist. By dint of its conceptuality, philosophy has to try to espouse this native movement that the metaphoric describes. And this means it has to go back to the very first moment of the metaphoric, to journey between that mythical time approximately equal to zero (≈ 0) and the logical, conceptual time of 1. Not in order to identify with art but to explain, in its own way, the great gap that any existence constitutes.
 Frédéric Neyrat, Clinamen. Flux, absolu et loi spirale, Editions e®e, 2012. On the following points, cf. also “Intact” in the journal SubStance, November 2011.
 What I call sociétés de clairvoyance (cf. for a first draft “Avant-propos sur les sociétés de clairvoyance” in Multitudes no. 40, January 2010).
 Eros was the son of Poros (abundance) and Penia (poverty, destitution).
 Which could perhaps be connected with the way in which Husserl, in Krisis speaks of the ‘substitution’ of ‘idealised nature’ for ‘pre-scientific nature’. The question, which comes up later in my essay, is: What is the connection between money and mathematics? i.e. What regime of abstraction is the modern age founded upon?
 In The Symposium (204e-205d), Plato says that poiesis is “the creation or passage of non-being into being”.
 A signifier in which we have to hear: Courbet – whose the painting L’origine du monde (The Origin of the World) shows a slightly open female sex.
 For example: Si rien avait une forme, ce serait cela, Paris, Gallimard, 2010.
 Marion Laval-Jeantet, « De l’incorporation du sens », Cahiers de recherche sociologique. L’art post-humain. Corps, technoscience et société, no. 50, 2011, edited by Magali Uhl.