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<nettime> Interview with Boris Groys


Interview with Boris Groys, German Art Critic and Media Theorist

Art critic Boris Groys is teaching philosophy and aesthetics on the School
for Design Karlsruhe, Germany. Amongst his books,  all in German, are
Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (1988), Die Kunst des Fliehens (together with Ilya
Kabakow, 1991), Ueber das Neue (1992), Die Erfindung Russlands (1995) and
Die Logik der Sammlung (1997). The following e-mail exchange took place in
response to Groys' latest work titled "Under Suspicion - A Phenomenology of
the Media" which came out early this year.

GL: Strategies for cultural and artistic production, in your view, seem to
go in circles. All forms of expression, media and esthetic experiments have
been polluted, corrupted, played out. The pressure of globalization, to join
the free flow of opinions, styles and meaning is high. There is no other
option than to join the info market. In opposition, you have proposed to
pose the media ontological question. The overall presence of empty
signifiers is flattening all creative or subversive efforts and one of the
few strategies left you suggest is to question what is behind the world of
the spectacle. Wouldn't it be better to remain silent and disappear
altogether? In your analysis, all imaginable answers seem to be caught
within the system. There is nothing left which cannot be deconstructed. Not
even Boris Groys. If neither elitist avant-gardism nor cultural populism
show us a way out, what does? Should your readers give up all hope and
surrender to good old European negativism?

BG: You are probably right: it is better to remain silent. But,
unfortunately, there is such a thing as curiosity. And I am, personally,
always very curious about the things happening around. And in the first
place: about how and why the cultural phenomena like theories, art
movements, certain fashions are emerging, moving, spreading around - and
disappearing. The question is not: Are they good or bad? Or: Are they true
or false? But, rather: Why are these cultural phenomena present in the
social space at a certain point in time?
It is being said that cultural products are spreading because "people" like
them. Or, they say: The cultural products are reaching mass circulation
because there is some power, money and influence behind them. But it is also
possible to say that certain cultural products are  multiplying and
spreading merely because of their viral nature. It is also possible to say
that the fate of cultural phenomena is determined by history, by being, by
language, by writing and so on. Or, it is possible to develop a  sociology
of culture as represented, for example, by Bourdieu. But all these theories
and explanations are themselves also cultural phenomena. So we still have to
ask ourselves: how and why these explanations are spreading in their turn?
It seems to me that some cultural phenomena are spreading around precisely
because the people believe - in one way or another - that these phenomena
are not just phenomena but that they give a deeper insight in the space and
in the interplay of forces behind the scene. If a cultural product is in
circulation, it is already an explanation in itself. And if this cultural
product is not getting any distribution, then there is nothing to explain.
This is why I do not try to formulate a new explanation. I am trying to
describe the conditions under which some phenomena thrive, as explanations
of their own cultural success.

GL: The subtitle of your latest book is "A Phenomenology of the Media". I
was surprised to read that you are working towards a philosophical program
for the media, in rather traditional terms. You do not touch upon new
fashioned topics such as trans-humanism, trans-gender or any body-machine
matter. Which role do you see for the traditional discipline of philosophy?
Should reading of classics be encouraged or would you rather push new forms
of cultural criticism, which are not so concerned with the rewriting of the
few dead white male thinkers?

BG: The word "phenomenology" in the title of my book means only that I do
not attempt to give any new, different, personal, additional kind of
theoretical, scientific explanation of why certain cultural movements are
spreading. Instead, I try to show that every cultural product is an
explanation of its own presence and multiplication in the first place. So I
practice some philosophical, phenomenological epoch. It is a very
traditional gesture, indeed. But this gesture seems to me to be most
appropriate for the investigation of the cultural movements in the open
space. Until recently I was preoccupied with the processes taking place in
closed spaces like the museum. In that case, it is possible to formulate a
theory because there is a institutionally secured position for the external
observer of the cultural processes. In open spaces, there is no such secured
position. This is why the phenomenological epoch becomes necessary. It is a
way to introduce a position of a spectator into a field where this position
is not given from the beginning.
Topics like trans-humanism, trans-gender or body-machine do not interest me
in this particular context because these discourses believe to have answered
the question "What is behind being human" in a very traditional way of
"crossing the borders" between the human and non-human. That is, of course,
O.K. But the question of the spectator remains open here. Is this spectator
human, or non-human, or placed beyond this opposition? And in any of these
cases - how does this spectator knows about his or her own position in
relationship to this opposition between human and non-human? The only way to
know such things is to believe in your own theoretical discourse. But I
cannot believe in my own theoretical discourse - and I also cannot believe
in any other theoretical discourse. So the only way for me is just to
investigate why, how and under which conditions other people believe in
various theoretical discourses.

GL: Tell us more! How then do you write a sentence, or make a statement in
public, if you do not half way except it, at least as a temporary thesis?
Bringing up an idea does not automatically mean that it is turned into a
hermetic belief system.

 BG: Of course, if somebody says and writes something it can always be seen
as a thesis. But, in reality, it is not always effectively seen in such a
way: Very often the people just don't react, just don't take you seriously,
just  don't see that there is a thesis. So I am interested in the question:
What  does make somebody's thesis to look like a thesis? My guess is that
you have to propose some insight, something which "goes deep into the heart
of the matter" to be taken seriously. Or, to put it in another way, your
discourse has to conform to the certain expectations, having to do with the
phenomenology of suspicion, e.g. with the wish on the side of the reader "to
go deeper", to "get an insight". By the way: If my discourse would
eventually turn to be a hermetic belief system for a greater public, I would
have nothing against it. Rather, I would find it very flattering.

GL: Could you explain the title of the book? For me, personally, "Under
Suspicion" has a somewhat dark, continental European connotation. You are
stating that it is the Other and its subjectivity which makes us suspicious.
Why is the Other associated with danger and a possible crime? You are
rejecting the "atheist" position that the world merely exists of empty
signs, with nothing behind the profane space of the media. Why does this
attitude results in paranoia, and not in curiosity? Suspicious of what?
Looks like a weird mixture of Calvinist and Stalinist culture of guilt to
me. Catholicism during the times of the Inquisition. Or the cult inside
certain leftist circles, where every act or expression is seen as being in
immediate danger of being appropriated by the System.

BG: Actually, I wanted that the title of my book should remind the reader of
the  crime fiction, Hitchcock movies or spectacular journalistic
investigations. Our media always try to bring an "inside story", to allow us
to look behind the scene, to show us the places where "the fate of the world
is determined". This is the context that is interesting to me - not so much
Catholicism and Stalinism. But, of course, religious or leftist, or, for
that matter, also rightist conspiracy theories are also relevant in this
context. And the atheism? The atheist believes that there is nothing behind
the signs. That is O.K. But for me atheism is merely one religion among many
others.

GL: I understand. Everything is ideology. There is no science. Facts don't
exist. But which crime has been committed? I agree with you that the method
of deconstruction is based on the implicit presumption of a committed crime.
I like the idea of the media critic/theorist as a private investigator. A
fact is, though, that most media and communication students are not trained
to do this job. Media studies, as well as media art, are primarily focussing
on the (historical) structures of media technologies and its ever changing
platforms and standards. Information equals noise, that's the consensus. Who
is doing qualitative content analysis, apart from a few linguists, activists
and investigative journalists?

BG: That is precisely the point that I tried to make in my book. The
technological characteristics of the media bearers, like TV, Computer,
Internet etc., are taken generally as a completely satisfactory explanation
of what the media are. This faith in the technical know- how is produced in
the people's mind by a combination of a very naive interpretation of the
McLuhans "The media is the message" with a very naive interpretation of
Saussurian "the language precedes every individual speech act". But how do
we know a priori what can be said? We have to explore, to investigate, to
use TV, Computer or Internet to find out what their medial possibilities
are. We can only know post factum how a certain media operate - and only in
a very preliminary, incomplete way. The technical description a priori does
not tell us anything meaningful about it. Nam Jun Paik used TV in a very
idiosyncratic way - not as it is "technically" supposed to be used. And that
is why his work is so instructive. But I must confess here that my book was
severely criticized by almost all its reviewers precisely for "concealing
the fact" that the public already very well knows how the inner core of the
media looks like - because it has all the technical instructions how to use
the computer, Internet etc.

GL: For decades now, cultural studies have emphasizing the "construction"
aspect of news, information, images. They neither represent Truth, nor are
solely made with the purpose to fool its audience. Media analyses are much
complex these days, and so is the perception of the audience. Do you see the
playful strategies of irony, difference, and multi layered meanings and
interests as a useless, failed project? Your statement that media are, in
essence, always lying looks to me as a somewhat populist, regressive step
back. Perhaps the cultural studies discourse has not yet been success
enough? Or at least in your circles, on the European continent?

BG: Well, it is not so important for me if the media are lying about the
"reality" or not. Let us suppose that they are telling the Truth, only
Truth - and nothing beyond the Truth. Also in this case, they are still
concealing how they do it - how they tell the truth. Every truth presupposes
a scene of its appearance - and conceals this scene at the same time. The
"constructivist" theory is incredibly naive because even if it does not
believe any more in the accessibility of the world outside us it still
believes in the possibility to explain how we construct the truth about the
world. But that is precisely the problem: We have neither access to the
world nor to our own construction of the world. We don't know and we can not
know how we construct the world. Of course, we know - at least since
Magritte - that a painted apple is not a real apple. I guess that is what
you mean speaking about irony, difference and cultural studies. The problem
is only that we still don't know what is the painted apple per se. Magritte,
CÚzanne and many others tried to clarify that but they failed. My book is
not about the relationship of the painted apple to the real apple. My book
is about the relationship of the painted apple to the painting. And the book
states that this relationship is and must remain forever unclear - even if
we know what the "painting technique" is.

GL: In your previous, brilliant work, "On the New" you have described the
way in which new ideas and concepts are being developed and launched. "Under
Suspicion" could be read as a follow-up. Have you indeed developed "new"
ideas about the laws of cultural production, if I may ask?

BG: Our cultural space has a complicated topology: there are closed spaces,
open spaces and mixed spaces. In my book "On the New" I tried to describe
how the closed spaces, like museum, library, university, are functioning.
Being caught in the closed space, the people are interested in the open
spaces - in crossing the borders, breaking the rules, discovering the new.
But being  left in the open spaces, the people get more interested in the
closed spaces - in getting the insight, discovering the hidden, getting the
access to the forbidden. The closed spaces are the spaces of curiosity
directed to the outside. The open spaces are the spaces of suspicion
directed to the hidden inside. The insider is curious, the outsider is
suspicious. In our mixed reality, we are, of course, both because we are
always insiders as well as outsiders.

GL: New media, for example, can easily be deconstructed as a repetition of
the same old mechanisms. Still there is a lot of excitement, debates, and
not to forget economic opportunities for a great deal more people than
previously employed in the old media (and arts) sector.

BG: Well, but my question is: How are these old mechanisms look like? It
seems to me that the people working in the media - people like you and me -
are, as I said, insiders and outsiders at the same time. Now, the things are
moving all the time and, therefore, we are also changing our places all the
time - yesterday we were insiders in one respect, today we are outsiders in
the same respect, but maybe insiders in some other aspect - and tomorrow?
Who knows. But this permanent topological change of our cultural space seems
to me to be the reason for the permanent activity you are speaking about.
Every morning we wake up on a different place in the cultural space because
this space somehow moved overnight. And, of course, it makes us nervous.

GL: Anxious too, perhaps? Change as a danger, not a challenge? One can even
get used to permanent change, I suppose. Our globe is indeed going through
rapid, radical transformations. For example, one can easily accept, and deal
with the fact that the nature of media these days is lying in their ability
to (digitally) manipulate. There is no "natural" image anymore. All
information has gone through the process of digitization. We just have to
deal with the fact that we can no longer believe our eyes, our ears.
Everyone who has worked with a computer will know this.

BG: I think I am not so much anxious about what I am looking at. I am rather
amused by that. And, of course, looking at the things around me, I am not so
much interested if they are true or not. And I feel no angst about them. And
I am very little interested in the "real". Actually, I am only anxious about
how other people look at me. And if I speak about the changing world, I
doesn't mean the spectacle of permanent change taking place before my eyes.
I am perfectly comfortable about this kind of spectacle. But I am not so
much comfortable about the possible change of my own position in the eyes of
the others. Am I still insider? Or have I already became an outsider? I
guess it is just the inner voice of my Jewish ancestry: The way the others
look at you is changing permanently - and this change may be dangerous.

Boris Groys, Unter Verdacht, Eine Phaenomenolgie der Medien, Hanser Verlag,
Muenchen, 2000.

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