…semi-edited on-line discussion/ interview
(this text is published in Rainer Ganahl, Reading Karl Marx, Bookworks, London, 2001)
(this text is published in Rainer Ganahl, Reading Karl Marx, Bookworks, London, 2001)
CRAIGMARTIN: I'm interested to discuss with you the reasoning behind instigating aproject such as your 'Karl Marx Reading Seminars' at this point in time. Giventhe failures of the Althusserian model, which attempted a "textual"reading of Marx, do the possibilities exist to produce a purely 'contemporary'reading?
RAINERGANAHL I am not so sure what you mean by a failure of a “textual”reading of Marx. How can anyreading, whether it is “textual” or “contemporary” be afailure or a success? I only can speak for myself and for the people that giveme feed back when reading Marx together.
In my case, reading Marx did change my life. I read itfirst when I was barely 20 years old and it triggered a lot of effects that inretrospect have been very influential: Marx’s notion of work, forexample, as the pivotal point in the construction of identity, or hisconception of history with its dialectical, conflict- oriented ideas based onmaterial conflicts of interests was very liberating for myself as a troubledstudent. It helped to protect me from all kind of phenomenological influencesand gave me a sense of urgency and socio-political awareness. It helped me tocompletely reject all kind of metaphysical flirtations which haunted me as ateenager. It helped me to ignore all family pressure and yet accept theirmodest financial support without feeling any guilt, since I regarded myreading, traveling, studying and even my way to “fuck up” as work,capital work. It even helped me to justify getting the books I needed frombookshops in the specific way I acquired them at that time.
Answeringthe question whether there could be a “contemporary” reading iseasy: there only are contemporary readings – plural - possible, since wenow live under different regimes of technologies and changed political, socialand ideological orders that determine production, labor, communication,exchange and so on. It is not evenpossible to read Marx other than through a contemporary perspective.
I try towork through these texts like a search engine, looking for things that are (fruitful)when projected onto contemporary conditions. And even in places wherestatements look obsolete for all kind of reasons, I am curious to analyze thechanges seen from my given position. For example, I ask myself whether the division of labor is really anexpression of private property, as suggested in Marx’ “GermanIdeology”, and whether they are both really the origin of evil andalienation in society?
LouisAlthusser has failed personally with the murder of his wife in a state ofinsanity but I don’t think that he failed as a theoretician given thefact that his readings of Marx are still discussed. His way to redefineideology and state apparatuses had been at least very influential for myunderstanding of things.
In short,it is a Marxist notion of ‘reading” that allows a“contemporary” understanding of Marx’s texts, one that takesinto account its own historical and materialistic – interest specific– conditions.
CRAIGMARTIN: My point concerning the failure of a "textual" reading wasbased on the assumption that a textual/structuralist reading becomes overtlyconcerned with an analysis of the text itself, rather than its content. Sayingthat, I agree that Althusser's work has been necessary for a sustained interestin Marx; I first became interested in Marx's work through an early reading ofAlthusser. His 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward anInvestigation' is still a very important text for me, given its pointsconcerning the relationship between the economic base and the supposed culturalsuperstructure. This work has sustained my belief in the possibility of usingculture as a tool for social activity in itself. That leads me to ask a furtherquestion: I'm interested not only in the idea of reading Marx 'a-fresh', as yourightly point out, but also in the act of reading itself as a culturalactivity: for example, I'm interested in this activity of reading as constitutiveof an artistic/cultural practice through the work of Art & Language,particularly their 'Index' work from the early 1970's. What then would you seeas precedents for your work with the 'Karl Marx Reading Seminar'?
RAINERGANAHL I think that culture is always the ensemble of social actions expressingcommon values and interests shared by a community. Any given cultural formationis therefore either respected, shared or ignored, if not even hated anddeclared unlawful by others. But these formations and reactions to them arenever absolutely fixed and its inclusions and exclusions, its forms ofexpressions, are always in dialectical movement.
Let megive two examples: drug use has to be looked at as a cultural practice thoughit is against the law and disrespected by the majority. But the definition ofdrugs and its aesthetic appeal and acceptance before the law, as well as onmovie screens and in public discussions, can change and shift. Art collectinginvariably (can often) stands for established values, money, power andinvestment. This ideological determination can even be true when the realbeliefs of the collected artist were against the very group that ends upcollecting them. But of course, the process of identifying with certain objectsand practices in the making and sustaining of cultural formations ispermanently shifting and as such becomes an object of discussion (and fights).
It isMarx who teaches us how material interests as well as social and institutionalbackgrounds inform us in this process. It is Marx who explicitly points outthat the development of technologies, the level of production, exchange,transportation and communication are crucial in these processes of taste andideology formations. Cultural manifestations are often supported by social andinstitutional frameworks, be it the state or the ones that are loosely definedby civil societies.
Introducingreading as a part of an artistic practice is therefore something that needsdiscussion and may be seen as problematic given that reading comes from a realmthat is traditionally regarded as non-artistic. Working with reading in a fieldthat doesn’t inherently acknowledge it as a 'valid' artistic practiceprovokes interesting questions about the very nature of art making, its processof definition and (of) its communities.
I startedusing reading for my art work in 1994 in Tokyo when I was showing a piece ofwork entitled: “A Portable (Not So Ideal) Imported Library, Or How toReinvent the Coffee Table: 25 Books for Instant Use”. This work originallyplayed the role of highlighting the history of European cultural imperialism.It accompanied my studies in learning Japanese as an art practice –something that is another aspect of my work as an artist. Once the books wereon display I soon realized that I wanted to actually read and discuss them withthe museum visitors. So everySaturday, during my show, I was reading by myself or with those people visitingthe exhibition.
From thatmoment on I made public reading a central element of my work and an integralpart in many of my exhibitions, though not all the reading projects have anexhibition arena. In addition to (mere) reading I also found a variety of waysto present these common discussions and readings via video tapes, photographsand on the internet (www.ganahlmarx.com).The books and the status of the books change: sometimes defined as art works,sometimes not; the setting for the reading seminars changes: sometimesinstitutional, sometimes just private; and the authors and topics changeaccording to the context and the specific interests generated by my co-readersor myself. The resulting video tapes and photographs have become a systematicand central part of my exhibition program where they take on a role that goesbeyond the mere performative aspect of it.
Apartfrom these art works (exhibited or not) the 'community creating' aspect as aresult of my interaction with readers is very important to me, and the dynamicsof these reading projects. I have learned to appreciate that entering acommunity and often creating one is more satisfying and socially rewarding thanjust hanging something on a wall in a gallery or a museum. I learn somethingfrom it and enjoy the social exchange in these discussions of texts. Flying toa place and staying for a certain time, interacting with a group of people,getting to know them better and learning to understand how they look at thingsvia the medium of a given text, is for me a relief to the circus-like nature ofthe current international show circuit. Apart from that I was trained as atheoretician and do have a certain drive to mediate texts, to inform andprovoke discussions. Given the current state of cultural affairs withspectacle, entertainment and the ever-changing consumption of “newstuff,” offering this direct and demanding person to person approach,surrounding the common discussion of a text somehow makes a difference.
So I canonly speak of my own perspective which I've tried to partly outline. Myprecedents for closed group readings have been more academic: An on goingseminar on Wittgenstein, when I was 20 at the University of Innsbruck, and aone year long experience at the Whitney Independent Study program with RonClark which I moved to New York for in 1990. But I would be very interested ifyou could tell me more about Art & Language’s use of reading in theirwork which I am not really familiar with.
[Sectionfrom me on A&L]
CraigMartin's question (2) points towards the reading Karl Marx seminars as anexperiment in 'reading reading'. I think this is an inevitable with a projectthat aims to look at something culturally loaded and multiply tagged"a-fresh", whilst at the same point operating at least partly withinthe network of artspaces and organizations. That is a self-conscious (tautological?)examination of the cultural activity of reading collectively whilst readingcollectively. It strikes me that there are several ways or contexts withinwhich we might read Karl Marx; as students, intellectuals, individuals, as partof a political programme, none of these (allowing for an inevitable overlapbetween these positions) match the kind of institutionally undetermined spaceinto which Marx's work might have arrived when it was first published. Thus anattempt to read Marx afresh outside the burden of history inevitably carries acertain nostalgia with it for that first mediation (first reading). This couldbe a question of what reading Marx would be like without the history, failureand success of revolutionary, academic and beaurocratic Marxist formations ofthe last two centuries... or how can we read Marx without Marxism?
RAINERGANAHL How can we read Marx without Marxism? Marx himself once said: “Iam not a Marxist,” pointing indirectly towards the very question:“What is Marxism”? I find it interesting to expand this questionand ask against a temporal background: What is it to be a Marxist today? Whatis Marxism today?
I wastold that in New York for example, a former Marx reading circle substituted thename Brecht for Marx. Similar things happened after the collapse of the Soviet Unionwhen suddenly Western European communist parties started to rename themselves. Likewise,I introduce my Marx reading project with the sentence: “I am not aMarxist.”
On theother hand, I was just told by a participant of my Brooklyn Marx reading groupthat some friends bought a jacket in a second hand shop that they qualified as“Marxist”. It was some kind of Soviet or Chinese army jacket andattracted their attention. They bought it because it was“Marxist”. Is Marxismchic, something to wear, something to eat, something to show off, something toconsume, something to look for? Interesting enough, today even the negative imaginaryis fading out, like these jackets.
I stillhave an idea what we might sometimes associate with “Marxism” whenit is included in the sentence: “Reading Marx without Marxism,” especiallywhen we are not in a university campus. We associate it with a set of things,ranging from Eastern Block Socialism, Communism, the opposite of Capitalism andits “Free World”, revolt, revolution, guerrilla fights and wars, toall horrific crimes and systems of repressions that are done under the name ofCommunism and a certain doctrine of Marxism. To a certain extent the“burden of history” its horrific crimes, genocides and repressivesocial orders, committed and justified under the banner of brutalindoctrinations and bloody interpretations of Marx and Engels (not just duringthe years of Stalin), can and should never be forgotten. I don’t want itto be absent. I think it is also very important to investigate the texts (verymuch) for their short-comings. Learning from Marx today is not just aboutprojecting some of his more important ideas and analyses of social, economicand scientific-technical situations, but to also confront them with their ownhistory of tragic failures, when certain ideas had to serve as story boards forbrutally carving a forcefully better reality into people and their lives.
I wouldalso like to add that the “burden of history” as well as the“the burden of the present” are reflected not only in texts by KarlMarx but in all cultural products. This was yet another reading of Marx mostlyelicited by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
CRAIGMARTIN: Anthony Iles' points elicit another 'circular' manifestation in theprocess of reading Marx. The question returns to the possibilities of readingthe texts, not without the burden of history - as you Rainer quite rightlypoint out, given the material circumstances - but without recourse to aninstitutionally determined discipline. This circular frame may perhaps bebroached by reading outside the frame? We again return to not just theeconomic, social or revolutionary potential of Marxism, but the legacy of theacademic discipline in itself. I stress (again) the idea of reading 'outside'the disciplinary frame but perhaps not 'without' it, as Hegel aptlydemonstrated. Any move beyond the limit is in itself a measure of that limit. Iwould like to pose the question as to whether the opportunity can exist toideologically determine a non-space in which to read?
Do youreally think that a “non-space”, an ideologically non-determinedspace exists independent of reading? I have difficulties to conceive such a"non-space" since I think that our orientation, understanding andacting in the world is always socially and discursively mediated, i.e.structured by ideological formations inscribed in language, representation,signification and exchange.
Youmight as well ask: is there an extra-discursive realm in which we can step, noteven talking about reading. Idoubt it, though there exists – like with everything - (always a longing,)a desire for a radical outside, a way to transcend our linguistic, discursive,ideological, representational, institutional, social, economic, historical,political and even imaginary limits. But it would be rather naive, to thinkthat we can escape any kind of ‘framing’ without getting defined byit. My approach of reading Marx, whether I call it non-academic,non-institutional, non-disciplinary, dilettante, or pathetic for not stressingthe word artistic - might be veryquickly identified and categorized along the usual parameters of knowledgeproduction and low key activism.
Thisimpossibility to transcend our differential relationships with our ownbackgrounds and our social and ideological premises isn’t necessarily theequivalent of a totalizing determinism that doesn’t leave us any room forchange, self-definition, and difference. Quite the opposite, knowing where wecome from, what we are dealing with and what we are running against helps us togain some relative independence.
Franklyspeaking, it would be very foolish to romanticize my relative ignorance ofacademic Marxist studies and the protective security belt that a Conceptual artcontext provides, which in my case consists of well respected and wellconnected institutions.
Practicallyspeaking, my reading of Marx really depends on the few people that show someinterest in my semi-public readings. It also depends on the institutional ornon-institutional invitational framework. If participants have somephilosophical and/or university background a discussion looks? different thanwhen I am reading with young art students, who see in my week-long workshopssome kind of ongoing performance, group therapy or imported spectacle.
Literallyspeaking, if we want to change the world and the art world, and not just tointerpret it, we need to do something: communal reading and social discussionsalready are such actions that will hopefully have consequences for our personaland interpersonal lives. Since all our tools and machines are in permanent“revolution”, be it “high tech or low tech” we mightbetter stay at home, read and say no to superfluous consumption.
I appreciate your comments on my last question. My question as toa
non-space (utopia) was not an affirmation of the potential forthis.
I think one of the most interesting? aspects to your project isits manifestation under the frame of art. This, like any other form ofproduction can act as an interface between, in your case, reading and action.This is something that obviously happened in the historical moment ofConceptual art, with the early Analytic Conceptual Art (Kosuth, A&L,Bochner etc.) leading onto an 'engaged' Synthetic Conceptual Art (Adrian Piper,Cildo Meireles, Tuchaman Burns etc.). (check)
In this sense, could your own work be described as a vehicle forleading the participants to some form of activism? Also, would the legacy of apedagogical structure such as the Soviet Workers Clubs be anotherartistic/social precedent?
As Imentioned earlier on, these art-historical precedents only aroused my seriousinterest after having started with my own reading seminars as part of my works.Unlike those Conceptual artists I take the resulting documentation as astandardized format for my art production but without diminishing the socialand community-creating aspects of the reading. The photographs, actually ratherbeautiful pictures of people reading and discussing – a tradition I mightironically even trace back to Rodin’s famous sculptures, - are somehowthe scotomized? by-products, but are taken very seriously by me. The insertionof these resulting photographs as fine art products is a very important aspectof my enterprise as an artist, since it challenges standards of what isconsidered “art”. The pictures, once accepted by a larger community– something which is definitely not the case while I am writing this– will always carry as their index the reference to a critical practiceand a radical change-oriented political thinking.
Thequestion of whether these reading commitments lead to some kind of activism ismore complicated than it appears since we would need to define first what weunderstand as activism. Reading, thinking, arguing and discussing ideas of abetter and more just society under certain conditions and contexts is for meactivism as well. I hope it willchange something in people’s lives. But whether it means that they willgo and actively fight for a more just society with rather typical instrumentsof political struggle: I don’t know.
Butisn’t a better understanding of social, economic, ideological, politicaland cultural struggle for hegemony helping us to define our daily life practiceunder ordinary and extra-ordinary conditions? I don’t want to water downthe term activism, but to a certain degree just to read, write, and expresscertain things, do art or just to “be” without consuming, withoutfitting in properly, can also be defined as a kind of “activism”that has a price (a price that under really repressive situations can be veryhigh). That is, the degree of annoyance and embarrassment to a given unjustpower-system and the provoked repercussions may be some kind of measure forcritical activism.
I'm interested to pursue and investigate for the moment therelationship between your work and that of Conceptual art, particularly the useof the photographic image. First of all, given the partial break down andnegation of visuality in CA, how do you see the function of the photographicimage in your own work, beyond the documentary aspect? How does this differfrom a first generation Conceptual practice - I'm thinking here in particularof something like Adrian Piper's 'Catalysis' series, which documented herstreet performances in New York, questioning the normative protocols ofquotidian space. I regard these as having a strong correlation with your owncomments regarding 'express[ing] certain things.....without fitting inproperly'. Do you think that the 'banal' nature of your own photos, as you'vedescribed them to me, can demonstrate 'an annoyance and embarrassment to agiven unjust power-system?
Ididn’t want to give the false impression of some romantic rebellionism. Idon’t see an “unjust power-system” in the field of art. Idon’t even want any “justice”. I categorically reject theidea that there is a system that grants me or anybody else the permission to domy own or his/her works. I just do what I find is consistent with my ideas andmy context. (Whether a taken esthetic and conceptual choice is accepted or not,leading to exhibitions, critical recognition, sales or not is mostly beyond myimmediate influence). Taste formations and “public success” arelargely arbitrary, shift constantly and shouldn’t worry anybody. As anartist I only need to believe in my own work and justify it intrinsically byits own logic. This shouldn’t be made dependent on third party factors, thoughdialogues and opinion are necessary and important.
Thisanswers also the first part of your question/comment on Conceptual Art. Idon’t see in Conceptual art a break down of visuality. Quite the oppositeis true for me: it opened up a wide new area for visual arts to the point thatone could almost see with one's eyes shut. Some of these documents may be poorin technical quality but I consider them not only as intellectual products butalso beautiful. With Conceptual art visuality just became more reflective,intriguing and complex.
As faras the photographs of my own reading seminars are concerned I have to repeatmyself: after I made the first set of photographs during a reading seminar inMoscow, I realized how aesthetically successful they were and so didn't want tohave them reduced to documentary photography. I wanted from the very beginningto contribute this type of photography to a discourse on photography that isnot about documentation but more about some kind of visual practice, some kindof visual investigation. I do this by printing them in a certain format,exhibiting them for years "as art". Also don’t forget, that the1980's and 1990's have been very much dominated by photo-artists, in particularGermans who used certain “topics” and made a "carrier"out of them. I guess, I must have been more influenced by this kind ofreasoning than by Conceptual art. But unlike these ex-students of theDüsseldorf Academy, my photos of students and intellectuals haven’tyet gained much of an attention by the art market. I believe in the potentialof these photos of students and intellectuals, I will continue to produce them,show them and treat them as my work, even as independent of the actualreadings. Also, I will not just switch to another topic as a certain number ofthose above-quoted photographers do in a constant need of new“topics,” since my photographs are intrinsic to my interests, mycritical practices and my agenda.
As aconsequence of these reading seminar pictures, I initiated an ongoing series in1995 entitled: "Seminars/Lectures". For example: “S/L: TerryEagleton, The future of Marxism, University of London, London,7/13/1999”; or “S/L: Allan Sekula, History of Photography,California Institute of the Arts, Valencia 11/22/1995”. These arephotographs of other people in teaching and lecture situations. Together, theReading Seminars and S/L series have become a major part of my visual artproduction. This fact also differs from earlier Conceptual artists, themajority of whom didn’t analyze their reading options under a systemic modeof visual art production. I have continued to organize them now for some lengthof time. It is not just a single instance for a single work, a single eveningor event. (It is now 7 years I have been doing it and I will continue with thiswork). With my limited knowledge of art history none of the Conceptual artprotagonists continued an interactive practice over an extended period of time.Only a few came up with successful (or less successful) visual formulas thatthey continue to exercise. On the other hand, we have an astonishing phenomenonsince the early 1990s: many young artists are appropriating the eventstructures of Conceptual art and treat it as a "help-yourself"archive for producing smart jokes for specific occasions. Now, curators try totell artists when and where they need a "reading corner", a"discussion forum”, a “dance lesson”, a “cookingor music event”, a "sauna” or a “travel agency”.
RainerGanahl: (appendix: activism – agents of change)
Whatactually has happened to the agents of change? Who are changing things todayand why can “doing nothing or art” be some kind of activism?
Weremember, that for the French Revolution the changing agency was the heroicbourgeois revolutionary subject; with Hegel, it was the absolute spirit ofhistory expressed through the state; with Marx it was the proletarianrevolution carried out automatically by a rather homogenous class of peoplerendered paupers, miserable and uniform by the laws of capitalistic society;with Gramsci – who acknowledged that Marx was wrong in this prediction byobserving increasing social, economic, intellectual and institutionalcomplexity - it was rather throughpolitical mediation and representation from organic intellectuals, actingwithin a differentiated civil society in a fight over hegemony, thattransformative change would take place. (In the first half of the 20thcentury in Europe we see fanatically nationalistic, fascist, communist andordinary-but- victimized masses in the streets, on the battlefields, on trains,in labor and concentration camps). The very agents of industrialized death bywar, terror and mass-killings were petrified parties and “strongmen” (Franco, Hitler, Stalin etc.) who actually closed off the process ofpolitical mediation and representation of the various fractions in civilsociety. We instead saw murderous ideologies of hatred, chauvinism and racialarrogance, discrimination, anti-Semitism, anti-classism that didn’t allowfor any counter-narratives, counter-politics or unapproved social or privateactivities. All complexities were reduced to simplistic formulas thatannihilated anything else through the most brutal of means. Political processesand decision making were forcefully reduced to an authoritarian degree zero.
Marx,who lived at a time when the rural classes were (destroyed and) forced into themost abject working conditions in the then newly formed industries, couldrightfully assume that this process would go on to homogenize and universalizeindustrial capitalist misery. Therefore he counted, in a Hegelian, teleologicalstyle, on the emergence of a unified class that would automatically carry outthe proletarian revolution bringing society to a non-antagonistic reconciliationwhere differences wouldn’t play any role anymore. Such was his utopia (whichhe never really depicted), but which he thought would take care of itself onceprivate property and the division of labor were abolished. This of course neverhappened, instead it instigated the situation where dictators of the left andthe right forced society – institutions, groups, minorities, people -into simplistic bloody subordination.
In thesecond half of the 20th century Theodor Adorno and many others werepraising the 'non-identical' in identity, the differences in society,institutions and politics. Uniformity in the so-called free Western World fromthe 60's on wasn’t anymore (forced and) enforced by the state, by partiesand by the dominant ideology. Minority rights were granted and are – veryoptimistically speaking - today more or less taken for granted by the UnitedNations and by a majority of the people governed by liberal modern democracies.However, the quotidian practices might be different depending on the country,the place, the social strata, the institution, the group and on eachindividual. This process was the result of liberation struggles, student andworker revolts, anti-racist, anti-apartheid, anti-war movements, sexualliberation, gay and lesbian affirmations, ecological protests and manymore. Uniformity during our periodhas been achieved more so through consumerism, media and spectacle industrieswhich – paradoxically enough – also have differentiated tastes,classes, consumption and individualistic behavior.
Today,in a highly complex, contradicting, globalizing society critical agency can andshould take on many forms including excessive consumption and/ornon-consumption, total spectacle and/or non-spectacle, art and /or kitsch,theory and/or lust, prostitution, drugs. This list can be as long as there are different interests andactivities. As long as we all want to interact respectfully, articulate ourselvesvia legitimate political and cultural media, resist simplisticdefinition-making solutions and the coercing terror of emancipatory projects, (ofall kinds) for a better, more just and peaceful world will be possible.Activism therefore, under the premises of today’s heterogeneity, couldalso consist of just having pleasure - intellectual and/or sensual pleasure -by for example: just reading Marx, even if there is little or no chance toimagine disenfranchised proletarian masses walking down Fifth Avenue in NewYork (although illegally enslaved, non-English speaking, exploited sweat shopor sex workers exist in large numbers in New York as everywhere else). Thereare (only) some AIDS activist walks and the New York marathon, for example,which reduce social, economic and cultural differences (quite impressively) ofcompetition for a temporal moment (of competition) under the banner of healthand sponsorship. Activism, as long as it isn’t over-institutionalized,over-professionalized, corrupted by extrinsic interests, corporations, fashionand political organizations, will always continue to have the potential tochange people and their world. Of course, there are many ways of being activistvia political associations, fashion, corporations, special interest groups orinstitutions as well. To a certain degree, today, the less activism fits thegiven notions of activism the more it might prove effective. Mightn’t it?