Beautiful Failure

Ben Lerner, “My First Time: Ben Lerner on The Lichtenberg Figures,” The Paris Review 16 February 2016 (video interview)

I kind of always assume that you don’t write the poem you want to write, you know, or you don’t make the book you want to make. And, on the one hand, it can be kind of depressing or whatever, right? But, on the other hand, it’s quite freeing because it means you discover something in the act of composition that you didn’t know in advance. Generally, I think of art as really about trying to actualize impossible desires with form. And you always fail to make the virtual actual. You always fail to transform the world through your poem, or whatever. But the failure itself can be beautiful, or pleasurable, and it can kind of exercise imaginative faculties that aren’t exercised when you’re just making things you know how to make.

The Impossibility of Total Destruction

Boris Groys, In the Flow, 2016

Indeed, if God has created the world out of nothingness, he can also destroy it completely — leaving no traces.

But the point is precisely this: Benjamin uses the image of Angelus Novus in the context of his materialist concept of history, in which divine violence becomes material violence. Thus, it becomes clear why Benjamin does not believe in the possibility of total destruction. Indeed, if God is dead, the material world becomes indestructible. In the secular, purely material world, destruction can be only material destruction, produced by material forces, and any material destruction remains only partially successful. It always leaves ruins, traces, vestiges behind — precisely as described by Benjamin in his parable. In other words, if we cannot totally destroy the world, the world also cannot totally destroy us. Total success is impossible, but so is total failure. The materialist vision of the world opens a zone beyond success and failure, conservation and annihilation, acquisition and loss. Now, this is precisely the zone in which art operates if it wants to perform its knowledge of the materiality of the world — and of life as a material process. And although the art of the historic avant-gardes has also been accused often of being nihilistic and destructive, the destructiveness of avant-garde art was motivated by its belief in the impossibility of total destruction. One can say that the avant-garde, looking towards the future, saw precisely the same image that Benjamin’s Angelus Novus saw when looking towards the past.

From the outset, modern and contemporary art has integrated the possibilities of failure, historical irrelevance, and destruction within its own activities. Thus, art cannot be shocked by what it sees in the rear view window of progress. The avant-garde’s Angelus Novus always sees the same thing, whether it looks into the future or into the past. Here, life is understood as a non-teleological, purely material process. To practice life means to be aware of the possibility of its interruption at any moment by death — and thus to avoid pursuing any definite goals and objectives, because such pursuits can also be interrupted by death at any moment. [pp. 35-36]

Bodies in Space

Boris Groys, In the Flow, 2016

Descartes famously said, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ But a critically or theoretically minded spectator would say about Descartes: He thinks because he lives. Here my self-knowledge becomes radically undermined. Maybe I do know what I think. But I do not know how I live — I do not even know I am alive. Because I have never experienced myself as dead, I cannot experience myself as being alive. I have to ask others if and how I live — and that means I must also ask what I actually think, because I now see my thinking as being determined by my life. To live is to be exposed as living (and not as dead) to the gaze of the Others. Then it becomes irrelevant what we think, plan, or hope — what is relevant is how our bodies are moving in space under that gaze. [p. 28]

The Quest for Totality

Boris Groys, In the Flow, 2016

Traditionally, the main occupation of human culture was the search for totality. This search was dictated by the desire of human subjects to overcome their own particularity, to get rid of the specific ‘points of view’ that were defined by their ‘life forms’ and to gain access to a general, universal worldview that would be valid everywhere and at every time. (p. 9)

The old-fashioned, metaphysical universality could be achieved only through very special and complicated efforts. Materialist universality seems to be always already there — achievable without any effort and without any price. Indeed, we need not make any effort to be born or to die, or, generally, to go with the flow. Materialist totality, the totality of the flow, can be thus understood as a purely negative totality: Reaching this totality simply means rejecting all attempts to escape into the fictive, metaphysical, spiritual space beyond the material world, abandoning all dreams of immortality, eternal truth, moral perfection, ideal beauty, etc.

(…) Our personality survives our body — preventing our immediate access to the totality of the flow. To destroy, or at least transform, the archives that materially support our persons during our lifetime, we need to initiate a revolution. The revolution is an artificial acceleration of the world flow. It is an effect of impatience or unwillingness to wait until the existing order collapses by itself and liberates a human being from his or her personality. That is why revolutionary practice is the only way by which post-metaphysical, materialist man can find an access to the totality of the flow. However, such a revolutionary practice presupposes serious efforts on the part of the practitioner, and requires intelligence and discipline comparable to what was needed to achieve spiritual totality. These revolutionary efforts at self-fluidization, understood as the dissolution of one’s own person, of one’s own public image, are documented by modern and contemporary art, just as efforts at self-eternalization were documented by traditional art. (…) The fluidization of the artistic form is the means by which modern and contemporary art tries to gain access to the totality of the world. (pp. 11-12)

Collaborating with the Flow of Time

Boris Groys, In the Flow, 2016

[C]ontemporary art escapes the present not by resisting the flow of time but by collaborating with it. If all present things are transitory and in flux, it is possible and even necessary to anticipate their eventual disappearance. Modern and contemporary art practices precisely the prefiguration and imitation of the future in which things now contemporary will disappear. Such an imitation of the future cannot produce artworks. Rather, it produces artistic events, performances, temporary exhibitions that demonstrate the transitory character of the present order of things and the rules that govern contemporary social behaviour. Imitation of the anticipated future can manifest itself only as an event and not as a thing. The artists of Futurism and Dada produced artistic events revealing the decay and obsoleteness of the present. But the production of art events is even more characteristic of contemporary art, with its culture of performance and participation. (PP. 3-4)

(…) Art does not predict the future, but rather demonstrates the transitory character of the present — and thus opens the way for the new. (p. 7)