4. Aesthetic Equality
Published: 29.06.2012
in the series What Can Photography Do?
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In this fourth posting, I consider a sequence of photographic images and accompanying text fragments that a group of Ramallah based artists and writers - Basel Abbas, Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Nahed Awwad and Inass Yassin - created together with and coordinated by Shuruq Harb and Ursula Biemann (ArtTerritories). Preceded by an introductory essay entitled "Looking Back at Today" – written by Biemann and Harb – this photo-textual work of art was published as an insert in A Prior #22 (2011). It can be downloaded free of charge via this weblink: http://www.artterritories.net/?page_id=2592.

This 22-page photo-textual sequence was the result of a workshop held at Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. Together, the group studied a wide range of private family photographs that they had been able to gather from asking around in their immediate environment. The selection criterion for this "collection" of images (see: Part 2) – none of which comes from existing, institutional archives - was to include, as Biemann and Harb explain, images that “express instances in Palestinian family and social history that reflect the sense of hope and anticipation that currently blows through the collective imaginary in the region” (cf. also http://aprior.org/artist/artterritories). The work provides, they state, “unclassified but rearranged memories” of moments in the recent history of Palestinians, namely in the sixties and eighties, when “mobility, connectivity and a curiosity toward diverse cultural experiences were particularly prominent”.

It is striking that almost all of the adults that we observe in the pictures are posing for the camera while not being fully engaged in a particular task. They are standing smiling on a beach, waiting or watching at the airport jetty, looking relaxed while taking a boat tour, coming back from a voyage by air plane or posing for an amateur photo portrait during a family gathering. They seem at ease: not only within the picture but also in the situation within which they are depicted. That appears even to be the case for the people watching events taking place in 2011 on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, an impression that is strengthened by the accompanying text fragment: “We don’t have to be afraid anymore, there is no more fear, we are free, we are liberated”.

In a challenging essay, entitled "Notes on the Photographic Image" (2009), Jacques Rancière has argued, while discussing key photographs by – among others - Lewis Hine or August Sander that it is from the apparent “indifference” of the photographed subject towards the underlying circumstances that there is the most to be learnt. Rancière distinguishes the “carefree inactivity” of the “indifferent being[s]” that he encounters in such photographs from the “characters [absorbed by] their task” that Michael Fried esteems central to his theory of contemporary art photography. The former, he argues, testify for “another modernism” than the one Fried has in mind: they bear witness to “the exacerbation of a modernist project of separation”, which is a “project of severing”. Within the logic of the latter project, the artist makes photographs of characters who “are put in their place” precisely within the picture, by being so utterly absorbed in their task that they appear oblivious of the viewer. Then, the picture has been able to “resist” or “repudiate all identification by the viewer with the human subjects of [these] images”. In other words, the "absorptive viewer", as we know him, needs to – even if paradoxically – feel safely "excluded" from the harmonious world of the successful picture that he is observing.

The "indifferent subject", Rancière writes, is not to be confused with the absorptive subject. By being engaged in “an activity that consists precisely in doing nothing and not worrying about anything”, it bears witness to a modernity that blurs the opposition “between the world of work and the world of leisure, between the naked forms of life and the experiences of the aestheticized world”. This ‘doing nothing’, in his view, becomes the “exemplary subject of art”: it is an “aesthetic neutralization” of the social and artistic hierarchy, from which a different future can be imagined. “Inactivity is not laziness”, he insists. Rather is it “the suspension of the opposition between activity and passivity that aligned an idea of art with a hierarchical vision of the world”.

In a more recent interview with Frank Ruda and Jan Voelker, published in 2011 in a book edited by J. Smith and A. Weisser entitled Everything is in Everything: Jacques Rancière Between Intellectual Emancipation and Aesthetic Education, Rancière has specified that this aesthetic neutralization of the absorptive modernist regime of expressivity opens the door towards “aesthetic equality”. Aesthetic equality is also a key goal in Peter Friedl’s work, which I discussed in an earlier posting and comments. In a key essay dating back to the year 2000 and entitled "The Curse of the Iguana", Peter Friedl argues that what matters most today, is “to take the whole world seriously.” His opinion matches that of Susan Buck-Morss who, in Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009), has provided advocacy for a human universalism that is shaped “from below” by the motley crew. The universalism that Buck-Morss proposes radically includes all human beings and does not factually exclude some. This “common humanity” needs to take shape through “subterranean solidarities,” which are a source of enthusiasm and hope, as they appeal to universal, moral sentiment. “Universal humanity,” she argues, “is visible at the edges.” It is encountered in “the porosity of the space between enemy sides, a space contested and precarious, to be sure, but free enough for the idea of humanity to remain in view”. Most importantly, she concludes, it implies a “radical neutrality [emphasis in original]”.

Radical, aesthetic neutrality is not to be associated with a lack of commitment or open-endedness of intentions. Quite on the contrary: it calls for active inclusion of the viewer instead of safe distancing. It defends a way of observing photographic images that claims identification with the depicted subject as a constructive force to aesthetically imagine social change. It addresses the common root of what is at stake in today’s world: true equality among all humans. Such an aesthetic act of radical neutralization produces meanings that are, to borrow Buck-Morss’ terminology once more, “lateral, additive, syncretic rather than synthetic”.

3 comment(s)
Jörg Scheller
Posted 07.07.2012 at 07:56

Though I was a bit skeptical of the posts previously discussed, since I found they mostly evaded the crucial pragmatic question “How and by whom is it to be done?”, I deem the concept of “radical neutrality” a very challenging and promising one. In fact, we are living in the heyday of universalized particular – above all economic – interests, and therefore in a time of thriving mythology. “Radical neutrality”, as impossible as it factually is, might serve as a beacon for orientation beyond crumbling market metaphysics or recycled religious mantras. It might also serve as a means to overcome the long fossilized postmodern paradigm of high-low-exchange – if it only escapes the lure of irony.
Peter Friedl's seemingly absurd demand that we should “take the whole world seriously” – and that means not to deal with it ironically – is a great aphorism which reminds me of the diagnoses put forward by the scholarly blog metamodernism (cf. www.modernism.com). One of the key observations which led its founders Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen to proclaim the emergence of so called “metamodernism” (that is, in a nutshell: post-postmodernism), can be summarized by a quote from the art critic Jerry Saltz: “I’m noticing a new approach to artmaking in recent museum and gallery shows. . . . It’s an attitude that says, I know that the art I’m creating may seem silly, even stupid, or that it might have been done before, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t serious.“ In this regard, neutrality would be the appropriate sidekick for a new seriousness beyond modernist orthodoxy on the one hand, and a new janus-facedness beyond postmodern irony on the other hand – a seriousness in spite of the admitted inescapability of redundancy and stupidity.
I would rather subscribe to the decidedly permissive, decidedly undecided way of “taking everything serious” or “doing stupid things seriously” than to Buck-Morss' elevated vision which appears to be, from my point of view, still rooted in the problematic tradition of “les grands récits” (Lyotard). To „radically include all human beings“ says absolutely nothing, it is first of all a concept, a lofty, idealistic zero-sum game ignorant of empirical and pragmatic conditions. Charles Sanders Peirce would have argued that such a project would have to be based on everyday experience and concrete activities, not on an universal ideal which is then to be located somewhere „below“ or „at the edges“ of established power structures... How to experience “all human beings” without reducing them to mere components of an abstract system?
„Radical neutrality“, in turn, is a fascinating and promising, open and subversive approach to the challenges of contemporary culture, indeed. This leads me to a somewhat awkward association. With regard to photography, particularly the worn out and rightfully rejected notion of photography as a “neutral medium” could turn out to be fertile once again. From a phenomenological perspective, an oil painting shows more intentional stilistic transformation, and thus a greater distancing effect with regard to the depicted object/subject than an (analog) photograph, although the latter, as Flusser and others have justifiably pointed out, is anything but the result of neutral mimesis. Nonetheless, rethinking the old fashioned, presumed “neutrality of photography” would invite us to discuss “neutrality” not only in terms of image motives (such as “carefree activity” or “indifferent being”) but also in terms of technical aspects and media-specific ways of image production and reception.

Jan-Erik Lundström
Posted 08.07.2012 at 18:16

The on-going search for a critical practice of the present is a beautiful, impossible and necessary task. Beautiful in its confidence in the possibility of emancipation, impossible in the sense that every critical practice ineffably has to struggle with the ghosts of neutralization/absorption and powerless faulted utopianism, necessary in the sense that a critical practice will always be the only path towards survival. Thus, I recognize, in my readings of posts and contemporary projects, several intuitive (which does not necessary imply less reasoned) responses, such as an insistent scepticism of universalist, comprehensive, catholic claims, "the grand narratives" (all of humanity, the whole world,...); such as a reliable suspiciousness of claims of that Archimedean point, that utopian position outside, that dream of the avant-garde as providing a practice upturning and negating the system, whether this position be radically neutral, lateral, from below, subaltern; the notion of aesthetic practices as providing an alternative universe, a separate sphere, a distinguished system, a different modality. Indeed the analogy between the contemporary notions of "neutrality" with the neo-Kantian/emergent modernist notions of "disinterestedness" is striking and challenges us, thus, recharging our need to find the nuances of renewal, for example the ways of finding the points of entry separating utopias from heterotopias, meta-topias. Perhaps I would venture us to follow the examples identified, but in more detail, more piecemeal, in a more "nerdy" rather "slacker" manner, some kind of involved neutralities. Or, yes, the untitled project discussed, the collective of six reworking Palestinian family albums is an intervention in the modalities of the present, a critical practice. Yet this can hardly be claimed as "radical neutrality" or "inactivity" or as attending to any grand universalist narratives embracing all of humanity, whether from below or above. It is a detailed, careful, negotiated practice, one in which meaning is collectively articulated, producing both counter-narratives as well new visualizations of things unseen, and one in which the labour of the artist is kind of coterminous with the labour of the viewer. These are the threads to follow: Carefully restricted and "weak" and indirect but yet productive and articulated practices. Then all to do is to enjoy, endure and keep searching for such openings, such exact and versatile practices that they immediately generate also their own languages/ theories.

Hilde Van Gelder
Posted 13.07.2012 at 16:07

Dear Jörg and Jan-Erik,

Perhaps I have kept Aïm Deüelle Lüski - as an example of “How and by whom is it to be done?” too much for the end of my postings, Jörg. It was a way to prepare his coming.
I would like to take you on with regard to your skepticism of of Susan Buck-Morss's writings. And I want to do so by building on Jan-Erik's reference to Kant. In an interview - held in French - that can be consulted online (http://www.ith-z.ch/media/pdf/0993878001238507736.pdf), Jacques Rancière makes a plea for 'another type of universality' [the text is entitled 'Un autre type d'universalité']. He bases his argument on transcendental philososophy, in particular Kant's Aesthetics. He argues that universality that he is talking about is the one that is claimed for in and throughout an aesthetic judgment. It is a universality that cannot be established on an empirical level. Instead, it is a universality that is posited subjectively, by our individual aesthetic judgment; but it postulates an 'us', a shared 'sensus communis' (a common sense). In the aesthetic judgment, one dreams of a universality in terms of a community of all people 'as if' it could be established on an empirical level (although we know it cannot). Exactly because it is a "subjective fiction," Rancière says, and because it opposes itself to the objectivist fiction of empirical consensus, it is an operative force of dissensus. Here, his argument matches that of Chantal Mouffe, who puts forward her idea of "critical art" as an “art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate” (see: http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/mouffe.html). This kind of art, to Mouffe, is a driving force towards what she defines as radical democracy. It is an art that is, she argues, “constituted by a manifold of artistic practices aiming at giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony.” Stronger, it even “tries to disarticulate” that hegemony in favour of the creation of “an agonistic situation, a situation in which alternatives are made possible.” Photography, in its intervening mode of radical neutrality, has a privileged role to play here.

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