Site 9 Justin Clemens

Getting off your face with a destructive character: Christian Capurro’s Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette

What follows is an edited version of the site talk (#9 in the Melbourne AMPEdS program) delivered by Justin Clemens at the Albert Road Clinic, South Melbourne on the 29.01.05. An edited version of the text was published earlier in the year in the journal Artlink Volume 25 #1, 2005. An extended transcript of the lively and provocative discussion that took place in question time after the talk has also been posted separately.

I would like to make a few comments before I turn to a discussion of Christian’s work; these comments are intended as a sort of self-situating device, in order to give you a real chance to disagree with my propositions. Generally, contemporary art seems to me to have two major, connected but antagonistic tendencies at the level of its presentation: a) what I will call “generalised ekphrasis” - If you’ve been to see “A Theory of Nearly Everything” (aka “A Molecular History of Everything”) at ACCA, you’ll, hopefully, be able to see some connections between “universal or generalised ekphrasis” in that show and; b) what I will call “perceptual kenosis.” I’m going to explain these and you can fall asleep, riot, leave or just shut-up and listen.

Ekphrasis is a technical term from ancient rhetorical handbooks. It originally concerned the problematic of textual description of a situation or event, and how the writer can convey, through energeia, an energetics, a powerful sense to the reader of being-there-where-you-are-not. So originally ekphrasis has this idea that when you are describing an event at which people were not present, how do you give that description a sense of liveliness; what’s the energy that’s involved. Thereafter, however, ekphrasis took on a more specific meaning: the description of one form of art in the terms of another, for example, a poem about a painting or sculpture. There are a number of loci classici, notably Homer’s description of the Shield of Achilles, in the Iliad - a narrative poem trying to convey another art form, that of the image on the Shield of Achilles - or Virgil’s descriptions of the frescoes in Dido’s palace, but ekphrastic texts run all the way through to the present. You should immediately be able to think of art historical references, for example; Pygmalion being a trope for painters. What is the Pygmalion and Galetea myth, but a myth of a statue, a myth of a king who makes a statue which through Venus’s intervention comes to life. Now part of the interest of ekphrasis as an artistic device is that it self-knowingly foregrounds and complicates the problem of representation, precisely because what’s being represented in an ekphrasis is not “Nature” or “the Real” but something that’s already an artifice. And, a human artifice too. The matter of ekphrasis is form itself, another form or forms. This further presumes that there are multiple, even incommensurable ways of world-creation: sculpture is not image is not writing is not music. At the same time the art form you are enjoying is not all of these other things, it still purports to be able to represent something essential about those things that those things they can’t represent for themselves. So you are already in a field of multiplicity, antagonism, aggression and, at the same time, a comment on other forms of art and other artists, so there’s a field of aesthetic competition. And therefore ekphrasis explicitly presents a problem: what are the relations between the arts? What are the limits of art? How can these be presented within art itself? Which form of art is the best form of art to represent all other forms of art? And so on.

To revert to the ‘History of Nearly Everything’ (sic) example, I was struck by how many works in that show are about the process of making other forms of art itself within the artwork. I actually didn’t think some of the pieces were that good but it did strike me that a lot of them really were, especially those TV’s – there was a lot of video, there was a lot of TV: those TV’s were terrible, just plunked there! - were basically all about showing you the process of the construction of the artwork itself out of other forms of art. This is what I want to call a generalised ekphrasis. One can now regularly enjoy at contemporary art fairs water-colour paintings of digital photographs of TV screens of plasticine figures enacting some drama. I really think of Ricky Swallow as the current Aussie exemplar of this sort of stuff. Ekphrasis is a torsion of artifice that stages its own artificial character, testifying to the overdeterminations of every perception within perception itself.

“Perceptual kenosis” is to be strenuously distinguished from this generalised ekphrasis. Rather than presenting the concatenation of media, radical purification, as the name implies, attempts to reduce the perceptible aspects of the work in order to withdraw from the world of appearances. The word “kenosis” takes its subsequent significance from the Biblical Philippians 2:6, from Christ’s occultation of his own divinity and the assumption of humanity: God comes down to earth, is born as just another human being among other human beings; born of a woman, has to make a living, suffers and so on. The sacrifice, this kenosis, is the emptying-out of God himself into the banality of everyday life. This self-evacuation, the abdication of divinity, turns out to be the sacrifice necessary for a miraculous return to divinity, now all the more assured for having materialised itself as banality. You can see the point of kenosis, it’s the emptying-out of your own divinity, your self-constriction and self-evacuation until you become indiscernible from everyone else. So what this kind of art does is dissimulate itself as non-art, to the point of indistinction. It characteristically proceeds through subtractions, effacements, various forms of destruction, occlusion, and so on. One cannot necessarily perceive what makes this art, provoking in its indiscernibility questions about just what non-perceptual operations render something art. There are no predicates applicable to what you are seeing that makes it art as opposed to non-art in principle, at the same time that the very presentation of something as banal as this (pointing to the AMPEdS magazine) as art is meant to make you think, ‘What is art, what is art anyway, what are the operations of art?’ So perceptual kenosis, rather than what I’m calling ekphrasis - where you are actually in the middle of this media concatenation and storm - perceptual kenosis empties that out and tries to force you to think about what are the non-perceptual operations that people perform in order to nominate things as art at all.

Now I think these are definitely two dominant tendencies, in my mind, in contemporary art or art that tries to present itself as contemporary. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive but I do think that they are definitely in tension with one another.

What I think both of them share, or the condition these tendencies share, are, on the one hand, we live in a very reflexive society where everything comes to you as pre-digested as it were. Since we are in a psychiatric clinic today, one of the things psychoanalysts are finding is that people come with their symptoms already pre-interpreted for the analyst. So if you are visiting a Lacanian analyst now you say, ‘Well, I’ve been experiencing this and wouldn’t Lacan say this about it, blah, blah blah’ and what’s the analyst got to say about this other than, ‘Well, very good, you’ve just analysed yourself, thanks for coming!’ Do you see what I mean? That sort of situation seems to be one of the preconditions for contemporary art trying to take these sorts of radical forms; it’s a real trembling at the edges of what art can be. I think of Duchamp and Malevich as the ur-fathers of this kind of thing, and, to come to the point of this afternoon, of Christian Capurro as continuing this lineage.

My second broad comment concerns the thematics and conditions of contemporary art, which are not necessarily linked with these tendencies in any one-to-one manner. From my definitions above, you might expect that general ekphrasis is about making-perceptible the conditions of contemporary perception; that perceptual kenosis is about refusing perception in order to isolate operations on matter that then may or may not engage the problem of art. What they share is this: that no-one has the faintest idea what art is, whether it is, what’s the point of it, who does it, where to find it, at the same time that it’s only too clear that many artists are megalomaniacs, the art-world is based on a whole series of very unimpressive social routines, etc. The specificity of the affects that accompany this global unmooring of practice from its reasons are crucial. After all, it’s even hard to know what to feel about contemporary art, or, on the off-chance you do get some kind of definite feeling, what the hell that has to do with the “art” “itself”….

At the same time the fact of art is absolutely manifest - no one denies that art exists - but when you actually ask anyone what it is, who knows! It’s not a crisis as far as I’m concerned, but there is a desperation about what it is that enables these distinctions between art and non-art to be drawn at all.

If I’m going to come back to these questions later in the talk, I do want to claim, first, that Another Misspent Portrait should be understood as contributing to the lineage of perceptual kenosis; second, that its proposed “solution” to the problem of art is that of outsourcing the justification of art to others in order to capitalise on other people doing work for nothing for you (including me, as I realize I’m not being paid for this I’m thinking, ‘How the fuck did this happen!’). As Christian has said, he forced people to calculate what there time was worth but you didn’t pay anyone for this, did you! So no one is actually being paid for this, I’m not, you’re not being paid, Christian’s making-out like a bandit, and, in what way is Christian making out like a bandit? That seems to me one of the questions of perceptual kenosis: why the hell are people doing all this work for nothing? What’s in it for you, what’s in it for me? I don’t know.

There also seems to me a parody of what the French psychoanalyst, whom I invoked before, Jacques Lacan said about the ‘master’s discourse’. What a master does is, he never bothers explaining himself, the master just grunts, makes weird gestures and you, the slave, are meant to go, ‘What did he mean by that? What does he want me to do? Maybe I should clean up the store at this point?’ Precisely because the master doesn’t say anything or give explicit directives – Napoleon’s a great master of this, the hand’s inside… ‘What does he want? Well, we better kill everyone because that’s what he must want’ – so the master makes a gesture but never explains. What the slaves do is fill in around the master exactly what they imagine the master to want of them. Of course this is fantastic for the master because the master doesn’t actually have to ask them or utter coherent sounds. At the same time, when the slaves do something the master disagrees with then he can still cut them out, even as they go, ‘But I was doing it for you! I thought this is what you wanted!’ I’m sure we have all been in this particular situation and experienced this in a life or a work situation; ‘But isn’t this what you wanted me to do?’, ‘No. You’re fired!

You can see this in Stalinist bureaucracies where Stalin was a master of not saying anything in Politburo meetings, getting other people to go off and commit all these atrocities and massacres and then say, ‘You’ve gone too far, too fast, I never said for you to do this.’ I think there’s something about Christian’s thing which has obviously got people treating him as if he was the master, in some way. I’m still a bit perturbed by this and I think it kind of stinks, but, there’s something very, very interesting that art itself will know try to push itself into a role of the classic master.

I’m going to cut back now somewhat as I’ve got a long quote here from something I wrote last year when Jacques Derrida died. I remembered he had an essay in his book, Margins of Philosophy, called “White Mythology”, which is in fact all about rubbing-out. So it seemed like a good way to memorialise the death of a great man and also talk about Christian too.

Here is the extract, which is really an extract of an extract of Derrida’s essay from Anatole France’s book, The Garden of Epicurus. One of the characters, Polyphilos is speaking:

Polyphilos: It was just a reverie. I was thinking how the Metaphysicians, when they make a language for themselves, are like knife-grinders, who instead of knives and scissors, should put medals and coins to the grindstone to efface the exergue, the value and the head. When they have worked away till nothing is visible in their crown-pieces, neither King Edward, the Emperor William, nor the Republic, they say: “These pieces have nothing either English, German or French about them; we have freed them from all limits of time and space; they are not worth five shillings any more; they are of inestimable value, and their exchange value is extended indefinitely.” They are right in speaking thus. By this needy knife-grinder’s activity words are changed from a physical to a metaphysical acceptation. It is obvious that they lose in the process; what they gain by it is not so immediately apparent.1

In the “Exergue” to his essay entitled “White Mythology,” Jacques Derrida quotes the above from Anatole France’s The Garden of Epicurus. There France’s Polyphilos proposes that the transition from physical material to metaphysical concept is accomplished not by addition or abstraction, but by subtraction and effacement; that, in order to achieve the status of universal reason, thinkers must grind down all mere particularities of person, place, and proposition until the latter are left in the condition of pure, original coinage. One problem, then, is how to spend or invest such worn coinage, especially since it’s unlikely to get you any bread from the local baker. “Universality” and “absolute value” are bought at the cost of the abolition of necessary utilitarian details, and tend to a derisory, risible uselessness. Hence Derrida invokes, in place of the uses of the metaphysical, what he calls usure. Usure is at once usury, the loan of money at an exorbitant rate of interest. Historically this is related directly in the West to Jewish banking, because of course Christians’ weren’t allowed to make money at interest, hence you end up with Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays saying, ‘Are you calling me a Hebrew Jew?’ - which is itself a joke because if you are a Hebrew you’re a Jew - and also his ‘usury poems’. Aristotle has a whole load of anathemas against usury, that unnatural - and this is to come back to the question of ekphrasis as well - and natural accumulation through exorbitant interest, which for Aristotle is absolutely unnatural or contra nature; like sodomy, it’s considered in the same terms, it is “contra natura.”

So Derrida uses this word usure, which on the one hand is usury and at the same time it means deterioration, the inexorable erosion of a thing’s usefulness. There is simultaneously what Derrida would call, aporia; on the one hand you get back all that you put in and much, much, much, much, much more and at the same time you are getting a wearing-down, an effacement, a destruction, a disintegration at exactly the same time. You are both making and losing in this peculiar way.

The pertinence of usure to Christian Capurro’s ongoing work Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette should at once be evident. Over a period of about five years, Capurro asked a variety of people — family, friends, friends of friends, other artists, writers, and so on, some local, some international — to each erase a page from the male fashion rag Vogue Hommes (September 1986, #92), using erasers supplied by the artist.2 Each “rubber” was asked to record how long it took them to rub out their page, and also to note, if employed, at what hourly rate they were then being paid. The results were then tallied. As one of Capurro’s posters here proclaims: 267 hours, 49 minutes, 5 seconds...and AUD$11,349.18... In the wake of the work’s “completion,” the fully-erased magazine is doing the rounds, being exhibited at a variety of sites (including a hairdressing salon, the Salvos, Trades Hall and ACCA), where it is often accompanied by site-talks and performances by a variety of people, as it turns out, all unpaid.

We can immediately underline certain integral features of Another Misspent Portrait. First, its organization of multiplicity: of materials and technologies (paper, erasers, transport, calculating machines, etc.); of workers (this wide variety of people already mentioned above); of media (the magazine itself, the posters, the exhibitions at galleries and elsewhere). This is the first thing, it organises multiplicity in a particular way and this is one of the consequences I suggest of perceptual kenosis: you empty-out the object itself in order to force people to think about the structures, or structuring, of its appearance. Second, its relation to mass commodity culture: Vogue Hommes is a magazine which, like many others, encourages you, the consumer, to buy what is basically advertising. This is one of the paradoxes of those magazines: you’re actually buying something that’s only selling you other things. Whether that advertising is Sylvester Stallone or a fancy watch or pair of pants, all are commodities that require advertising, to the point where you consume advertising just in order to know how to better advertise yourself as a consumer of advertising. You’ve got his weird usure of commodity culture. Commodities are always in competition for attention, just like you. In fact, the more successful you are at consuming advertising and showing other people that you can consume advertising successfully, people will start to consume you as if you were advertising too until you become a dense knot of radiating excitement for them.

The erasure of such a magazine suggests an ambivalent, aggressive act of an artist against the power and prestige of mass cultural commodities. This is a question of time, as much as anything. Commodity culture is essentially transient, disposable commodities advertising disposable commodities — in contrast to the traditional claims of Art on “eternality” or “immortality.” Third, its celebration of famous masters of defacement, from Etienne de Silhouette himself to Robert Rauschenberg and his rubbing-out De Kooning (a work that, incidentally, very much excited the Zen-enthusiast John Cage), as well as to other great defacers (of whom more below). The work also projects various personae for the artist (as director, as ‘master’ in the Lacanian sense, as entrepreneur, as self-publicist, as events-coordinator, etc.), and genres for the object (is it an object in itself or is it just an excuse for you to think about these other aspects, should it be placed in the art tradition of the artist’s sketch-book or as an anti-art piece or as performance or as a pure gesture...?). Fourth, its exploration of what are too easily called “ideas.” For Another Misspent Portrait is a parody of a return to origins, to the conditions that make commodities possible, beyond or beneath them: the originary whiteness - or (looking at the magazine) badly off-white as I can still see stuff. Some people just aren’t very good workers, that’s the other message you should get from this work! - the receptivity of the page on which glossy advertising will be imposed. Of course, the return to origins is impossible. Capurro instead identifies, isolates and accelerates a process that would otherwise never come to fruition: the complete wearing-away of print could usually only be accomplished with the destruction of the magazine form itself. So, it is this form of ‘impossible object’, for you can’t see this happening naturally. The emergence of the “pure form” of the magazine-without-content is a gesture towards transforming it into the sign of pure exchange-value, of which the great Karl Marx wrote: “exchange-value cannot be anything other than the mode of expression, the ‘form of appearance,’ of a content distinguishable from it.”3 If money functions in our societies as the general equivalent, art here pretends to rival money, more general still. You won’t get the flow of money unless you have this pure form of what enables commodity culture to circulate.

So the problems of labour and value in art are clearly at the centre of Capurro’s project, problems that may seem particularly pressing today, when the materials, techniques, forms, genres, places, personnel, meaning, and justification of art are in a state of absolute disarray. Art can now be made out of anything, by anything, and look like anything. But if anything can be a sign of art, what’s the sign of art? Anything? Or nothing? And beyond the signs, what’s there? How does “art” get recognised and named as such? Is it nothing more than an empty name? Is art impossible, or non-existent, or indiscernible? Is art now precisely something that presents a thought of its own impossibility?

The work’s gently paradoxical and punning title alerts us to these difficulties: Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette. The common noun “silhouette” derives from Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), an Enlightenment author and politician, who was, for a short while, Louis XV’s finance minister. Famed for his niggardliness, he’s famous for being tight, basically, - as Christian himself clearly is for identifying with Etienne. Is this payback for not getting paid! - Silhouette was also a big fan of the silhouette. Chez Silhouette we find, on the one hand, a rigorous fiscal accountancy pushed to the limits of systemic viability, which subordinates any individual’s interests to the well-being of a complex system (it was considered scandalous that Silhouette was prepared to institute astringent fiscal programs that ran against the interests of his own family and class). As an Enlightenment author, what’s the rationality of this system? Then you start thinking according to the rationality of the system and you realize that, ‘Well actually, my family is eating way too much and if we are really going to make this country better then my family is going to have to starve or we’re going to have to cut back seriously on this, on their expenditure.’ So Silhouette is doing this rationally. Once you start thinking rationally you realize your family are these disgusting consumers that need to be curbed. On the other hand, at the same time he’s interested in this fiscal astringency, he’s reducing through his silhouettage every individual to their starkest, defining elements, the constituents by which pure figure cuts itself out from its ground. This elemental procedure at once tends to global therapy at the level of the economic system, and to specific diagnosis at the level of individual profiling. For Silhouette, at both macro and micro levels, essence appears through erasure. Confusing details are obliterated, in order to bring out the truly meaningful details. By a quirk of historical irony, Silhouette’s purgatorial enthusiasm has seen his name become a silhouette of itself through antonomasia (the use of a proper name to express a general idea). In fact Silhouette is being silhouetted by the word ‘silhouette’ as he has moved from person to name.

But these antonomasiac antics directly raise the question of mimesis, imitation: what’s a portrait, other than a representation of a person’s face? And, since the face is “the mirror of the soul” or an authentic opening onto Otherness (see the work of Emmanuel Levinas), a portrait is also the royal road to a person’s in-visible and in-effable essence. You have that paradox of the portrait: on the one hand you don’t paint their foot in order to say something essential about the whole person. You’re looking at their face - it’s the first thing you’re meant to meet, it’s the index of individuality - you can see through their eyes deep into their soul and realize they are this sort of person, etc. etc. Yet a silhouette is precisely not a portrait; it literally effaces, erases the critical details of a face as it brings out its outline. So perhaps the only way to produce a genuine portrait of Silhouette is by conceptual silhouettage or profiling, his essence being precisely that of restriction and erasure — once again, in order to save the essence. Unless, of course, you’ve misspent yourself in doing so: hence the presence of the Another in the title, which designates the divergent repetitions of a mimetic labour constantly having to be re-begun.

At the heart of this work, in other words, is the question of work: the neverending spending or misspending of time, money, energy, resources of all kinds, which produces only dissatisfactory likenesses out of its futile struggle. The question of work, its pleasures and its pains, its sufferings and sacrifices, cannot be separated from the problematic of effacement. If you think about the amount of work all of us have to do in order to survive these days, even on the dole you have to work, filling-out ‘dole-diaries’, filling-out forms, boxes, it’s quite incredible to do nothing. “Doing nothing is very, very hard,” as Oscar Wilde said. Institutions register certain outputs as work, and different institutions value and reward different outputs, as they install, maintain and maximize their means for achieving desirable outputs. You may be a great dancer, but that’s not what’s important if you’re selling paint. Certain forms of activity which we might now recognise as work were not always such, and won’t always be. Domestic duties, for instance: is housework real labour or not? And, if it is, how is it possible to assign it a value? And who’s going to pay for it? What about work that only succeeds to the extent that it effaces itself? Because of course, once you start trying to working-out what work is then you find that there’s things that are non-work and you realize that a lot of work has to go into that non-work, you are left with a real problem: does work have to say that ‘I’m work’ at the moment that you are doing work? Well, what happened to the true work that pretends that it is not work at all and effaces even the trace of its own elaboration. This may seem quite abstruse, but when it comes to arguments over who’s doing the dishes at night I think these questions are, well, ‘Who is being paid to do those dishes?’ ‘Is that work, well it doesn’t get counted?’ And so on. What happens then to generate comparability between different types of work? Between manual and mental labour, for instance? And once comparability is assured, what happens to the differences?

The constitutional abstractions effected by institutions can entail a concomitant erasure of the specifics of the work. These days what works is due to technology, yet what that technology actually “is” is subordinated to its output. As long as the output is right, the processes themselves can be just about anything. For example, in late-capitalist institutions no one really cares how you do something as long as you get all of it done and then constantly redo it again, and constantly increase your speed, get more productivity, and so on. Technology is subordinated to output and that has two consequences: one, you begin to see that every bit of work is unnatural, it requires some sort of artificial world-making and at the same time, it’s all just technology of the same level, it’s all technology to ensure the same output. What I mean by that is a convergence of biology and technology, something that was perhaps always the case becomes unmistakable: human hands, eyes and brains are just another technology, or assemblage of technologies. A body is a transient solution to environmental problems; as an environment changes, so must the body. How it does so — and its failure or success — cannot be assured in advance. In the dominion of biotechnology, the hand (not to mention human sexual dimorphism) is certainly an archaic technology, hardly up to the speed, precision, and capacities of contemporary technologies of reproduction. “Time is of the essence,” as they say, or, with Benjamin Franklin, “Time is money.” Nonetheless, one of the paradoxes of the contemporary world is that the archaic is never simply defunct. On the contrary, it can always be revivified or reanimated, put to a new use, at least as long as it can still generate greater efficiencies or surpluses in output. The hand isn’t dead, any more than MRI is dead. The hand, on the other hand, isn’t really alive, either. What counts is simply what can be made to be counted. For the most part, institutions manage their accounting through techniques of political domination, from outright physical violence to consumer excitation by means of the lascivious delectations of advertising.

But it can also be done through art. What’s important to recognise here is that, if art had any “function” - use or usure - in modernity, it was to bring to the threshold of perceptibility certain outputs that had previously not existed or, if they had, had remained beneath notice.4 Art attempts to accomplish a revaluation of values, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it. This means that, whatever the labour that goes into works of art, such art is always taking a risk. The trace of the activity it registers may be held to be worthless, and the labour it incarnates may never be considered true labour at all. Hobbies and recreational activities, personal life, and so on, just don’t count. The paradox of the institution of contemporary art is that it has neither assured outputs nor processes. If art is itself always a commodity, it is a peculiar commodity, one that projects an interpretation of its own conditions of appearance or non-appearance. The institution of art is at once an institution just like any other, it wants outputs, however, it has no assured outputs or processes anymore and one of its paradoxes is that to be successful in the new art world is that your work of art has to show how it came to have any justification for the institution which it was addressing at all. To put this another way, art is a gamble with labour that may never be remunerated or, if it is — that is, if others accept it as doing something that is at once of value and yet currently un- or undervalued — the new terms it proposes are necessarily obscure. It thereby becomes, as France ironically suggests, of “inestimable value.” Art is the regime of squandered resources and exorbitant surplus: usure. Yet it is usure that founds the possibility of new comparisons, quantifications, formalisations.

So it’s no surprise than most of the commentators on Capurro’s work have emphasized this bond between economics and erasure. Ross Moore invokes the “expenditure without reserve” of Georges Bataille, of sacrifice and the general economy; Tom Nicholson, the paradoxes of idolatry and the trace; Bernhard Sachs, Bilderverbot and its theoretical aftermath; Adam Bandt, commodity fetishism and its disavowals of labour. Moreover (and this is one of the reasons why I talk about perceptual kenosis and use the word kenosis drawn from the Biblical source), these problems of exchange and exploitation tend towards the black hole of the theological. Religion keeps popping-up here as precisely the opposite of what contemporary art does; something you can be absolutely assured of. If you are a believer you believe, there’s no question that the outputs or processes can be anything other than they are. Of course, as good First World white people we know it’s all rubbish, but the theological seems to work at the opposite end of the art world in this regard, yet they mimic each other in the problems of idolatry, at least in the ban on images in Mohammudism and Judaism. As the very concept of “fetishism” (both commodity and sexual) derives from European colonial contact with non-Western religions, it’s no accident that these commentators also note incidences of aesthetic destruction by the Aztecs, the Taliban and the great ‘Australian’ Lazslo Toft.5 We could also cite Michael Taussig’s thesis that desecration is simultaneously a hallowing of its object. As he says;

“When the human body, a nation’s flag, money, or a public statue is defaced, a strange surplus of negative energy is likely to be aroused from within the defaced thing itself. It is now in a state of desecration, the closest many of us are going to get to the sacred in this modern world.” 6

But religion doesn’t deliver any real innovation in our techno-scientific universe, although art still might. Anatole France entitled his work The Garden of Epicurus precisely because Epicurus was a great materialist philosopher, and materialists have always maintained that the proper name of existence is oblivion.7 You can find this quite explicitly in Nietzsche where he says, “Forgetting is the proper name of being” or Borges who constantly talks about forgetting as the truth of existence. So in the end, the truth of work is that it is a self-effacing that effaces not only appearances, but every trace of itself, of its own work of effacing. If work integrally involves the effacement of matter, matter will ultimately have its revenge. At that point — and this is clearly one utopian dream of Art — work will no longer even be able to be considered work at all.

Justin Clemens

JC talk pic


1A. France, The Garden of Epicurus, cited in J. Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. A. Bass (Brighton: Harvester, 1982), p. 210.

2See Capurro’s website for more details about the piece, as well as a number of site talks by Adam Bandt, Tom Nicholson and Ross Moore:

3K. Marx, Capital, Volume 1, trans. B. Fowkes, intro. E. Mandel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 127.

4On this point, see the strange but quite excellent book by Frances Ferguson, Pornography, the Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).

5For a number of relevant essays on this question, see E. Apter, and W. Pietz (eds.), Fetishism as Cultural Discourse (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993).

6See M. Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 1.

7As Walter Benjamin writes, in a superb essay entitled “The Destructive Character,” “The destructive character obliterates even the traces of destruction,” Reflections, ed. with intro. P. Demetz (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), p. 302. Or, as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has proposed: a subject is precisely one who hides their own traces, above all from themselves....

Justin Clemens is a poet and Director of Psychoanalytic Studies at Deakin University. He has published extensively on contemporary Australian art. His books include The Mundiad (Black Inc., 2004), The Romanticism of Contemporary Theory: Institution, Aesthetics, Nihilism (Ashgate, 2003), Avoiding the Subject: Media, Culture and the Object (with Dom Pettman, Amsterdam University Press, 2005), and ten thousand fcuking monkeys.