Brown Feeling

Tarrying with the Brown

Location: Paris, France

I'm a Junior at the American University of Paris.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Pop, art, and and Zizek

A few weeks ago that Irrational Numbers published a quite entertaining exchange between two quite serious scholars on the topic of “pop philosophy”. With the star-power of Slavoj Zizek reaching even the mustiest corners of the university, the subject is certainly a pertinent one.

Zizek does not have a consistent theory of what pop culture actually is, he just knows what he likes. He stumbles dizzingly from one example to the next, each time performing the same operation of isolating the ideological knot which makes an image or genre so culturally overdetermined. But Zizek does not practice the heavy handed formalism which marked Deleuze and Guatarri’s famous Anti-Oedipus; while there is no particular logic at work guiding the course he charts through cultural production, he does not have any pretensions of making this “unlogic” itself an already operative political stratagem. There is theory and there is praxis for Zizek (praxis being apparently what takes place in both the analyst’s office and the revolutionary’s factory floor).

So what exactly is the point of what Zizek is trying to do? He himself doesn’t really seem to know. He often makes impassioned pleas along the lines of “a universal call for sublimation” as he says in some issue of Lacanian Ink, but what can he imagine will come of these rather grandiose rallying cries? He seems to shrug off the role of political leader with a little coy self-deprecation anytime the topic comes up in interviews.

No, it would seem his role would be to popularize the work of Jacques Lacan, a question of pedagogy and the politics of academia. This is indeed a valuable role, especially when it comes to determining what is de rigeur in the American University system, and I am certainly on his side in that fight. But it fails to provide a form of thought, a true discursive resistance which is “equal to capital”. This is of course no small task, but I think there is right now much more energy, hope, and daring on the side of artists and creators, at least in America.

What makes the relationship between academia and popular culture so important is that much of the art that’s going in America that really has a claim on being contemporary engages with popular culture either through the increasingly tired pastiche and irony of postmodern art, but also through the auto-productive culture of “scenes”, underground creative communities.

The point is, the technique of re-appropriation can be used in a way different from the cool and sterile distance of postmodern bracketing as it was done by Andy Warhol. An example is the now defunct art collective Forcefield, whose video and multi-media performances take the silliest and most benign of images from sci-fi and children’s television and turn them into faceless, utterly alien landscapes more disturbing and voyeuristic than snuff films. In many of their videos and performances, members of the collective dress up in head-to-toe knit jumpsuits. The material resembles something your grandmother might make as a Christmas gift, but with no face-hole the figures look inhuman; they are furniture-people, featureless scraps of fabric animated by the return of some horrible, repressed transgression which took place in some rumpus room in the 1970s.

Another example is Paperrad, a collective based out of Massachusetts. They use as their building blocks the embarrassing, half-made junk “art” which can only exist in media like home-made, personal web pages or obscure video games, media where the author is almost anonymous and there are no standards of craftsmanship. What Paperrad do as artists is merely link these fragments together either directly via their website or in their videos and performances, and to their credit they keep the critical distance and superiority inherent in their position almost imperceptible. As opposed to the academic and snobby decontextualization of Andy Warhol or others, there is frequently a genuine question when one experiences Paperrad creation as to whether this really was meant to seem the way it does. In other words, instead of throwing into question the concept of art-object by making visible the active role of the gallery and frame, they approach it completely from the other side, from the moment when complete cultural debasement begins to seem uncanny and we start picking up on the unintended and latent messages therein.

Of course, this approach to art eschews theoretical reflection in favor of the explosive and intoxicating effect produced by weakening the boundaries of the artistic experience. I frankly don't know if this jives with what I think about transgression and capital, and the disavowal of any figure of obscenely visible mastery which is demanded by the politics of consensus we are mired in. I do not condone the transgressive art which flourished in the 60s and 70s, and I do not think that these artists could be considered part of that movement. But I am less sure of the question of whether they are the latest incarnation of outsider art which always ends up mystifying and obscuring the aesthetic act, instead of affirming it as a declaration without reservation. Well, I don't much, but I know what I like.