Critics’ Picks

View of “After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer,” 2013.

View of “After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer,” 2013.

New York

Alexandre Kojève

The James Gallery, CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue The City University of New York
April 10–June 1, 2013

In a present where posthistorical, postpolitical, and, in the field of art, postmodern ideas prevail, looking back at a past theorization on the end of history hints at what retrospective reflections on our own contemporary might look like one day. Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojève is best known for arguing that ideological history had come to a close with the French Revolution. From lecturing the likes of Bataille, Camus, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre in Paris during the 1930s to becoming a statesman instrumental in laying the foundation for what would become the European Union after the war, Kojève personifies the uneasy interrelationship between theory and practice. For the exhibition “After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer,” curated by Boris Groys, this somewhat discordant relationship is made manifest by the archive of the philosopher-turned-dignitary’s travels.

Through idiosyncratic flowcharts, we learn that Kojève was an avid voyager who meticulously documented his itineraries. Displayed on tables are copies of some of the thousands of postcards he collected picturing various monuments and artworks seen during his trips. The gallery’s back room also presents seven synchronized slideshows of Kojève’s snapshots from the 1950s and ’60s of China, Japan, South Asia, the USSR, and Europe. Like the mass-produced cards, many of these personal photographs depict unpopulated ancient and religious sites, as if Kojève were attempting to lend these places a timeless focus capable of outlasting the flash in which the snapshots were taken. In the catalogue, Groys proposes that the photos exhibit a “post-historical melancholy” by documenting a past elided by posthistorical reality. Yet, it also seems that these emphatically historical, heterogeneous cultural scenes do not square neatly with Kojève’s Eurocentric end-of-history model.

This rift speaks to the ever-relevant cognitive dissonance between thinking about the world in an ideal sense and looking at it with all of its untidy particularities. Comparably, documentation of the same journeys today would evince a more interconnected reality, but still not one that is as smoothly uniform as contemporary posthistorical globalization discourses describe.