PRINT November 1997


What is global? What is political? These are two questions the curators of Documenta X thought we should ask, and thought should be asked in relation to one another. Enlisted as part of this endeavor (both in an interview in Documenta X: The Book and as a speaker in the “100 Guests, 100 Days” events) was Etienne Balibar, distinguished professor of philosophy at Paris-X University, who first became known in the mid ’60s through his collaborative efforts with Louis Althusser.
In his consideration of these questions occasioned by the works on view at Documenta, Balibar makes several observations. First there is a notion of temps mort, or “dead time,” a historical moment of the sort in which new, imperceptible, unpredictable things may happen (rather like the time that Benjamin Buchloh, in his contribution to Documenta X: The Book, sees in James Coleman’s work but finds lacking in Jeff Wall’s photographic return to “the painting of modern life”). For Balibar this temps mort is a time of “translation” that cuts across the unities of culture and asks us to complicate the notion of “fictive ethnicity” through which the very idea of a culture has been tied to the nation-state. Through this rethinking comes a first connection to the global: we need to rethink the universal-particular opposition, and in place of cultural differences look at the violence of irreconcilable ways of “civilizing.” Such are the issues Balibar thinks are presented, for example, by the “new ethnicities” that have grown up in our “global cities.”
But there is also another sense of “global,” another kind of globalization discourse. It is not an anthropological discourse about identity and culture, but one of corporations, governments, and journalists. It concerns not only circulation (e.g., “glocal” marketing strategies) but also production—work and work space and the sorts of skills required to “compete” (e.g., Silicon Alley). In this discourse “globalization” has come to refer to a model of development or modernization, which one must adopt on pain of losing out, and which, politically speaking, translates as a (new) crisis in the management of the welfare state—or in what Balibar prefers to call the “national social state.” For a basic concern in his work has been to rethink politics after the notion of the national social state. He thinks we need to reconceive “citizenship” (which has traditionally been defined in terms of the nation-state) and “the cosmopolitan” (which, e.g., in its Kantian mode stays within the national horizon), as well as the geopolitical borders that the nation-state has drawn at once within and without us, overdetermined first by colonialism and then by cold war. Thus, one might speak today of an “omnipolitan” condition that cuts across the old European world of “the great nations,” a condition that, along with new patterns of immigration and human-rights politics, calls for new styles of thinking and intervention.
Between the anthropological and corporativist senses of “the global,” there are no doubt many connections, some of which have begun to surface in art and art talk. For example, there is the biotechnopia often promoted by enthusiasts of the new technologies and typified by Wired which combines with-it theories of complexity and free-market corporativism in a “digital revolution.” Balibar takes another tack. In both the culturalist and economist debates, his problem is to conceive the political in new ways. He thinks we need to invent a new kind of politics, different from (though linked to) the politics of “enlightenment” and of “social transformation”; the questions of “civility” and “civilization” that he sees in the violence and the translation in the work at Documenta X form part of his attempt to articulate this politics. The global and the political thus come to be connected in a particular way. It is a matter of a reinvention of politics—one might say, of the time of that reinvention.
—John Rajchman


A GOAL OF THIS YEAR’S installment of Documenta, alongside the attempt to cast a “retrospective” glance over twenty years of contemporary art, was to outline some reflections on art’s relationship with the processes referred to today as “globalization”: not just the impulses and constraints of the market, but also the more or less conflictual encounters between cultures and symbolic systems of communication. When I was interviewed by Catherine David and Jean-François Chevrier before the exhibition opened, I tried to pose the question of a “civilization of globalization,” conceived as a process and possibility rather than as a statement of our current condition. Only such a problematic, it seems to me, allows one to lay the groundwork for the “new universalism” summoned by the breakdown of and crisis in traditional identities.

I will not rely exclusively on theoretical arguments to determine whether what currently prevails in the world is in fact absolute individualism (either triumphant or desperate), generalized deterritorialization, the abolition of differences between real and virtual thought, or, on the contrary, whether it represents a backlash of collective identities and an increase in barriers and segregation (one must also include in the mix the development of métissages, new ethnicities or syncretic identities invented every day in urban, working-class neighborhoods throughout the postnational and postcolonial world). The most interesting approaches to the issue demonstrate that these are not mutually exclusive possibilities but are in fact the poles of a single overdetermined process. Thus, only analyses that take account of both impersonal economic processes and those of subjectivization—the “scene” of the real and that of the imaginary—even if these belong to different spheres altogether, are likely to help us interpret the situation. Consequently (and here again Benjamin’s history lesson never ceases to illuminate), the world in which we now live, a world of globalization (or rather of new globalization, the first instance having begun with the discovery and destruction of the Americas), is neither that of reciprocal transparency—the full translatability of experiences and discourses—even if the potential for a “universal language” once again exists; nor is it that of incommunicability, the untranslatability of cultures, whether these are organized around class, ethnicity, religion, or aesthetics. It is a world of attempts at translation, attempts that always leave something untranslated, a “remnant”—but it is this remnant that in turn constitutes the condition for the desire to communicate.

Philosophy should help us reflect on this point, just as it should help us articulate our concepts of the universal with the tensions of the globalization process. The universal has both an extensional and an intensional significance. In the extensional, denotative sense, the universal is what addresses all people (or the greatest possible number) in order to encompass them in a single whole and arrange them under the same “law,” which in this way neutralizes or relativizes their differences (whether through common legal status, submission to the same authority, or participation in the same market). But more profoundly, the concept of the universal has an intensional, connotative significance: this is what equality (and equal freedom, equal dignity) proposes in symbolic and practical terms for all people, regardless of their differences. This intensive universality can only result from shared interests and practices. From this perspective, intensive universalism—equality, in other words—is absolutely aligned neither on the side of globalization nor with that of resistance or the invention of communities. Intensive universalism is, in fact, suspended as a concept between these two principles, just as it was suspended—in an interminable crisis that will perhaps never be resolved—between religious and secular, civil principles.

Encountering the works at Documenta and the sense of their overall arrangement allows one to probe the question of globalism, in all its sundry guises, with more precision. That is what I would like to do here, examining several works that were particularly striking. In a shift both material and imaginary, I will go from several images to several objects.

One of the themes present throughout the history of photography is that of representing the human species. This theme is traditionally sustained by the question of the species’ unity and its diversity, and it is haunted by the problem of whether such unity may be represented or instituted in ways that do not entail genocide and ethnocide. The photographic series (or, in Gerhard Richter’s synchronic conceit, the photographic “atlas”) in this Documenta evoke such ethical questions, but they do so through a prism constituted by the strange reversibility of time, or its functioning in reverse, which involves the current ambivalence of the relationship between nature and culture.

In the context of Lothar Baumgarten’s photographic series and montages, we know that the Indians of the Amazon, whose history the artist recounts in the great tradition of ethnological inquiry, are “true Indians.” And yet in a way they are as fictional as the various objects—feathers, landscapes, women’s legs—that elsewhere in Baumgarten’s work form an atlas of the fragments and margins of the civilized world. It is because these Indians have not really been discovered but recaptured, like time itself, on the basis of a familial and social myth. A curious feeling of optimism emanates from this “recapturing,” as though they were not destined for annihilation but somehow strengthened by an ineradicable capacity for survival. They come after the institution that implied their death. In a completely different register, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s “Platonic” Cave of Memory videos examine Germany, the “belated nation,” through the lens of science fiction. We penetrate the cerebral machine of a subject that, based on all appearances, will never be consoled. Here the young are old and the old are young, or the living dead and the dead living. In Syberberg’s very different montages, there is no longer anything but culture, a culture that, however, is threatening to disintegrate.

Inversely, Marc Pataut’s photographs, taken at the construction site of the future French national stadium in Plaine Saint-Denis before the expulsion of the squatters and the beginning of the great excavations, document a fallow, postindustrial landscape, an intermediary site between two historical sequences of heavy construction, one typical of economic modernity (large factories), the other emblematic of postmodernity (as a site for the mass spectacle of the World Cup). Pataut’s photographs show nature after culture; they set the meeting of historical cultures, which now takes place in the margins of urbanization, to the rhythm of demolition and rebuilding, a rhythm that has become “second nature” to humanity. While Robert Adams documented abandoned objects and the effects of erosion (effects that were, by the way, magnificent), Pataut, more politically, showed humans as derisory pioneers in this postcultural nature, humans of all races and all colors that a single, global necessity and a single, local contingency assembled in the suburbs of modernization.

After the institution, after culture, in what Pasolini called the dopo-storia, the “poststory” or the story “after the fact”: these various phenomena—ruins or second nature, degeneracy or renewal—are all no doubt a part of globalization’s imaginary, which forms the reverse of communication-oriented machines, the megalopolises of Rem Koolhaas. These are all fundamental anthropological assessments accessible through art. But they cannot by themselves address the question of whether there exists a global culture, or under what conditions one could exist, or how we emerge from the type of “global culture” that is behind us and is pursuing us like our shadow. For such a problematic requires that features and modes of subjectivization also be brought into play. Here again, several pieces are germane: Lygia Clark’s masks, “sensorial” costumes, and various “experimental” instruments; Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler’s toys, furniture, and albums; and Thomas Schütte’s architectural Liebesnest (“love nest”).

With these examples culled from the exhibition we are at another level in the description of what makes up the human species: that of subconscious boundaries allowing one to define what is “proper” to the species, or which features delineate behavioral normality. Clark’s work figures the sacred boundary (we used to call it “taboo”) represented by anthropophagy (it seems, in fact, that man is the only species to ritualize autophagy, and it would be difficult to understand all the determinations of human sexuality without reference to this boundary, as well as to the “prohibition” of incest—which as we know only exists through its transgression). Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler’s hybrid objects realized in collaboration with artists in clinical institutions highlight the boundary of rationality at the problematic point where childhood and madness meet, that is, the point at which one may ask why what is normal at a certain age is pathological at another. Finally, Thomas Schütte’s drawings of housing-projects-cum-birdhouses suggest the unrepresentable boundary separating the animal and the human in the representation of love, fidelity, and coupling.

Among other things, these comparisons indicate that such “boundaries” (the taboo of anthropophagy, the lack of distinction between childhood and madness, the animality of sexual and romantic behavior) are, of course relative. They are not perceived, experienced, codified, or sacralized in the same way by all “cultures,” even within the so-called developed or civilized world. I say sacralized, for the dimension of symbolic law is exhibited here as such, but in a secular fashion, in the proximity that exists between rites and gestures, ideality and materiality. Such rites, gestures, and so on register a half century of anthropological knowledge, the effect of which has been to demonstrate that it is necessary to go beyond the image of the arbitrary and the incommunicability of cultures, an image profoundly linked to what Edward Said called orientalism and in a more general way to imperialism. Cultures are different, they are absolutely singular, but they are not incommunicable. However, their communicability or translatability is not established on an explicit, constructed level of the collective imaginary, such as those of institutions or narratives. It is established virtually, on the level of the most fundamental invariants of subjectivity: play, death, illness, reason and madness, the role of the sense of touch and that of discourse in sexuality, and so on. One should of course be careful with the word “invariant,” since what is at issue here are not immutable rules (like a “code of nature”) but choices and trials imposed on all humanity that different “cultures” make operative in different ways. It is this variation that the art here allows one to grasp. By isolating a particular trait and the “distinctive features” of a civilization, by exacerbating, theatricalizing, or transporting it to a slightly different context from the one where we normally see it, the human becomes identifiable, but always by means of a distancing effect.

What is the connection between this form of recognition and globalization, or a global culture? I see at least two. The first is that globalism in the sense of a universal circulation of capacities for innovation or criticism, or of the properly artistic dimension of the culture, does not exist without the rise of art to the differential features of human civilization—that is, it is through the artistic medium and practice that we can uncover these differential features (of which anthropology gives an abstract concept, but which is as much aesthetic as scientific). This diversity of human symbolic structures, through the potency of the prohibition and exclusion it harbors, is explored in the imaginary by all identity-related movements. The discourse surrounding the organization and legitimization of global communications utterly ignores such diversity, as it does the subjective dimension in general—outside of a few shoddy mystics (of the New Age sort) who proliferate on the margins. On the other hand, as soon as the circulation of information is also conceived as a generalization of aesthetic experiences that force humanity to confront its own limits, its function will change completely. I suspect that part of the stakes of the organization of a global market in art lies here.

But there is a second connection, which I call the emergence of a new “pensée sauvage,” the term Lévi-Strauss used to refer to methods of classification of the daily world that depend on the valorization of the singular object traditionally associated with mythical thought. Lévi-Strauss forged this concept to criticize the (Sartrean) idea of dialectical reasoning and, more generally, the notion that there should be an opposition between scientific forms of rationality and folk methods of classification. It would not be difficult to locate in Lévi-Strauss’ concept, among other things, a heritage of Surrealism but without the postromantic pathos. What I will say, then, is simply this: global culture, or rather, global civilization, the global process of civilizing, if it exists and insofar as it exists, is obviously not “irrational,” but it is inseparable from the emergence of the new form or new conception of rationality. This pensée sauvage is not the form of thought associated with small groups, each with its own language, style, techniques, social “organization,” system of classification, myths, etc.; it is the pensée sauvage of the great open space, indeed, of hyperspace, where a single logic operates (even if we know that it is in reality split into all sorts of isolates and isolationist tendencies, which can be violent). But in either case, this logic is “classificatory,” or “differential,” that is, an attempt to organize the same and the other, to compare symbolic systems. It is therefore always on the border, the boundary, between violent exclusion and the exchange of experiences. Art reveals this boundary, this violence and this possibility of exchange. In doing so, it potentially constructs a space of circulation, not for information but for objects, objects that become, in Lévi-Strauss’ words, “good to think.” Provided, of course, it does become civilized . . .

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.