PRINT October 2005


T. J. Clark on Retort

Days before the fourth anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, art historian and activist T. J. Clark spoke with Artforum about Retort, Afflicted Powers, and world politics since 9/11.

Retort is a group of thirty or forty people—writers, artists, activists—who have been meeting for close to two decades in the Bay Area. It’s very informal, not a membership-driven political organization—very deliberately not—but rather a forum in which people discuss a wide range of topics with a certain ground of shared Left politics. At various points we have produced brochures and pamphlets: one for the first Gulf War, for instance, and another we produced for the antiwar marches in 2003. That was the genesis of Afflicted Powers.

The book could not possibly have been written by any one of us; it depended on a pooling of knowledge and intense theoretical discussion. Iain Boal is perhaps best described as an independent scholar, with a strong interest in the history of technology; Michael Watts, who teaches at Berkeley, is an economic geographer interested in the politics of oil; and Joseph Matthews is a novelist who previously practiced law during the struggle within the California prison system. To some extent, we were all surprised to be writing this book. Probably the last time any of us had written directly about politics was during the 1960s and ’70s, as part of that whole complex, chaotic, productive situation. And I think that we all believe that, as different as the past four years have been from the period of, say, ’67 to ’75—and in many ways, they’ve been far worse—they have something of the same unpredictable, open, volatile flavor. It’s a Janus-faced situation at present. On the one hand, world politics seem dominated by virulent strains of right-wing reaction: Nobody quite anticipated that the opening of the twenty-first century would be structured around a war between the Bush regime and Al Qaeda, and so in some senses this is a very bleak moment indeed, when forces of opposition are marginalized, harried, and under threat. And yet the whole situation is transparently out of control in many ways, so that there are new opportunities that present themselves for political thinking and political action.

It’s in these kinds of situations that writing about politics becomes possible, even imperative. The book would certainly have never happened without the antiwar marches of 2003. That moment of worldwide mobilization against a war, before the war began, has no historical precedent. It’s an absolutely new phenomenon. Of course, the mobilization failed to stop the war. And it was, in some sense, bound to fail—it knew it would fail. In this sense, political writing is forced to operate in a very peculiar new space.

Spectacle is an important concept in the book, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of our political analysis. Far from it. I want to say quite forcefully that this is not a book saying that present politics is a politics of the image. That would be a ludicrous view of the last four years, in which we’ve had such an atavistic politics in so many ways—a mobilizing of the same old military machine, and a familiar crude grab for material control, with the eternal motifs of patriotism and duty to country played as accompaniment. The last thing this situation calls for is some hypermodern, Baudrillardesque view that this is all a kind of virtual politics. But something has changed, because at least one of the propulsions behind events in the last few years has been Al Qaeda’s ability to stage a truly murderous image event—one that has proved indelible, that lives on as an image trace, constantly repeating the message of America’s vulnerability.

You’ve only to read the newspapers for the last two years to realize that what has happened since September 11 has been played out in a double register: the register of military response, and then the register of a battle to find some kind of image answer to the image defeat of September 11. The central impulse of the book is to think about the interaction, overlap, and interference between those two forms that the political has now taken—the spectacular and the neo-liberal imperial. We’re not saying that September 11 was only and mainly an image event, but we are saying that it was partly an image event, and represented an extraordinary destabilization of the US state’s control of appearances. And control of appearances is now essential to the good health of the state. An image defeat can’t be ignored.

When it comes to my own work as an art historian, there’s a comparison to be made. Already my Courbet book, a long, long time ago, was an attempt to show what counted as an effective politics of the image in a specific historical situation. And it was certainly trying to drag the consideration of political art away from a straightforward discussion of the content of a particular image, or set of images, and to think about images as actually operating in a contingent and changing political situation—taking advantage of the new opportunities for the circulation and distribution and interpretation of images that the aftermath of revolution in 1848 produced. Right from the start, my work has always been out to rephrase the question, What would an effective political intervention in the field of imagery be like?

A polemical text like Afflicted Powers is going to have a very, very limited effectiveness. But part of politics will always be an attempt to produce new concepts, new means of making sense of a situation, which may or may not lead to new and effective political tactics. Of course, there’s no way in which new theory automatically leads to new and better practice, but without the generation of new kinds of understanding, practice tends to freeze and repeat itself. So our book is a call to the Left to rethink some of its assumptions and face up to what’s happening around us. It follows that it has been both predictable, and also extremely depressing, to see the official journals of Left politics failing to engage the book—but maybe this is what you would expect for an analysis that takes the politics of the image seriously. Somehow it is going to be a little more comprehensible to those who care about images. But of course that’s a disastrous split, which misses the point of the present situation—a split between the politicos and the art people, or image people, which is profoundly self-defeating.

—As told to Tim Griffin