PRINT September 2007


Gerald Raunig

REVOLUTIONS ARE SHORT-LIVED, ephemeral events that shatter the continuity of history yet persist in acts of remembrance—official or alternative, pro or contra, systemic or incidental. However, the recent surge in “revolutionary” pop-cultural iconography, from the ubiquitous Che to the imagery and slogans of May ’68 and the Red Army Faction, seems designed to sabotage, rather than perpetuate, remembrance. In contrast to the nostalgia culture of the ’70s and ’80s, as analyzed by Fredric Jameson, which focused on pilfering the popular culture of earlier decades, today’s nostalgia industry also embraces more political material, but with a similar end result: amnesia masquerading as anamnesis. Fragments of history return as decontextualized signifiers that suggest little more than fashionability—until, that is, they end up in a situation in which they regain something resembling actual meaning, as when Cameron Diaz explored new dimensions of obliviousness by sporting a bag with a red star and the Maoist slogan SERVE THE PEOPLE (in Chinese) during a visit to Peru, a country still scarred by the Maoist insurgency of the Shining Path.

In the context of this nostalgia culture, which locks possible futures safely in an unretrievable past, the always-slippery relationship between “art” and “revolution” feels more vexed than ever, and in need, once again, of reconceptualization—particularly since two once-dominant narratives of this relationship are now thoroughly discredited. First there was the notion of formal revolution, the transposition of Hegelian-Marxist principles to art, as evinced in the criticism of lapsed Trotskyist Clement Greenberg and his pupil Michael Fried. In the 1960s, Fried claimed that the “dialectic of modernism” amounted to “nothing less than the establishment of a perpetual revolution—perpetual because bent on unceasing radical criticism of itself. It is no wonder such an ideal has not been realized in the realm of politics, but it seems to me that the development of modernist painting over the past century has led to a situation that may be described in these terms.” This formalist formulation was challenged by another: the neo-avant-garde dream of a fusion of art and life, which necessarily presupposed the imbrication of art production and political action and, in its seemingly most radical version, proposed the abandonment of artmaking in favor of revolutionary activity. With its naive conviction that the revolution is just around the corner, and with its willingness to throw out the baby of art with the bathwater of capitalism, the latter variant now seems at least as unconvincing as the modernist narrative. And yet, no coherent new theorization has appeared to take its place.

Rue Gay-Lussac, Paris, May 11, 1968.

Austrian philosopher Gerald Raunig’s Art and Revolution, published in German in 2005 and now available in English, represents to date the most sustained and substantial—although substantially flawed—attempt to fill this vacuum. Raunig plots his theoretical elaborations onto a historical structure, moving chapter by chapter from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the now-obscure German “Activism” movement of the 1910s, to the Situationist International, to Viennese Actionism, to Vienna’s ’90s-era Volxtheater. He is severely critical of what he sees as the traditional leftist fixation on (taking over) the state and of Lenin’s phase model of revolution, in which anarchy gives way to the dictatorship of the party. Instead, he adopts Antonio Negri’s tripartite model, in which it is the more or less simultaneous interconnection of resistance, insurrection, and constituent power that may generate a “new, alternative formation of society,” as Negri and Michael Hardt have put it. For Raunig, a key point is that these three components—“the indivisible triad of the revolutionary machine,” he says—do not form a linear sequence but operate concurrently and interact to varying degrees; although, in the cases he analyzes, specific historical circumstances may cause one or two components to temporarily dominate. We might say that phases enter through the back door, so to speak, as stubborn reality rather than as Leninist dogma.

In any case, on a broader temporal scale, Raunig posits a “long twentieth century” of “specific concatenations of art and revolution” that begins with the 1871 Paris Commune and ends, provisionally, in 2001, with the massive demonstrations at the Genoa G8 summit. He notes that “pragmatic reasons” moved him to deploy this “operative periodization” and anticipates that some might quibble with it. Disclaimers notwithstanding, his “long twentieth century” seems a dubious construct, especially given his own discussion of Richard Wagner’s seminal essay “Die Kunst und die Revolution” (“Art and Revolution”), written shortly after the latter’s participation in the revolution of 1848–49; in fact, it is precisely in the period from 1789 to 1848 that the real roots of the persistent “concatenation of art and revolution” are to be found. As Jacques Rancière has argued, art as conceptualized since the Romantic era is not content with a neatly defined autonomous realm: “In the aesthetic regime of art”—which for Rancière commences circa 1800—“art is art to the extent that it is something else than art. It is always ‘aestheticized,’ meaning that it is always posed as a ‘form of life.’” However, as Rancière notes, this argument can be interpreted in different ways: Art can itself be treated as an autonomous “life of forms,” or autonomy may be abandoned in favor of “real life” and (possibly) revolution. The latter position, for instance, defines the radical Situationist program. But the very idea of suppressing art in the name of a humane life is indebted to aesthetic notions and ideals developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in that life, in the event of such a revolutionary suppression, is to become something radically different from what it is or has been. The difference is that the Romantics held that art could transform life; for the Situationists, only a political revolution could effect what bourgeois, commodified art was powerless to do.

The late Romantic Wagner occupies something of an intermediate position; for him the revolution was little more than an expedient device to create the conditions that would allow the realization of his “future work of art,” although he also convinced himself that in the absence of a successful revolution his work could still help lay the foundations for a better society. Rather than be a consequence of a new society, the Kunstwerk der Zukunft (future work of art) would thus help pave the way for it. Raunig is at his best in parsing such instabilities in the art/life and art/revolution pairings. In a particularly detailed analysis, he argues that in the Paris Commune, politics took over while art was relegated to the sidelines; he bemoans the fact that Gustave Courbet, the most prominent artist-communard, became little more than a bureaucrat concerned with artists’ rights and social position.

Unfortunately, Courbet and the Commune are made to serve as negative foils for the glory that is the Volxtheater, a neo-Brechtian performance troupe that started in a Vienna squat and went on to join the anti-globalist road show. Rather bizarrely, this is the only contemporary form of cultural practice discussed in any depth. It serves as exhibits A, B, and C for Raunig’s argument that dreams of the total erasure of boundaries between art and life should be replaced by the effecting of temporary overlaps. In this not terribly helpful Deleuzian idiom, Raunig makes a plea for “transversal” and micropolitical connections between revolutionary and artistic “machines.” Ultimately, this kind of ephemeral but ongoing activity will render the “concatenation of art machines and revolutionary machines permanent.” The result—if all goes according to plan—would be “an ongoing series of singular events [that] actuate contemporary becoming revolutionary.” Such an endless chain of micropolitical transversal connections may be perpetual, but is it revolution? Raunig is all too eager to flee into rhetoric, largely avoiding the question of how “revolution” can retain (or reclaim) validity or utility as a concept today. How does one conceptualize revolution in a society that seems to take its cues from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Tancredi, who realizes that “things have to change so that they can stay the same”—and not just once, as in The Leopard, but again and again, all the time, in a perpetual pseudorevolution?

It is not surprising that under these conditions, revolutions increasingly are conceptualized as past events rather than future ones. Here it might be worthwhile to take a brief critical detour and consider a signal example of this retrospective bent: Philippe Garrel’s widely acclaimed 2005 film Les Amants réguliers (Regular Lovers), an elegiac and hyperaesthetic revisitation of May ’68 that pays homage to the era’s auteur cinema. As Garrel’s protagonist meanders aimlessly first through May ’68 and then through its drugged, depressing aftermath, the filmmaker twice intercuts restagings of moments from what must be the French Revolution, judging by the period dress. While thus suggesting, Walter Benjamin style, that the 1968 uprising is a reactualization of that earlier revolution, Garrel’s film renders both moments equally languid and static, neutralizing the juxtaposition’s critical potential with a mood of elegant melancholy. In the end, the film looks like nothing so much as an avant-garde version of a Jane Austen costume drama.

While Garrel has presented the very fact that the film was made as a triumph against forgetfulness, it hardly exemplifies “fidelity to the event” as understood by Alain Badiou. For Badiou, the Russian Revolution and May ’68 are “truth events” that shatter the status quo and whose repercussions are felt by those whose subjectivity is constituted by these events—who thus, retroactively, turn the ephemeral occurrence into an event. It would seem that this model of active choice could hardly be further removed from the consumption of “revolutionary” signifiers in nostalgia culture. All too often, however, the consumption of Badiou’s philosophy reduces it to enchanting sound bites suggestive of a largely symbolic and noncommittal fidelity to events that reside comfortably in the past. Not least in art-world circles, Badiou’s thinking often seems to legitimize a highbrow and quasi-critical version of nostalgia culture, one that is “faithful to the event” in the way that, say, October is faithful to the October Revolution.

One might argue that Raunig is to be credited for refusing to put historical (near) revolutions on a pedestal à la Garrel and for looking for a form of contemporary cultural practice that fits his bill. Yet Raunig’s idealized portrayal of the Volxtheater is extremely problematic. He argues that the troupe effectively neutralizes the ever-present risk of the spectacularization and transformation of radicality into symbolic capital. But given the fact that the English translation of Raunig’s book—published by Semiotext(e)—is being distributed by MIT Press, clearly somebody is reaping symbolic benefits. By positing the Volxtheater as an extra-institutional ideal while actively engaged in an academic career, Raunig evades the thorny issue that was brought to the fore when curator Chris Gilbert resigned from the Berkeley Art Museum (see Artforum, September 2006). Gilbert issued a statement that, in many art-world denizens’ view, might just as well have been beamed in from a galaxy far, far away. “One should have no illusions: Until capitalism and imperialism are brought down, cultural institutions will go on being, in their primary role, lapdogs of a system that spreads misery and death to people everywhere on the planet.”

Cameron Diaz, with Mao bag, touring Machu Picchu, Peru, 2007. Photo: AP/Karel Navarro.

That Liam Gillick scoffed in these pages at Gilbert’s “165-year-old reference points”—mostly Marx—is indicative of the perceived anachronism of Gilbert’s gesture. However, the familiarity of some of his arguments notwithstanding, Gilbert has some valid points: “Radical” institutions may indeed merely serve to reassure people that things are not so bad after all. Under these conditions, the answer to the question, What is to be done? can hardly be encapsulated in a neat slogan. Just as Gilbert perhaps crossed the line from political rigor to moral hysteria, so the refusal to engage in a tactical use of even compromised institutions and media—my compliments for finding this text between ads, dear reader—can easily slip into acceptance and even celebration of the status quo. However, it would be a loss if institutional projects that explore the possibility of resistance like the recent “Revolution is not a Garden Party” (which originated at Budapest’s Trafó Gallery) and the upcoming “Forms of Resistance” at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, which is largely inspired by Raunig’s book, were to be considered illegitimate. (That said, more “transversal” connections with activism, such as the recent protests against the demolition of Copenhagen’s fabled squat the Ungdomshuset, which happened to coincide with a conference on the SI at a community center nearby, would be extremely desirable.)

At least such exhibitions avoid going down the road taken by some academics, who argue that notions like the spectacle are “doubly anachronistic” constructs that should be tossed into the dustbin of history. Such discursive policing, which demonstrates a suspicious eagerness to discard a tool of critique rather than hone and sharpen it, seems to aim at discrediting the very concept of revolution for being fatally entangled in embarrassing premodern and essentializing thought. It is of course true that a faithful return to Debord in 1967, or to Marx in 1848, would be quixotic and counterproductive. As Slavoj Žižek argues, what really matters are attempts to repeat a revolutionary moment, such as that of Lenin in 1917, “in the Kierkegaardian sense: to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation.” Ironically, the approach to history of this unabashedly Hegelian and Marxist—indeed, even Leninist—author is far more open-ended and far less “linear” than that of Raunig, whose all-too-abstract rejection of Hegel and Marx leaves him empty-handed when it comes to analyzing the interconnections between these various revolutionary moments and “retrieving their impulse” in the present.

Of course, Žižekian attempts at repetition may come to be integrated into the eternal return of neutralized signifiers in nostalgia culture—just like Badiou’s philosophy of the event, which Žižek has adopted and adapted. But wariness of such co-optation cannot legitimate simplistic “presentism.” It may be that it is precisely the apparently anachronistic character of the notion of revolution, with all its historical associations, that holds potential. After all, an anachronism is something alien to the symbolic order of a certain time, and in this sense any revolution must be anachronistic. From this standpoint, it is only to be expected that revolutions have often cast glances backward while trying to move forward. What if Raunig is simply too much de son temps? To be sure, his portrayal of the Volxtheater as a ramshackle group of Brechtian nomads is itself not devoid of nostalgia, but he seems incapable of addressing this or of examining the possibility of making nostalgia productive. If nostalgia culture’s repetitions of historical motifs discourage the repetition of historical impulses, the aim should be to explore and exploit the point where one may tip over into the other—where a radicalized nostalgia points the way beyond the dismal present of the nostalgia industry.

Sven Lütticken is an art historian and critic based in Amsterdam.


Gerald Raunig, Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century, trans. Aileen Derieg (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007), 318 pages.