PRINT February 2009


“Universal Archive”

THE OLD DREAM OF DOCUMENTARY—namely, that its socially enabled and technologically fortified realism would change the world—has been out of reach for some time now. In place of such a starry-eyed promise, pledged in Progressive-era photojournalistic muckraking and exposés, for example, and in most any run-of-the-mill image of machines from the 1920s and of workers from the ’30s, or in the humanistic gush of the camera-toting one-worlders of the ’40s and the UN crusaders of the ’50s, documentary has lately been given an alternative function, one equally freighted with longing and equally tied to modern self-reflexivity but fundamentally less ambitious in scope. “Archive fever” it’s been called, after the English title of a book by Jacques Derrida, and it claims to register something like a malady or a disease, something above and beyond the reasoned ordering of the world generally underlying archives and documentary alike. According to this model, art can reveal “the contradictions of master narratives” and invent “counter-archives and thus counter-narratives,” as curator Okwui Enwezor described it for an exhibition last year at the International Center of Photography in New York that took its title and much of its approach from Derrida’s book. That approach, simply put, is the old deconstructive two-step that opens up the premature closures of systematic understanding by insisting on a supplement or differend or punctum or lifeworld or face—that is, some symptomatic indicator, often embodied, that exceeds the conceptual framework buried in our epistemic methods, habits, biases, and common sense, thus serving first as a sign of that framework’s inadequacy, its unwellness or disease, and second as a step toward a cure (even if this turns out to be simply the recognition of the disease itself).

The main impulse behind this postmodern dream is reasonable enough, for sure: What else would art do, after all, than pit its phenomenal materiality against the theoretical closures at work in any archivization, any containerization of understanding—the closures of positivism, say, or of brute instrumentality, or of ideological deceits and delusions of all kinds, such as those exercised in the name of art itself? Like any method of understanding, though, focusing on the archive’s fever as a symptomatic expression of its limits has its own limits in turn. We can get an initial sense of these latter limits from the press release for another recent exhibition (“Dispersion,” which recently closed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London) that featured new art “informed by personal or idiosyncratic narratives, exploring the role of subjectivity in the contemporary flow of imagery and capital.” With its footing in the personal and subjective, this example is quite far afield from its poststructuralist origin, but it shares an overall approach: The particular is pitted against the general, the local against the global, the micropolitical against the macro-, the phenomenal against the flow. As a consequence, it helps to clarify that the particularistic bent of postmodernisms that stake their critical claims against systematicity on the legerdemain of difference forsakes an older modernist vision—one that saw the potential for our innate human endowment to be realized by the archive itself, by that very same systematization of knowledge, by the very same flows of imagery and capital.

Revisiting—and, as we’ll see, resuscitating—this older archival dream of the general leveraged against the particular or of the macropolitical against the micro- was the grand aim of “Universal Archive: The Condition of the Document and the Modern Photographic Utopia,” an exhibition organized by Jorge Ribalta that just closed at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (and travels to the Museu Colecção Berardo in Lisbon, March 10–May 3). This was only the latest instantiation of the mission that has made MACBA a leading art institution worldwide; in his excellent visitor guide, Ribalta describes the museum’s “understanding of institutional criticism” as “the constant need to construct the legitimacy of practices through their meaningful relationship with social issues and situations that transcend the artistic field”—and it was that transcendence itself that was really the exhibition’s theme.

Something like this, of course, has always been at stake in documentary, and viewers were introduced to the seriousness of the museum’s aim as they first entered the exhibition with a suitably blunt wall text quoting Allan Sekula: “Every work of photographic art has its lurking, objectifying inverse in the archives of the police.” We might call this double valence “power/photography,” after Michel Foucault’s notion of power/knowledge, for example, while looking at the famous image that has us gazing down (as if in surveillance, it would seem to our period eye) on André Malraux presiding in turn over his magisterial Musée imaginaire. This photograph is a kind of frontispiece for the exhibition and nicely illustrates its core theme that the repression that goes hand in hand with archivization always has two sides, two possible outcomes, two functions of power. On one side, it is power that serves institutions or capitalists or even an adventurer-cum–Gaullist minister of cultural affairs like Malraux; on the other, however, it is power in the service of democratization, power in the service of a “museum without walls,” power in the service of distributed, networked knowledge and means—the power of the printing press, say, or the Internet. Documentary is the art form that works closest to the inversion Sekula speaks of, and by complementing an extraordinarily detailed history of the genre—far too in-depth and wide-ranging to give an adequate sense of here—with commissioned works from a dozen or so photographers documenting aspects of present-day Barcelona (specific industries and forms of work, social groups and cultural institutions, infrastructure, commercial patterns, and social spaces) chosen by the museum, the show made clear that centering the meaning of art in general on the meeting point between photographic art and the archives of the police may be an especially valuable undertaking now.

This final part of the exhibition—in which the museum itself served as a kind of coauthor, in the manner that Roy Stryker and the Farm Security Administration once did for Dorothea Lange, say, or the National Child Labor Committee did for Lewis Hine, or the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands and its house publications did for John Heartfi eld—was its conceptual center and was truly extraordinary, even startling, in this day and age. After all, we postmoderns have been rightfully suspicious of such collaborations for a long time now—what artist today imagines his or her voice to be so fully in the service of institutional authority as did Lange, Hine, or Heartfield? Our suspicions have been justified not the least because, in the end, this art-into-life ideal was most effectively realized not by Progressives, New Dealers, and Communists, but by Nazis and Fascisti. Think, for example, of Joseph Goebbels’s 1933 statement “The experience of the individual has become the experience of the people, thanks solely to the camera,” which summarizes the significance of documentary in all its ambivalence, or of Giuseppe Terragni’s magisterial photomontage for the 1932 Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution in Rome, which includes an ecstatic image of a crowd being slurried in a giant turbine-cum-garburator. The memory of such dystopias cannot but induce a fever—as a kind of reaction-formation to or symptom of the archive rather than as a direct aim—which makes it far from surprising that we have chosen to emphasize difference rather than commonality and to understand our agency in micro- rather than macropolitical terms. As the Sekula text suggests, the “universal” of “Universal Archive” cannot be held apart from the threat of massification—the threat of fascism, say, or religious zealotry, or market-driven cultural homogenization, or the sense of self that is born of ubiquitous surveillance—but it is not reduced to it, either.

What this means, for our purposes, is that there is a good notion of massification at work in the exhibition’s account of documentary and a bad one, a good universal and a bad, a good sense of Goebbels’s “experience of the people” and a bad, that can never be fully separated. Drawing this critical distinction has emerged as something of an intellectual trend that has found its philosophical and political footing by taking aim at identity politics and the differential thinking that subtends it. The main critique is simply this: Countering the massification engineered by the likes of Goebbels or Mussolini (or Ayman al-Zawahiri, Karl Rove, or Bill Gates) with notions of difference only reproduces the very same evasion of truth—identity, we can call it—and typically on an ever smaller and ever more self-defeating scale. This emerges in Alain Badiou’s claim that “identitarian and communitarian categories . . . must be absented” if the critical power of truth is to emerge. Likewise, Slavoj Žižek speaks of a kind of truth that “comes into existence [only] in the guise of the individual’s absolute egotist self-contraction, his negation of all determinate content.” So, too, Bruno Latour, approaching the issue sideways, insists that truth is never a function of “one world and multiple languages” or “one nature and multiple cultures” but instead can exist only as multiple “propositions that insist on being part of the same collective,” on being part, that is, of a single “object-oriented democracy,” where objects themselves are elevated to the status of political actors on a par with subjects. In other words, the point is not to call our attention to the concrete particulars—the supplement, differend, etc.—missed by the generalizing abstraction of identity yet one more time, for these particulars are themselves understood to be identity thinking as well, just made more precise by being contextualized in reaction to pseudouniversalist identitarian categories such as gender and sexuality or nation and race.

Against the identity traps of sameness and difference alike, the goal ultimately shared by these writers and “Universal Archive” is something else completely: to take the category of identity itself all the way down to its zero degree, down not only below the horizon of cultural and linguistic recognition associated with ideas about race or nation or community but still further, below the horizon of contextual recognition that terms like supplement, punctum, and lifeworld conjure, to the mud of subalternity or identitylessness or thingness, down to the root human condition where the old Marxian slogan “I am nothing and I should be everything” is once again possible. This thingness or nothingness or identitylessness is both the “condition of the document” revealed in the exhibition and the material ground of its universalism. In the language of Enlightenment aesthetics, it is the subjective experience of objectivity; in the language of Enlightenment politics, it is the experience of universal rights. Their common baseline is that abject condition where markers of difference are meaningless—“a sphere of society having universal character because of its universal suffering” is how Marx put it, “a sphere that can invoke no traditional title but only a human title.”

Try as it might to be otherwise—to be painting, say, or ornament, or even relic—photography has always been rooted in this ground below the level of difference, below the level of title or station or culture or identity. This is the exhibition’s point about photographic art being inextricably linked to the archives of the police, to the social and technological means of massification: Photography’s unique power to objectify—like capitalism’s— is both its weakness and its strength. To get a sense of how this has always been part of our understanding of the medium, think of the two most famous statements about it from the year 1859: Oliver Wendell Holmes’s everyday appreciation of it as a “universal currency,” as promissory notes “the sun has engraved for the great Bank of Nature” that would “pay in solid substance”; and Charles Baudelaire’s high damnation of it as a “universal infatuation” arising from “the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.” Either way—empty of self-determination like money or empty of self-determination like the multitude—photography has always served as an allegory for the experience of self as an objective reality rather than a subjective one. In this way, it is like that sense of self reflected in statistics and polls and the marketplace, and more generally, in the great images of the Homo economicus of capitalism and the Homo politicus of socialism. It is, in other words, subjectivity squeezed through the sieve—or run through the turbine-cum-garburator—of the bottom line or the vote tally. Photography has always conjured the containerized experience of data or image or commodity in ways that far exceed more expressive forms like painting and sculpture and more narrative forms like writing and film, and in so doing has always disassociated itself from all that falls under the heading of “difference.”

It is this problem of the whole that “Universal Archive” stakes out for its audience. If its historical survey reminds us of the aims that documentary carried in the past, the exhibition’s final galleries, featuring the collective portrait of contemporary Barcelona, make the problem a present concern. Most of the commissioned photographers are well known to the international art world—David Goldblatt, William Klein, Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, Gilles Saussier, Jean-Louis Schoellkopf, Sekula, and Ahlam Shibli among them—but what is unusual, and astonishing, really, to our knee-jerk postmodernism is how their status as artists is discomfited by the museum risking its own authorial voice. What emerges is a form of institutional critique turned on its head. This is what I take Ribalta to mean when he speaks of MACBA’s “institutional criticism”: It is no longer simply about artists standing in a critical relationship to museums, in the manner of Hans Haacke or Andrea Fraser, but also about museums taking up a critical relationship to artists, in the manner of the FSA or the NCLC or the KPD, with the museum’s “universal archive” offered as a critical rejoinder to art’s “archive fever.” As the assembled images come together to form a collective portrait of the city’s social systems and structures and the artists join forces as a united agent of the commissioning museum, the figure of difference—rendered allegorically by the different bodies of work standing apart from one another formally, stylistically, temperamentally, each asserting its own status as art against its status as document—stands as an ideological form in its own right. The resulting dance between form and content, individual and institution, the picture’s status as document and its status as art, emerges as the exhibition’s alternative allegory and alternative claim for the vitality of art. To the extent that this play between part and whole is experienced fully and that art is subjected to the status of document by the commissioning process just as documents are subjected to the status of art by their museum venue and artistic lineage, the usual categories through which we know the world—the categories of identity—are “absented,” as Badiou puts it, and drained of their capacity to rest untroubled on the metaphysical ground of difference.

In the end, this dance between museum and artists is nothing other than a renewal of modernism’s old universalist gambit: Object becomes subject by insisting “on being part of the same collective,” while subject collapses into object in “absolute egotist self-contraction.” As we know well enough from the history of the twentieth century, this loss of boundaries—between subject and object, art and documentary, individual and institution, judgment and truth, all in the name of self-realization—can go either way: toward the identity politics of fascism or toward the open inquiry and debate of the democratic public sphere. If the exhibition has achieved its aim in representing the idea of a “modern photographic utopia,” however, we are reminded that documentary has more often than not rooted itself in that soil where the markers of difference remain meaningless—in poverty and deprivation as truly universal measures of human suffering rather than in race or nation, say, or culture or community, or gender or sexuality, or supplement or differend or punctum or lifeworld or face—thereby allowing the democratic potential of “I am nothing and I should be everything” to arise anew. The question that the exhibition poses to us within the inescapable bubble of our postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion is whether or not that “nothing” can really fend off the false allure of becoming something—of identity in its older chauvinistic or newer tolerant forms—for the higher pleasure it once claimed as the only rightful ground, the only true and just basis, for everything. Flirting with the fine line that distinguished the utopian ambitions of the past from their dystopian perversions is risky business, for sure, as the exhibition duly acknowledges, but it may be warranted. As Ribalta notes in the exhibition guide, the historical emergence of documentary was “inseparable from the struggles for civil rights and the implementation of the modern welfare state.” Since this utopian side of the dystopian twentieth century, the side that defended “that sphere of society having universal character because of its universal suffering,” now itself needs to be defended (or maybe, in light of the recent US election, extended), the old line may bear being drawn anew.

Blake Stimson is the author of The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation (MIT Press, 2006).