PRINT December 2020

Seriality, Sociability, Silence

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We will no longer be seen and not heard), 1985, silk screen and lithography on paper, nine parts, each 20 3/4 × 20 5/8".

HOW TO UNDERSTAND the sudden shift in social life from the lockdowns in March to the demonstrations in June? Models like spectacle and surveillance capture little of the experience of either isolation at home or solidarity in the streets, and they confront only some of the power dynamics in play over the past year. Although these concepts are hardly outmoded, they date to changes in capitalism and governmentality that became urgent in the 1960s and ’70s. Yet the model that seems more salient now is older still. In Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), Sartre argued that the fundamental characteristic of modern society is its seriality, structured as it is by markets and media that address us both en masse and separately, positioning us as scattered consumers of the same products, celebrities, news, and entertainments. For Sartre, this “plurality of isolations” is also a plethora of alienations (“Everyone is the same as the Others in so far as he is Other than himself”); his example is a line of people at a bus stop, silent, backs turned to one another, indifferent, anonymous, alone-together. In his account, the opposite of serial separation is the “group in fusion,” which he exemplifies with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Significantly, Sartre insists that seriality is primary: Fused groups arise out of this condition and fall back into it. If individual alienation can be converted into collective action, this happens only for a time, and then groups disperse. The relay between the two states is dialectical: Fusion overcomes seriality, but seriality recoups fusion in turn, and the cycle begins again in another form.1

This relay is dialectical in two additional ways. Sometimes, Sartre states, “an index of separation” can become a “collective object” that acts as a “bond” between people.2 This is elliptical, but we might think of how Warhol transformed banal products into shared icons, or how Barbara Kruger turns clichés into calls to action. Yet we hardly need to look to art for instances of how groups are fused through images and texts: Examples are all around us—the video clip of the brutal murder of George Floyd is only the most momentous among them. However, in a dialectical twist not developed by Sartre, nothing guarantees that the fusion prompted by such memes will be progressive; they can also summon conspiracy-mongers to a pizza parlor in Washington, DC, or white supremacists to a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. Moreover, with market and media ecosystems so splintered today, the opposition between seriality and fusion has to be revised in terms of tense splicings of the two.

Certainly, as Pierre Bourdieu insisted, art galleries and museums can be gated paths to class distinction, but they can also be welcome trivia of sociable groups both small and large.

Somewhere between the serial and the fused, or to the side of both, is another condition, an everyday one we take for granted until we are deprived of it, as we suddenly were in March: sociability. Understood simply as a coming-together of people in a way that is partly purposive and partly not, sociability sounds trivial enough. But the trivial isn’t always insignificant: The word stems from trivium, the intersection of three roads, which might be stretched to mean a meeting place for semi-serendipitous encounters between friends and strangers alike. Certainly, as Pierre Bourdieu insisted, art galleries and museums can be gated paths to class distinction, but they can also be welcome trivia of sociable groups both small and large—a sociability that extends beyond any exhibition to other spaces like cafés and bars where admission fees don’t apply (not to mention online sites where paywalls don’t exist). Such sociable looking and talking cuts across given binaries such as attention versus distraction or individual contemplation versus collective reception, even as it allows for each of these modes to be entertained. Clearly, we enjoy this sociability, which is not automatically ruined by crowds and selfie-takers. And clearly, we want it, especially when it seems missing in other areas of our lives (much participatory art of the past two decades has aimed to compensate for this relative lack). Then, abruptly, in March, as we withdrew to our serial rooms and caged Zooms, this sociability was gone.

It is clueless to lament the sociability that art affords when so many were (and are) sick or dying and so many others were (and are) working so hard to keep others among the living. In this context, it is just another form of privilege, yet sociability was once a way to challenge privilege or at least to complicate it. Such was the case in pre-Revolutionary France when the Academy was pressured to open its Salon to some visitors beyond the aristocratic. As Thomas Crow demonstrated in his landmark Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (1985), hierarchies of class encoded in hierarchies of art—of making, viewing, classifying, and valuing—were disrupted by this incursion. Moreover, in settings like the Salon, new audiences slowly became self-aware as a public, and the role of the critic, who also came to the fore at this time, was not inconsequential in the process. Even as a figure such as Diderot addressed the courtly few in his dispatches about the Salon, he spoke in the guise of a public spectator, which advanced this consciousness as well. “Sociability” is too rosy a term for the fractious viewership that resulted, and much of the criticism of the time makes our own sound almost polite. But then, “the public sphere” was always a chimerical thing, more hypothetical than actual, and, as Jürgen Habermas already suggested in his 1962 account, it was always limited in scope. Even as its franchise was extended, in fits and starts, this sphere was largely confined to bourgeois orders, and it was further restricted by gender and race. And when the bourgeoisie was threatened politically, it was quick to sacrifice such social ideals to its economic interests, as Marx underscored as early as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

The subsequent vicissitudes of the bourgeois public sphere are clear enough: As capitalism became consumerist in emphasis, this sphere was overwhelmed by the business of publicity and the manufacture of consent. Nevertheless, it also prepared the possibility of its own counter, as with the intermittent appearance of a proletarian public sphere, as articulated by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge in their 1972 response to Habermas. Peter Weiss provides a vivid instance of such opposition in the first volume of his massive novel The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975); the fact that it is a limited example—fictional, undertaken in the worst of times, and not really public at all—underscores the difficulty of this stance. With the Nazis in power, a group of young Communists in Berlin meet before the Pergamon Altar in an autodidactic effort to unpack an ancient episode of authoritarian rule and imperial culture; it is also a clandestine way for them to gain historical perspective on the regime that oppresses them. The project implicit here—expanding the franchise of museumgoers, sharpening sociability into critique, affirming the “insurgent universality” voiced by subaltern groups—remains incomplete to this day.3

Pergamon Altar, ca. 170–160 BCE, Bergama, Turkey (Pergamon, Mysia), marble. Installation view, Pergamonmuseum, Berlin, ca. 1970s.

Early in the lockdown, a friend suggested that all the art in all the shuttered museums might be relieved not to have to see us for a while, not to have to absorb our looks, rapt, skeptical, blasé, or other. I balk a little when personhood is projected on art in this way—it doesn’t have our needs or desires; certainly, it doesn’t have our cares—but art does absorb the gaze of its makers in the moment of its making; we might even imagine that it registers the readings of some of its viewers thereafter. This can be understood as another kind of sociability, another trivium where artworks and viewers meet and different worlds intersect for a time. Of course, not every past can be addressed by every present; there are far more missed encounters than not as we wander through the galleries. But for that very reason, it is all the more important to account for what does call out to us and vice versa, to consider what Benjamin termed “the now of recognizability.”

“Memory is the great criterion of art,” Baudelaire wrote in his Salon of 1846; “art is the mnemotechny of the beautiful.”4 In his view, a significant work in a tradition evokes various touchstones that come before it—it evokes them subliminally, not overtly—in order to draw on such precedents, to transform them, even to traduce them, and so to pass them on. To be sure, pictorial memories of this sort presuppose an interested audience in the special space of the museum, with or without walls. Nonetheless, I still believe in this mnemotechny. At the same time, like countless others, I advocate that its privilege be extended to different traditions and different audiences, and I recognize that other mnemotechnies must take priority, anticolonialist and antiracist ones above all. The “now of recognizability” demands as much. Today, museum spaces and statue settings often feel purgatorial, along the lines suggested by George Saunders in his resonant novel Lincoln in the Bardo (2017): “The very buildings and monuments here not stable and the greater city not stable and the wide world not stable. All alter, are altering, in every instant.” If we are ever to exit this limbo, we need to develop mnemotechnies of art that also vector toward the future—that suggest not only a future tense or even a future-perfect tense but, as Tina M. Campt and Sarah Lewis argue in relation to racial justice, a future-real-conditional tense, as in “that which will have had to happen.” Such an orientation, Campt writes, “involves living the future now—as an imperative rather than subjunctive—as a striving for the future you want to see, right now, in the present.”5

I can’t quite shake the thought that the lockdown relieved art of our looking and talking, though. It is as if that silence were a test run for what Quentin Meillassoux calls “ancestral” time, a time before us or after us—in any case, without us, beyond human finitude. For speculative realists like Meillassoux, we can’t get out of our own way philosophically—especially given that, since Kant, the objective world is “correlated” with the subjective mind almost as a matter of course—and they ask us to break this circuit somehow so that the “great outdoors” can be considered as such, as existence apart from us.6 The lockdown pointed to what this thought experiment might be as an actual condition, particularly if we understand the virus as one more stage in the imminent collapse of the environment as a whole. Some artists have indulged in this sort of necro-sublime (Robert Smithson was prone to such scenarios), but, as in other versions of the sublime, the human subject remains present as a tacit voyeur to whatever cataclysm is conjured up. “We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death,” Freud wrote in Reflections on War and Death (1915); “whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators. . . . In the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality.”7 Maybe the lockdown taught us to be less convinced, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe a refreshed sense of finitude will prompt us to embrace sociability all the more and redouble our commitment to a future we want right now.

Hal Foster teaches at Princeton University.


1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith (London and New York: Verso, 2004), 1:256, 260. Structurally, seriality underpins spectacle and surveillance in any case. Implicitly, Sartre argues against accounts (by Frankfurt School critics and others) that cast modernity as a fall from a prior state of an integrated society and a unified subjectivity.

2. Sartre, Critique, 1:288, 266.

3. See Massimiliano Tomba, Insurgent Universality: An Alternative Legacy of Modernity (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2019).

4. Charles Baudelaire, in The Mirror of Art: Critical Studies of Charles Baudelaire, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY: Double Day Anchor Books, 1956), 83. See also Michael Fried, “Painted Memories: On the Containment of the Past in Baudelaire and Manet,” Critical Inquiry 10, no. 3 (March 1984): 510–42.

5. Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 17; Sarah Lewis, “A Questionnaire on Monuments,” October, no. 165 (Summer 2018): 93.

6. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2008).

7. Sigmund Freud, in Character and Culture, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1963), 122 (translation modified).