return to, the home of critical reviews

Re: J's last comments on the Rodchenko debate

From:     blp
Category: Art
Date:     31 March 2008
Time:     09:25 AM


J:Well I hate nostalgia, you're right, because it's just liking yourself (loving your own youth)  or
change, and making that into an ideology,. 

Me: No, sorry, before we go on, you've misunderstood the term 'ideology' as it's being used here.
The idea is that ideology is always unconscious (an unconscious propagation of dogma, probably
through behaviour) and, despite the protestations of Blair et al. still with us. The idea that I'm
nostalgic for ideology is precisely to miss the point. I'm alluding favourably to the process of
identifying it. 

J: You like Rodchenko because he makes art for art's sake. And then reject Tilmans because his
photos are fake, ie induce sentimental nostalgia for non-existent moments (surely something formal
or abstract there) but all I sense from you is nostalgia for ideology. 

Whatever you 'sense' from me, the distinction I'm making is between Rodchenko's overt fakeness,
which, in a Godardian sense, is realism (this real thing right before you now through which some
other reality is mediated) and Tillmans' repressed, unacknowledged fakeness, which purports to be
one thing while actually being another. 

J: And I have been reading some New Left texts from 1969 and they seem to be trying to break from the 
inertia brought upon by the conservative/nostalgic mindset, things used to be better, cant be changed 
for the better. Even though they were living in exciting times, most people were defeatist/nostalgic 
then. Some of the new left weren't  and neither should you be, and neither should i be nostalgic for
new left.

Me: Don't worry. I'm not. But the idea I'm getting from Zizek, however poncey you think it is, is
that today's defeatism precisely boils down to insisting that things can't be changed for the better
because attempts to make things better are in the past, have been decisively discredited, always
lead to the gulag or the concentration campt etc. Surely you've noticed that today's conservative,
since Thatcher, is not just a traditionalist but a distinctly uncomfortable mix of traditionalism
and an almost modernist iconoclasm and triumphalism, the kind that dignifies terms such as 'radical'
and 'blue-sky thinking'.  To say that Rodchenko's simply in the past and liking him or feeling that
there is something valuable to be learned from him is just nostalgia is to insist on a  version of
the superior present moment that is not necessarily the true one. The pictures are present to us.
It's also to disavow the nostalgia in Tillmans that you've already admitted to. To suggest that
using texts, images or events from the past as a way of understanding/critiquing the present is
nostalgia is almost to rule out the possibility of any critique at all since all potential critiques
are in the past as soon as they are uttered. It's a misunderstanding, perhaps a willful one, of the
term nostalgia. What criteria do you have for saying we must be more accepting of something because
it was done more recently? What process of history or progress proves to us that looking back to
Rodchenko's strategies is simply a pointless, destructive process of nostalgic yearning? 

J: The whole Zizek poncery  about ideology/dogma just boils down to you saying people nowadays are 
superficial and unselfaware, which is what every older nostalgic generation says about every younger 
generation. ( and think about that isn't superficiality akin to art for art's sake, leaching out the
and revelling in the aesthetics (like our youth who dress up as punks, goths, nerds whatever) rather 
like Rodchenko, who ignores his subjects suffering and the inequality of his time to make beautiful 

Me: As I understand it, this formulation of ideology we're discussing says that people are always
unselfaware, so I suppose, if it is the case that would-be radicals always criticise the people of
their time for this, it wouldn't be surprising. In fact, however, Zizek says something like the
opposite: where Marx says 'They are doing it, but they don't know they're doing it', he turns it
round to say 'They are doing it and they know it, but they do it anyway.' Actually, if that is what
he's saying, I'm not sure I totally agree. I think unconscious processes are still at work
(actually, I'm pretty sure he does too) and it was those that I was talking about in Tillmans' work.
(I've made this case at least twice, so I won't go over it again). So: Are you saying you *don't*
think people are unselfaware? To whit., are you disputing the existence of the unconscious, or of
unconscious processes? You  seem to be accusing me of a sort of sour mean mindedness towards the
present. I thought I was engaging in criticality, the purported purpose of this site - not to be
vacuous and say nothing or be mindlessly celebratory. But I don't think I'm being mean and I think
the kind of misanthropic old codger disgust you impute is anywhere in anything I've said. At least I
don't use words like 'poncery'. And this critique, or Zizek's anyway, is precisely about what you
say this site is for: making things better. The whole thrust of his argument is to say, as I've
already said above, that at this point in time we are in a state of uncritical stasis or regression
or passivity or depression because we have been and continue to be sold the idea that the mere
process of critiquing with a view to improvement is an old-fashioned one and, worse, a profoundly
dangerous one. // To move on, this 'art for art's sake' term is introduced by you and, rather than
just accept it and let you build arguments on it, I'm going to reject it. Do you really think
formalism is just the same as aestheticism and Rodchenko can be dismissed as some Wildean aesthete?
Rodchenko's subject matter is the revolution and industrial society's means of production. He sees
that it would be hypocrisy to address that subject matter without alluding to  his own means of
production. Again, it's an attempt at showing a totality and making the art work itself something
present rather than a distanciating allusion to some other absent present, inducing nostalgia. You
allude, not without merit, to the absence of suffering in his work. Zizek would probably say, and I
would agree, that such depictions are suspect because they act as a means for comfortable
intellectuals and other sophisticated urban types to have their suffering done for them and feel
virtuous vicariously. Think of those Benetton ads in the eighties showing AIDS victims and sufferers
from starvation. They advertise the idea that we are a caring society. Still, Rodchenko's got
issues. Much as we are asked to celebrate a sort of end of history, Rodchenko seems to be asking us
to do the same. Even the very photos that Stalin condemned for using odd angles look like
celebrations of the revolution. This is one of the very fascinating things about them; that his
formal/aesthetic devices so clearly have meaning, even if it's disputed, rather than simply being
for art's sake (a position that also has a less clear meaning). 

J: What's new?

Actually, I think the answer to this question, or an attempt at an answer, is in what I've written
above, but I'll try to spell it out: it's the anti-critical promulgation of the notion of a
post-ideological end of history. We've had the critiques and the attempts at a better society during
the twentieth century. We no longer believe, as a result, that we or society in general are unaware
of the political or aesthetic processes that shape us, yet we have also lost faith in the critiques
to get us out of the mire and we are actively scared off the attempts to build fairer societies. 

return to, the home of critical reviews