On publishing practice: Architecture, history, politics

The Charnel-House
interviewed by Kerb

The following interview is taken from Kerb 21: Uncharted Territories (2013), a yearly publication put out by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. A few months back, some of its editors contacted me for an interview on my rationales and routines for publishing. I was quite flattered, especially given that all of the other publications that were chosen by Kerb (such as Log, Topos, ScapegoatTerragrams306090) have a much, much wider pull than The Charnel-House. To be quite honest, I was surprised they found space for any of us considering the room it takes to house Marina Abramović’s ego, whom they also interviewed. — Just kidding!

Anyway, the physical journal is gorgeous and available for purchase online. I encourage all of you who have the means to pick up a copy. Below is a slightly more expansive series of responses to the questionnaire they asked me to fill out

The Charnel-House: From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

The Charnel-House: From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION: Kerb: A Journal of Landscape Architecture approaches blogs, journals, magazines online and in print because it is interested to know how publishing practices operate and contribute to disciplines. Platforms of design and cultural discussion hosted by individuals and collectives offer varying insights and perspectives into the state of design. The ways in which the subject matter is curated and represented outlines one’s practice.

KERB: Describe a regular day in your “office.”

Ross Wolfe: A regular day blogging for The Charnel-House is hardly ever regular. Rather, it consists in a cluster of tightly-knit irregularities. Since there’s no strict timeline according to which updates are set to appear, the factors determining the generation of new content tend to emerge more or less by accident. Here and there (now and then), something will pique my interest, spark my imagination, or move me to issue a response. Such are the moments in which I write. (Of course, to be sure, there is a loose imperative to keep restocking the site with fresh supplies of images and information. Apart from this minimum, periodic upkeep, there’s very little in the way of discipline to maintain a regimented schedule.)

No matter when it comes, however, inspiration for new material on the blog usually doesn’t have anything to do with the environment in which writing takes place. Or if it does, it’s indirect. More often than not, the cues for what to write come from the virtual world rather than my immediate surroundings (which generally remain static throughout). The objects that lie about almost never change; at most they are rearranged. Constants like this can thus sink seamlessly into the background, a kind of visual “white noise,” and function by their total absence from my attention. As such, they create a sense of comfort and familiarity while I peruse the web in search of more direct engagements.

They say Sartre thrived on the hustle-and-bustle, penning some of his most famous tracts and novellas in the middle of packed, hectic, noisy Parisian cafés. It doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to me, really. When a topic is sufficiently engrossing, I’m able to tune out just about anything. Yet for the most part, I stick to a routine of place. Sometimes a change of scenery is warranted, but not always.

KERB: We have defined “practice” as the ongoing accumulation of knowledge that test ideas through research and application. Upon reflection, do you have your own mode of practice as an editor? What is it, what is it based on?

Ross Wolfe: Practically speaking, there is very little in the way of “testing” that goes on in blogging for The Charnel-House. That is to say, there is nothing that would approximate a “trial-and-error” method. However, it would be false to suggest that there is no empirical basis to the selection and curation of material for publication. Some programs are built into the blog service I use that allow me to see what kind of content attracts the most visitors, which posts draw the most comments, and which tend to get “liked.” Continue reading

They still radiate the future


Last night I went to see a preliminary screening of Isabella Willinger’s newly-released documentary Away from all suns. Sammy Medina of FastCo, with whom I frequently collaborate, and Anna Kats of ArtInfo were also in attendance. 
The movie was being shown as part of  Tribeca Cinema’s “Architecture and Design Week,” an event sponsored by Archtober and a host of other companies/publications (far too numerous to name). Her film focuses on three contemporary individuals whose lives are somehow connected to utopian modernist buildings slowly decaying in Moscow. One building, Ivan Nikolaev’s student commune (1929), is currently being renovated. Another, El Lissitzky’s printing factory, is in danger of being torn down. Yet another, Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis’ Dom Narkomfin, is left in a general state of disrepair. Stunning archival footage is mobilized to juxtapose these buildings’ original state against their current dilapidation.

Hopefully I’ll be writing up a review of the film and pitching it to Art Margins or Calvert Journal, so I’ll spare the reader any further thoughts of my own. What follows is an interview with the director Isa Willinger conducted by Boris Schumatsky. It’s being reposted here from the film’s official website. Willinger expresses some sentiments in this exchange that more or less approximate statements that writers like Owen Hatherley, Douglas Murphy, Agata Pyzik, and myself have voiced in the past, independently of or in close dialogue with one another — nostalgia for an age we never knew, awe before the ruins of a past seemingly more futuristic than our own, hope against hope that radical transformation might yet be possible. The line from Willinger I paraphrased for the title of this entry runs as follows: “Many of [these Constructivist buildings in Moscow] are quite run down today, yet they still radiate their futuristic visions.” It recalls, consciously or not, something Owen Hatherley wrote about Il’ia Golosov’s Zuev Club nearby:

The windows might be infilled, the balconies long since disappeared ⎯ what all this damage proves is that buildings with this much power and conviction can still carry you away with them. Or it carries me, anyway. I look at this and I can still feel radiating off the bloody thing the promise of a better society.

Below you can watch a trailer of the film, followed by the edited transcript of the interview.

Away from all suns (2013)

Isa Willinger interviewed
by Boris Schumatsky

Boris Schumatsky:
 Your film is about people living in buildings of the Russian avant-garde and about the buildings themselves. You seem to be just as fascinated by the buildings as by your protagonists. What is it that struck you about the Constructivist buildings?

Isa Willinger: To me the buildings seem like ruins from another future. I spent some time in Moscow some years ago and on my walks through the city I discovered these exceptional buildings. They really stick out from the rest of Moscow’s city landscape. Many of them are quite run down today, yet they still radiate their futuristic visions. This, of course, is a stunning paradox: Something is from the past and at the same time it seems from the future.

Boris Schumatsky: Can you tell us about the background of Constructivism?

Isa Willinger: The term was first applied to the abstract works of art by Tatlin, Malevich, Popova, Stepanova, El Lissitzky, and others in the 1910s and 1920s. Soon, the artists’ works transgressed the boundary between geometrical shapes on paper or canvas and architectural drawings toying with those shapes. The first Constructivist buildings were built in the mid 20s only, due to a lack of resources in early Soviet Russia. The Constructivist movement was infused with the hopes of socialist revolution, overcoming a repressive tsarist regime, and building a better, more modern society. Continue reading

Entretien avec Domenico Losurdo sur le liberalisme

A propos d’une contre-
histoire du libéralisme

Image: Italian theorist and Marxist
philosopher Domenico Losurdo


Le 17 mars 2012 Ross Wolfe et Pam Nogales de la Platypus Affiliated Society ont interrogé Domenico Losurdo sur son récent ouvrage Contre Histoire du libéralisme.

Ross Wolfe: Comment caractérisez-vous la contradiction  entre émancipation et désémancipation dans l’idéologie libérale? Et d’où vient précisément cette logique?

Domenico Losurdo: Je pense que la dialectique entre émancipation et désémancipation est un élément clé pour comprendre l’histoire du libéralisme. La lutte des classes dont parle Marx est précisément l’objet d’une confrontation entre ces forces.  Ce que je souligne c’est que parfois émancipation et désémancipation sont étroitement connectées l’un à l’autre. Evidemment on peut voir dans l’histoire du libéralisme un aspect d’émancipation. Par exemple, Locke polémique contre le pouvoir absolu du roi. Il défend la nécessité de la liberté des citoyens contre le pouvoir absolu de la monarchie. Mais d’un autre côté Locke est le champion en ce qui concerne la défense de l’esclavage. Et dans ce cas, il agit comme un représentant de la désémancipation. Dans mon livre je développe une comparaison entre Locke d’un côté et Bodin de l’autre. Bodin est, quant à lui, un défenseur de la monarchie absolue, mais en même temps un critique de l’esclavage et du colonialisme.

Esclavage photos de 1880

Esclavage photos de 1880

RW: Le contre-exemple de Bodin est intéressant. Il en appelle à l’église et à la monarchie, le premier et le second Etat, dans sa défense de l’humanité des esclaves contre le «pouvoir arbitraire de vie et de mort» que Locke défend pour le propriétaire, le maitre, sur son esclave.

DL: Oui, chez Locke nous voyons l’inverse. Alors qu’il critique la monarchie absolue, Locke représente l’émancipation, mais lorsqu’il célèbre ou légitime l’esclavage, Locke devient alors un représentant de la désémancipation. En menant le combat contre le contrôle de la monarchie absolue, Locke affirme en réalité le pouvoir total des propriétaires sur leur propriété, et cela inclus les esclaves. Dans ce cas on peut clairement voir l’enchevêtrement entre émancipation et désémancipation. Le propriétaire devient plus libre, mais sa plus grande liberté signifie une dégradation des conditions de l’esclavage en général. Continue reading

On becoming things: An interview with Axel Honneth

Jensen Suther

Platypus Review 59 | September 2013

On July 3rd, 2013, at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Germany, Jensen Suther interviewed Axel Honneth, director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and author of numerous books and articles, on behalf of Platypus. Their conversation focused on the problem of “reification,” or the tendency for processes of transformation to appear as, and be treated as if they were, static objects of an immutable nature. Reification was the theme of several writings Honneth delivered as the Tanner Lectures at Berkeley in 2005. These lectures are compiled in the book Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Jensen Suther: In your 2005 Tanner Lecture series, you argue that Georg Lukács’s Marxist analysis of the problem of reification is problematic, particularly in that he ascribes the overcoming of alienated social relations to the working class. You end the lecture by emphasizing that, pace Lukács, for whom reification is generated by the commodity form, different sets of social practices give rise to reifying behavior and no one group, class, or social movement can be singularly assigned the task of abolishing reified social relations. However, reification has historically been an important concept for the Left. Do you see the critique of reification as necessarily leftist? How, if at all, does your contribution to the discourse on reification relate to the Left?

Axel Honneth: This is a surprising question, one I would not have thought to ask, so my answer comes very much ad hoc. I do not believe that concepts belong to any specific political community or group. The degree to which concepts help us explore something or see something new, they should be taken as an instrument potentially available for everyone in society. So, in that sense, I do not believe that reification is an automatically leftist concept. Moreover, in terms of the history of ideas, I am not even sure that reification is necessarily a concept developed only by leftists. For instance, the French Marxist thinker Lucien Goldmann sought to demonstrate the similarities between the approaches of Lukács and Heidegger. You can find in Heidegger an idea of reification, which already indicates that reification was a concept also utilized by the right, or on the right. There are many problems with Lukács’s analysis. The almost mystical role he assigns the proletariat is only one of them. Even if we grant that his was one of the most fruitful periods in the Left tradition, in the history of Western Marxism, I think that today we can see much more clearly the limits of that analysis and the mistakes bound up with those limits. And, surely, the biggest mistake is not only the emphasis on the world-historical role of the proletariat, but also how this is emphasized, namely by way of a very peculiar set of background ideas, let’s say, about the social structure of reality. Lukács relies on a kind of Fichtean-Hegelian metaphysical concept by which all human society is thought to be grounded in a certain kind of world-constituting activity, and so Lukács thinks that the only class that can overcome reification, which is seen as the destruction of that world-constituting activity, is the class which is representing — even under alienated or distorted conditions — that kind of praxis. Therefore, we have this almost fantastic piece within the whole study, wherein Lukács wants to reveal this one moment of the overcoming of these distorted conditions. For Lukács, this moment looks almost like this one revolutionary act; I mean, you almost get the sense that in one second all these destructive conditions are overcome. It’s a very peculiar analysis — enormously inspiring, but also very strange.

Georg.Lukács seated in the darkness of his library (1913)

Georg Lukács seated in the darkness of his library

JS: You argue in your 2005 lectures that reification does not eliminate non-reified forms of social praxis, but only papers over them, and you claim that this was also Lukács’s position. In other words, you argue that a “genuine form of human existence,” one based on mutual recognition, perseveres beneath reified social relations. Even if this is the case, is it possible to grasp this genuine, underlying social reality, “as it really is”? Or is it rather the case, as Theodor Adorno suggests, that misrecognition is constitutive of our social condition? And what of Lukács’s claim that the commodity form not only generates reification, but also produces consciousness?

AH: That strikes me as an epistemological question, or probably better still an ontological question: If we grant the condition that reification is constitutive of our society, how could we ever attain a less distorted, or “undisturbed,” form of praxis? If we are to avoid contradicting ourselves, we can only hold out hope for this better form of praxis if we also believe that there must always already be an element of the better, undisturbed form of praxis in our already existing society. This is a difficult issue in Lukács. One way to understand him is to say that all praxis in the present moment of capitalist society is completely reified. But then you have this problem of how one has access to any sense that an undistorted form of praxis is possible. In Adorno it is trickier still. Even when Adorno is saying that reification is constitutive, he believes that there are still alternatives, or signs of another form of praxis. Be it in art, the artwork, or be it in small examples of everyday practices — there are, he claims, elements of an undistorted practice. So in Adorno you have this idea of the immanent appearance of an undistorted praxis, whereas Lukács is much more radical in his claim that reification is total. But this makes it much more difficult for Lukács to think the revolution, or think social change. Thus for Lukács it has to be this completely eschatological transformation, a complete reversal. With respect to this question I think Adorno is more open.[1] Continue reading

Marx’s liberalism? An interview with Jonathan Sperber

Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013

On June 25, 2013, Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh interviewed Jonathan Sperber, historian of the 1848 revolutions and author of the acclaimed new biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), on the radio show Radical Minds broadcast on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited version of the interview that was conducted on air.

Spencer Leonard: Let me start off by asking a very general question. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, this is a “19th Century life”: You are placing Marx in his context, and claiming that Marx is not our contemporary, but best understood within the 19th century, a century you view as both fading into the past and distinctively still with us. So, if Marx is more a figure of the past than a “prophet of the present,” one could ask: Why bother writing a new biography of him?

Jonathan Sperber: In his history of the 19th century, The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel argues that the 19th century is sometimes extremely close to us, but more often it is very distant. That’s how I look at Marx. There are ways in which he seems relevant to present concerns, but most often when we look at his writings — stripped of their 20th century reinterpretations — we find Marx is dealing with a different historical era than our own, with different problems and different issues. Though he uses many of the same words, like “capitalism,” this means something very different from today’s global capitalist economy. Continue reading

Young Lukács

An interview & photo gallery

Image: Georg Lukács seated in
the darkness of his library


From an interview conducted by the New Left Review, translated 1971:

New Left Review: How do you judge today your writings of the twenties? What is their relationship to your present work?

Georg Lukács: In the twenties, Korsch, Gramsci, and I tried in our different ways to come to grips with the problem of social necessity and the mechanistic interpretation of it that was the heritage of the Second International. We inherited this problem, but none of us — not even Gramsci, who was perhaps the best of us — solved it. We all went wrong, and today it would be quite mistaken to try and revive the works of those times as if they were valid now. In the West, there is a tendency to erect them into “classics of heresy,” but we have no need for that today. The twenties are a past epoch; it is the philosophical problems of the sixties that should concern us. I am now working on an Ontology of Social Being which I hope will solve the problems that were posed quite falsely in my earlier work, particularly History and Class Consciousness. My new work centres on the question of the relationship between necessity and freedom, or as I express it, teleology and causality.

Georg.Lukács and Béla Balázs

Georg Lukács and Béla Balázs

Traditionally, philosophers have always built systems founded on one or the other of these two poles; they have either denied necessity or denied human freedom. My aim is to show the ontological interrelation of the two, and to reject the “either-or” standpoints with which philosophy has traditionally presented man. The concept of labor is the hinge of my analysis. For labor is not biologically determined. If a lion attacks an antelope, its behavior is determined by biological need and by that alone. But if primitive man is confronted with a heap of stones, he must choose between them, by judging which will be most adaptable to his use as a tool; he selects between alternatives. The notion of alternatives is basic to the meaning of human labor, which is thus always teleological — it sets an aim, which is the result of a choice. It thus expresses human freedom. But this freedom only exists by setting in motion objective physical forces, which obey the causal laws of the material universe.

The teleology of labor is thus always co-ordinated with physical causality, and indeed the result of any individual’s labor is a moment of physical causality for the teleological orientation (Setzung) of any other individual. The belief in a teleology of nature was theology, and the belief in an immanent teleology of history was unfounded. But there is teleology in all human labor, inextricably inserted into the causality of the physical world. This position, which is the nucleus from which I am developing my present work, overcomes the classical antinomy of necessity and freedom. But I should emphasize that I am not trying to build an all-inclusive system. The title of my work — which is completed, but I am now revising the first chapters — is Zur Ontologie des Gesellschaftlichen Seins, not Ontologie des Gesellschaftlichen Seins. You will appreciate the difference. The task I am engaged on will need the collective work of many thinkers for its proper development. But I hope it will show the ontological bases for that socialism of everyday life of which I spoke. Continue reading

An interview with Dean Whiteside on Marxian Musicology

Conducted by C. Derick Varn

Image: Large bust of Lenin next to
a smaller bust of Beethoven

After listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, Lenin added sadly: “I’m often unable to listen to music, it gets on my nerves. I’d like to stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears for producing such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. However, today one shouldn’t caress anybody — for people will only bite off your hand.” Georg Lukács, Lenin: A study in the unity of his thought (1920)

Originally posted on The (Dis)loyal Opposition to Modernity blog. Please follow and subscribe to it.

Dean Whiteside studies music theory as a conductor at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. He has an interest in reintegrating music theory with materialism.

C. Derick Varn: The debates on aesthetics and Marxism have often been framed in terms of visual arts and in terms of music. This, perhaps, is the legacy of Theodor Adorno. Do you see Adorno as a primary entry point to Marxist musicology?

Dean Whiteside: It is not enough to say that Adorno was partial to music. For Adorno, the mutual dependency between musical and critical thinking cuts both ways. For this reason, many of Adorno’s deepest thoughts work through the relation between music and conceptual thinking. Adorno claims that German music and philosophy constituted a single system since the time of Kant and Beethoven. Adorno has a critical take on this relationship. His method is deeply historical and sensitive to the ways in which music embodies the antagonisms of bourgeois capitalist society, especially its fissures and points of non-identity. Left at that, Adorno would be suggesting merely another way to think about the relationship between music and society. But his inquiry is deeper: he wants to interrogate the social truth content of music itself. Music does not lie outside of capital, nor does it provide a safe haven from instrumental reason, but it also isn’t reducible to them: it’s a mode of thinking about what is contradictory and unarticulated within the world. Through music we discover the possibility of thinking about thought insofar as thought finds itself sublated within musical form, often through the concepts and signs which have the most authority over us, especially basic ones like repetition and self-identity. Thought is saved from the fate of merely smashing its face repeatedly against a mirror: its redemption lies in the broken and bloody shards on the floor — music, if you will (certainly Neue Musik). Conceptual thinking then faces the burden of making sense of its own broken image. The anxiety which neue Musik causes us is that we don’t recognize ourselves in the fragments. Thought’s return to itself must overcome a moment of mis-recognition. Many listeners don’t get past the initial: “WTF, that’s not me!” Their reaction is wrong but understandable. Obversely, Adorno wants to problematize the moment of false recognition that bourgeois listeners experience while listening to Mozart or Beethoven. Adorno insists that Beethoven’s music is Hegelian philosophy in a truer form than Hegel’s philosophy itself could ever be. This is not an analogy. He maintains that although we can no longer write music like Beethoven, we should still think and act like Beethoven’s music. This amounts to an ideal of praxis which I think Adorno himself only occasionally lives up to. His failings are usually on the side of musical theory, namely a simplistic understanding of tonality and harmony. So to answer your question, yes and no. Continue reading

Boris Korolev's highly abstract project for a monument to Karl Marx, 1919

Marxism’s relation to “communism”: Bruno Bosteels, Jodi Dean, and Boris Groys

IMAGE: Boris Korolev’s highly abstract
Project for a monument to Karl Marx (1919)
[Проект памятника К. Марксу в Москве]

The quasi-religious character of the question

Raising the question of Marx’s relation to communism immediately raises the question of Marxism‘s relation to communism. Even those who reject all everything that came afterwards in favor of a “return to Marx” implicitly set themselves up in opposition to the various Marxists who claimed to continue his legacy. They regard all developments subsequent to Marx’s death — by Mao, Stalin, Trotsky, Lenin, even Engels — as betraying his fundamental insights into the nature of class society. Those who do not restrict their consideration of Marxism’s relation to communism to the historical person of Marx himself find themselves compelled to choose between various legacies, heresies, orthodoxies, schisms, dogmatisms, and Reformation.

An overview of the major proponents of Marxism after Marx’s death in 1883 reveals that such figures explicitly sought to understand themselves in terms of their “faithfulness” to the tradition first established by Marx. Early on, a position of “orthodoxy” was claimed by those who understood their own work as building upon Marx’s theory by further applying his methodology. They thus adopted a kind of fidelity to Marx’s method of social analysis and revolutionary dialectic. Beyond the centrality of Marx, however, if he was indeed deemed central to any subsequent communist tradition, certain other figures were esteemed to have advanced his insights along the lines of Marx’s theory. These figures thereby attained a similar status in the regard of those Marxists who followed them. Continue reading

special issue on communism

Platypus Review № 54: Special issue on “communism”

Special Issue on “Communism”

The Platypus Review, № 54 [PDF]

1305823769_www.nevsepic.com.ua_doloy-kuhonnoe-rabstvo-1931-shegalVerso’s Pocket Communism series seeks to reorient leftist discourse by taking the idea of “communism” as a shared point of departure.  In this series of articles and interviews, the Platypus Affiliated Society seeks to host a critical dialogue on this subject in order to clarify the various positions and oppositions that are at work, situate them within the broader history of the Left, and evaluate their salience for the present.

‘Communism’ is still the name to be used to designate radical emancipatory projects. It is a name that can not only express the Idea which guides radical activity, but can also help expose the catastrophes of the twentieth century, including those of the Left.

— Slavoj Žižek and Costas Douzinas, The Idea of Communism (2010), pgs. viii-ix.

I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner.  On the contrary, we must help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves.  Thus communism in particular is a dogmatic abstraction.

— Karl Marx, “Letter to Arnold Ruge” (September 1843)

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself.  We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.

— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845)


Alain Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis (2010) The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis
by Chris Cutrone
And yet a very different set of historical periodizations, and hence a very different history, focused on other developments, might be opposed to Badiou’s. Counter to Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” which reaches back to the origins of the state in the birth of civilization millennia ago, a “Marxist hypothesis” would seek to grasp the history of the society of capital.


Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels
by Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe
On October 14th, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe both interviewed Bruno Bosteels, a Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jodi Dean's Communist Horizon (2012)

What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist Left? An interview with Jodi Dean
by Ross Wolfe
On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of Žižek’s Politics (2006) and The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Boris Groys' Communist Postscript (2009)

A remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys
by Ross Wolfe
On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, the Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986), Art Power (2008), and The Communist Postscript (2009). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Further reading:

Editorial statement of purpose

Taking stock of the universe of positions and goals that constitutes leftist politics today, we are left with the disquieting suspicion that a deep commonality underlies the apparent variety: What exists today is built upon the desiccated remains of what once was possible.

In order to make sense of the present, we find it necessary to disentangle the vast accumulation of positions on the Left and to evaluate their saliency for the possible reconstitution of emancipatory politics in the present. Doing this implies a reconsideration of what is meant by the Left.

Our task begins from what we see as the general disenchantment with the present state of progressive politics. We feel that this disenchantment cannot be cast off by sheer will, by simply “carrying on the fight,” but must be addressed and itself made an object of critique. Thus we begin with what immediately confronts us.

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring model Sputnik, Rome 1958

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring a model of Sputnik, Rome 1958

The Platypus Review is motivated by its sense that the Left is disoriented. We seek to be a forum among a variety of tendencies and approaches on the Left — not out of a concern with inclusion for its own sake, but rather to provoke disagreement and to open shared goals as sites of contestation. In this way, the recriminations and accusations arising from political disputes of the past may be harnessed to the project of clarifying the object of leftist critique.

The Platypus Review hopes to create and sustain a space for interrogating and clarifying positions and orientations currently represented on the Left, a space in which questions may be raised and discussions pursued that would not otherwise take place. As long as submissions exhibit a genuine commitment to this project, all kinds of content will be considered for publication.

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Remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys

 Ross Wolfe
Platypus Review
March 2013

On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986), Art Power (2008), The Communist Postscript (2009), and Going Public (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Ross Wolfe:
 In the introduction to your 2006 book, The Communist Postscript, you provocatively assert: “The communist revolution is the transcription of society from the medium of money to the medium of language. It is a linguistic turn at the level of social praxis.”[1] What do you make of the “communist turn” in contemporary left discourse, that is, the return to the idea of communism in Badiou, Žižek, Bosteels, Dean, et al.?

Boris Groys: It doesn’t seem to me that any return has actually taken place. If you are speaking now of the West, not of the East, then you have always had communist parties: the French Communist Party, the Italian Communist Party, every European nation had a communist party during and after the Cold War. So I would rather speak about a migration of discourse away from the framework of mass parties. These became inefficient, partially dissolved, and lost their influence and power within European societies. And now we have groups of intellectuals who are asserting their hegemony over the discourse of the “communist hypothesis.”

French leftist intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, 1972. Gilles Deleuze can be seen in the background

French leftistsJean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, 1972.
Gilles Deleuze can be seen in the background

But we also shouldn’t underestimate the influence or the intellectual and institutional power of the mass party. The communist party apparatus and communist press were very influential in France and Italy throughout the Cold War. And then, if we look at the intellectual trajectories of different figures, from Sartre to Foucault and Derrida and so on, all of them in one way or another defined his position in the first place vis-à-vis the Communist Party, much more so than in relation to capitalism. So if you look at the career of Badiou, for example, he began with a kind of Sartrean connection, but then developed a Maoist infatuation very early on, in the 1960s. His project since then was one of constant revolt against the domination of the French Communist Party. The Maoist movement, like many others from that time, was actually directed against the leading role of the Communist Party. Everything that we read now from Badiou and others comes out of this very early experience of French Maoism in the 1960s. They experienced the “betrayal” of the 1960s movements by the Communist Party, even though these movements had been partially directed against the communist parties to begin with. We can argue what happened in different ways, but my impression is that right now we have the continuation of an immanent contestation of the communist party that started much, much earlier — in the 1960s.

On the other hand, I was and still am very interested in the institutional and official traditions of communism. As with the early Protestants who saw the Catholic Church as the church of Satan, communists today claim, “All these decades and centuries of communist movements — that was not real communism. Communism will begin with us.” It is a claim that one can understand, but it seems to me historically, ideologically, politically, and philosophically problematic. All of the theorists of communism today say: “We start anew. We reject everything that came before. We don’t interpret or correct it — we just reject it as a fundamental failure.”

RW: Just as the theorists of communism at present would say that all past forms of communism were the work of Stalin?

BG: They reject Stalin in favor of the idea of communism. But how is one to access this “idea” of communism? To stress the immediate idea of communism is idealistic and neglects the necessity of dealing with the materialist side of communism. Communism is not God. One cannot be a Saint Paul of communism. Sartrean existentialism, Maoist event, or Deleuzean direct contact with energies, desires, affects — these all claim to provide an unmediated understanding of what communism is beyond any tradition, institution, or party. They’re direct, individual, ultimately involving only one person. That is a very Romantic, almost mystical-religious approach. Because, of course, traditionally Marxism has something to do with mediation and a disbelief in the possibility of directly grasping something like “the idea of communism,” or of experiencing communism as an event.

Portrait of Iosif Stalin (late 1920s)

Portrait of Iosif Stalin (late 1920s)

RW: You also argue that the emphasis on the “idea” of communism leads to “a modern form of Platonism in practice.”[2] What is specifically “modern” about communism?

BG: For me, Platonism does not refer to the possibility of immediately grasping the Idea, but rather to a demonstration of the impossibility of any such insight. What the Socratic dialogues demonstrate is the impossibility of the notion of a human being grasping the Idea because every course of argumentation collapses on itself. And this place of collapse is actually a site of power. If you look at the Platonic state, the philosopher-king is someone who actually manages and administers this space of collapse, the defeat of the desire for truth. Historically this site was the Soviet Union. What makes this a modern experience is the extreme scale on which it takes place.

We are living in a society that is split in such an obvious way that we no longer believe in the possibility of democracy, at least from a liberal perspective, because there seems to be no hope for consensus, which is the traditional basis of democracy. If you look at contemporary American society, or really any contemporary society, it is so fundamentally fragmented it seems incapable of reaching consensus. Such societies can only be administered, but cannot be brought to any kind of democratic politics. In the West, this kind of administration — in these societies beyond consensus — occurs through the market. But in the East, the market was ultimately abolished by the Bolsheviks. And so instead of being governed by economics, there was an emergence of certain kinds of administrative power practicing a language beyond consensus. The phenomenon of a language where no agreement can be reached is precisely what one can find in a very refined form in the Platonic dialogues. And the philosopher here is someone who manages language beyond consensus. What makes the Platonic problem modern is that it has became urgent and political, a problem of society as a whole, rather than of a small group of Greek intellectuals in the agora.

In Plato, the state is administered by the philosophers through an occasional application of violence, not determined by any consensus, because Plato understands that such consensus is impossible. So both capitalism and communism, especially in their Eastern European form, constituted answers to the insight that the French Revolution’s bourgeois dream of reaching a sort of basic consensus had collapsed. The dream had collapsed already by the time of Marx, and then even further with Nietzsche. As long as you speak about commonalities or “the common,” you remain at the level of reflection, which is fundamentally pre-Marxist. If you want to speak of politics after Marx, after Nietzsche, after Freud, you have to consider societies that have nothing in the way of common ground. Because if you look at the intellectual landscape before the French Revolution, and even slightly afterward, you find this kind of hope for a consensual politics or ideology. There’s a belief in a natural truth, a divine truth, a common truth, a truth that’s reached at the end of history. But a new, modern period of political thinking commences from a dissatisfaction with such truths. When the class struggle asserts itself the possibility of reaching consensus or a common truth disappears. How does society manage that? There are two models: the state and the market. They manage the problem in two different ways.

Crowds gather for Maiakovskii's funeral

Crowds gather for Maiakovskii’s funeral, 1930

RW: With management by the state being socialism and management by the market being capitalism?

BG: A socialist state exists only where the state has been liberated from the market — in which the market has been either subordinated or eliminated entirely. In a capitalist state, say, in the West, the state is subordinated to the market. So what was the Stalinist state? It was a machine for the frustration of everybody, in which the possibility of achieving the truth was excluded. And what is the Western market? The same. It’s a machine for the frustration of everybody, since everyone knows that whatever a politician says, nothing will come out of it.

RW: As an author of one of the books on communism for Verso: How central was Marx’s thought to the formulation of communism? Obviously there were pre-Marxist communists such as Saint-Simon or Fourier or Proudhon. And later there were non-Marxist (anarchist, post-Marxist) developments or articulations of the idea of communism. But with respect to your own work the question is different, I think, in that more than the irreducibility of Marx, it asserts the irreducibility of Stalin.

BG: I would argue for irreducibility of both, and that of Marx, I have summarized already. All these thinkers you mention — Saint-Simon, Fourier, and so on — proposed improvements that were based on the possibility of consensus, on the hope of reaching a common understanding, the insight that life as it is presently is bad, but can be changed from bad to good. Marx believes that such a common understanding is impossible, because of the difference of class interests. He was, basically, anti-utopian.

RW: But didn’t Marx believe in the possibility of a classless society?

BG: Yes, but only after all the classes are suppressed as classes, and this is potentially an infinite process. The traditional utopian communist ideal was based on a perception that one could take all classes, the whole population as it is, and proceed toward a new social truth. Marx argued that this wasn’t possible. For him, one has to start a war inside society, which involved class struggle. A classless society cannot include a huge part of society as it is and that must be therefore destroyed. Stalin’s insight was that a classless society is not something that emerges immediately, spontaneously, or even necessarily, after the abolition of the existing class system. The society that comes after the revolution is also a society that should be managed, which creates its own classes. Now the question is how one deals with that.

Marx starts his discourse with the impossibility of common interest. Everything else comes out of this. Insofar as you believe that there’s something — a “desire,” an “energy,” “absolute spirit,” whatever — that unites society as it is, you’re thinking along pre-Marxist lines. To adopt a post-Marxist lens, you have to see society as something irreparably and irreversibly divided. For this kind of outlook, the question becomes how one manages this division. How does one operate under the assumption (or actually the reality) of this irreparable divide? That is the post-Marxist problem.

Stalin and Roosevelt fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945

Soviet premier Stalin and American president Roosevelt
fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945

RW: To rephrase things slightly: Would you say that Marx’s thought is the necessary presupposition or the condition of possibility for communism? And then, conversely, would you say that Stalin is the necessary outcome of communism?

BG: No, I wouldn’t say all of that, for there isn’t any single answer to this question. Stalin is an answer. Is it a plausible answer? Yes. Is it a likeable answer? Well, no, it’s not. But it’s not an answer that can be ignored. The market doesn’t provide an adequate answer. Stalin doesn’t provide an adequate answer either, at least, not the answer I would prefer. But at the same time, I don’t believe that any answer can be sufficient if it ignores the question, and all its radical implications.

RW: Toward the beginning of your book, Going Public, you refer to “the period of modernity” as “the period in which we still live.”[3] You roughly date it, at least theoretically and philosophically, as coinciding with Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790). The obvious political correlate to this would be 1789 and the French Revolution. Are we still — or were we ever — postmodern? If so, how does this relate to modernity, “the period in which we still live”? Might postmodernity perhaps be reaching an end?

BG: Well, when I speak about postmodernity in my writings, it’s because other people use this word and believe themselves to have a certain understanding about what it means. Personally, I don’t think any such transition from modernity to postmodernity ever happened. Postmodernity has never really had any meaning as a concept.

Postmodernism was associated with disbelief in progress. But nobody in the nineteenth century who was intelligent believed in progress. Baudelaire didn’t believe in progress and neither did Flaubert, nor Nietzsche, or Wölfflin. “Postmodernity” was a way by which people came to understand what people already understood in the nineteenth century.

But perhaps it was only known at first by avant-garde intellectuals, elite circles of artists in Western Europe during the nineteenth century. When people speak of postmodernity, they’re really talking about something that was known before but now was becoming clear to everybody. From the perspective of artistic, intellectual, and cultural modernity, however, nothing has changed. And we still don’t know how to deal with it. Modern problems, as they were formulated in relation to art, culture, and writing, during the nineteenth century, remain very relevant and unsolved. The real change came toward the middle of the nineteenth century. It occurred with the collapse of Hegelianism, the collapse of European idealism amidst the industrial revolution, and with it, the beginning of intellectual and cultural modernity.

But almost as early as the disjunction between Romanesque and Gothic churches, if you will, you’ll always see these “waves” in the succession of European styles. So beginning with the Renaissance, you have clear-cut forms, geometrical models, and a certain kind of clarity or intellectual transparency. But then it’s followed by the Baroque period: by complexity, obscurity, and contradiction. Then you have something similar between Classicism and Romanticism. And then at the start of the twentieth century, there is the avant-garde, which lasted until 1926 or 1927. After that, though, there is this huge wave of embryonic postmodernity — historicism, Socialist Realism, Nazi art, the “return to order,” and the Novecento in Italy. But all of that was suppressed after World War II. Following the war, there’s a new wave of modernism — a neo-avant-garde that goes from the 1950s and 1960s, lasting through the early 1970s. Starting in 1971 or 1972, you get a kind of neo-baroque. There’s Of Grammatology by Derrida, a baroque gesture. So there are these waves in the cultural history of Europe, shifting from clarity, intellectual responsibility, mathematico-scientific influences, and transparency to opacity, obscurity, absence, infinity. What is the Deleuzean or Derridean moment? It’s the moment where they took the structuralist models, defined as a system of finite rules and moves, and made it infinite. It is precisely what Romanticism did with the Enlightenment, what the Baroque did with the Renaissance, and so on. Even in terms of Marxism, you get these waves. There is the classical period of clarity. Then there is a period of obscurity — Benjamin, Adorno, and the like.

RW: A related question: How would you say the Soviet project relates to the modern period? Do you think there’s any sort of link between what’s understood in the West — perhaps wrongly — as “postmodernity” and the collapse of historical Marxism in the 1970s and, after 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Is there any correlation between the post-Soviet moment and the general onset of postmodernity?

BG: Just as I don’t believe in “postmodernity,” I don’t believe in the “post-Soviet” situation either; rather, we are experiencing an intermediate moment between two periods of wars and revolutions. Today we live under the illusion of peace and free markets, just like people did during the nineteenth century, before the First World War. Our current mode of existence is very similar to the second half of the nineteenth century: there is mass culture, entertainment instead of high culture, terrorism, an interest in sexuality, the cult of celebrity, open markets, etc.

Before the rise of Imperial Germany, everybody in the West believed it was interested in capitalism, although in Germany everyone understood it was about war. That is what will happen again in the foreseeable future. In fact, it is already beginning to happen, in that we are actually witnessing a return to a state and military infrastructure. Just as after the French Revolution, there is the reversion to antiquity, and then a new medievalism with Romanticism, the infrastructure of our epoch will be contested, and this will start a new period of war and revolutions. At that point, we’ll remember the Soviet Union, and many other phenomena. |P


1. Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript (London: Verso, 2009), xv.
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Boris Groys, Going Public (New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), 10.

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