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Dark Matter, Black Transparency & the Aestheticisation of Politics

By Louis Armand.

1. 2pm, Sunday 21 August, 2016: the anniversary of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia [1].  A group of bearded militiamen, shouting “Allahu Akhbar” & firing Kalashnikovs, while waving the black flag of DAESH (the socalled “Islamic State”), suddenly appear on Prague’s Old Town Square. They scatter the crowds of tourists gathered around the Jan Hus monument & the city’s former Jewish quarter, causing a momentary wave of panic (every capital in Europe is on TERROR ALERT following the Bataclan & Charlie Hebdo attacks). The militiamen aren’t alone: they’ve brought prisoners, in orange “Gitmo” suits, & a camel. They seize women from the crowd, whipping those immodestly dressed & perform a symbolic stoning. As a mullah in white taqiyah declares Prague a caliphate from the back of a desert-coloured Humvee, the cameras snap…

The mullah, like every other aspect of this performance, wasn’t #fakenews, but he was a fake: the alter-ego of Martin Konvička, chief instigator of an ultra-right Czech anti-immigrant movement, modelled on Germany’s AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). Their DAESH-inspired raid sought to dramatise the threat posed by the “enemy at the gates,” should it be permitted to enter Europe by stealth, under cover of the Syrian refugee crisis. It was a perverse enactment of what the anti-Islamists claimed to be defending against – like a paranoia that “prepares its own terrorist plots, which it then prevents.”[2] Confronted by a “threat” predominantly constructed by the media (no visible “refugee crisis” in Prague, though plenty of paying tourists), the intent behind the Prague Caliphate was to present the unpresentable: to supply, in Lacanian terms, a fundamental lack – not mere simulation, but “real” obscenity, whose threat wasn’t to be vested in what it purported to present, but in the ambivalence of the very act of representation.

(Ai Weiwei, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Vase” (2005)

As a political stunt, the invasion of Prague’s Old Town Square had the virtue of getting Konvička arrested, however reluctantly, by the same authorities who’d permitted it to take place & who were unable, in the ensuing media fracas, not to appear complicit. As performance art, its virtues were more ambiguous, raising questions not only about the alt-right’s seizure of initiative in the domain of dissident & subversive action claimed by the avantgarde, but about the very legitimacy of the avantgarde’s ambition to abolish the “gap between art & life.” Beyond the Prague Caliphate’s element of farce, was a real manifestation of an extremism once again occupying the mainstream of Western politics & perpetuating real violence – no longer on the fringes, but in the uniforms of state security, on the streets & at checkpoints & border-fences. Neo-fascist parties hold parliamentary seats across Europe – their populist message & tactics strengthened by the impotence of mainstream social democratic parties on the one hand &, on the other, a far-left populism from which it is frequently indistinguishable.

More importantly, the alt-right’s re-appropriation of dissident & revolutionary discourse, married to a regime of (real or implied) violence, represents a crisis in the institutionalised culture of Western democracy, whose self-preservation strategies had been internalised to the intellectual & cultural milieu of avantgardism & cultivated as a productive form of homeostasis: a representation of radical critique, whose insurrectional force could be dissipated as “art,” & whose impetus could be channelled so as to fuel the engine of mass cultural commodification[3].  In assigning a symbolically critical function to the avantgarde, revolutionary violence was not only neutralised as art but, as art, enhanced the prestige of the status quo itself – as the perpetuation of an enlightened revolutionary spirit (through a constant yet stable “cultural renewal” of the democratic process, etc.).

(Daesh, Destruction of Palmyra (2015))

Within the institutional avantgarde, the revolutionary foundations of Western democracy – being dissociated from political life & reserved to mere aesthetic ritual – acquire the abstract status (like art itself) of an acte gratuit. Consider, for example, André Breton’s 1929 pronouncement that “the simplest Surrealist act would be to rush out into the street, pistol in hand, & fire blindly into the crowd,” in contrast to the 2015 Paris attacks – in which 130 people were randomly gunned down or blown up by suicide bombers. Or Chris Burden’s 1971 performance piece, “Shoot” – in which the artist had himself shot in the arm with a .22 long rifle by a marksman in the small Santa Anna “F Space” gallery (likening the act of being shot to conceptualist “sculpture”), in contrast to the Kent State shootings of May 4 the previous year – in which the Ohio National Guard fired live ammunition at student anti-Vietnam War protestors, killing four & wounding nine. Or Ai Wai Wai’s 2005 performance (recorded as a photographic triptych), “Dropping a Han Dynasty Vase,” in contrast with the 2015 video footage of DAESH exploding the ancient ruins of Palmyra.

These disillusionments of the avantgarde achieve something of an apotheosis under the post-9/11 conditions of the US government’s global “War on Terror,” hand-in-hand with the militaristic suppression & criminalisation of the anti-globalisation protest movement (Seattle, Prague, Genoa) – of which US & UK Occupy movements, the Indignados movement in Spain, the Greek anti-austerity movement, & last year’s Hamburg G20 “riots” have been presented as isolated echoes (according to a script in which protest is generally depicted as having failed due to apathy or demoralisation). Meantime, nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-EU, quasi-fascist blocs across Europe (Pegida, Front National, Golden Dawn, Fidesz, Poland’s Law & Justice Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, Ukip, the Slovak National Party, Kotieba, IMRO, AfD, Lega Nord, United Romania, the Czech Workers’ Party, La Falange, etc., etc.) have manufactured – like the Tea Party that paved the way for the Trump presidency.

(Chris Burden, “Shoot” (1971))

This “seizure of initiative” by the far-right hinges at every point on a logic of cultural decadence – above all a revolutionary decadence: the dissolution of dissent as “spectacle of critique,” critique as “art,” & art as commodity. It relies on the representation of real dissent as liberal-democracy’s “dirty secret,” suppressed by hidden conspiratorial hands manipulating the public agenda [4].  Its professed task is to “emancipate” discourse by unconcealing a “truth” whose self-evidence it then opportunistically enforces by every means available. Its denunciation of science, the judiciary, the media & all proof-based (counter-) argument as ideological, merely confirms that it itself represents something like a “return” of the liberal-democratic repressed. For it is precisely in the self-denial of liberalism’s radically ideological nature – boldly put forth in the Fukuyamaesque post-historical, “post-ideological” New World Order of cybernetic fiscal management – that the political obscenity of neo-fascism is affirmed, in the form of a “secret” that flagrantly exposes itself.

2. Between the performance of power & the operations of secrecy, the question of representation acquires a radically ambivalent force. While in self-proclaimed democracies the meaning of representation devolves – via principles of citizenship, habeas corpus, personal dignity – upon the concrete individual, this in itself has become an abstraction, seamlessly universalised in the distributed cybernetics of corporate “legal personage,” the “hidden hand” of the marketplace (as proxy for social justice), & the “collective agency” of global finance projected in the symbolic functioning of the State. This political dark matter stands in inverse bias to whatever logic of transparency underwrites those naïve views of social communication in which the technics of representation are as a window onto the “real” experience of “everyday life.” Such fallacies cause us to lose sight not only of the mystification of politics & the dissimulations of a power shrouded in secrecy systems, but of the convulsive ambivalence (what James Joyce called “ambiviolence”) at the basis of what representation is – &, by declensions, of signification generally, including of course its most privileged form: the commodity.

(National Guard, Kent State Shooting (May 4, 1970))

Secrecy, however it may appear, isn’t the opposite of transparency [5].  For it is in relation to the unpresentable that the secrecy/transparency dichotomy assumes its form as a political “actuality”: on the one hand as the guarantee of due process mediating (& being mediated by) the pragmatic functioning of the State; &, on the other, as their systematic disruption. Yet by the same token this subverts the very idea of the political itself, consigning it to a realm of “impossibility”: the “science of the polis” as representation of the unpresentable. And it’s within these paradoxical arrangements of knowledge & nonknowledge that the spectre of black transparency emerges: what we might call the political unconscious, or the political as unconscious.

During a press conference on 12 February, 2002, then US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld – explaining the conspicuous lack of evidence linking Iraq to the supply of weapons of mass destruction to Al-Qaeda – famously told reporters “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know… It is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” To which Slavoj Žižek duly replied: “If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the ‘unknown unknowns,’ that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the ‘unknown knowns’ – the disavowed beliefs, suppositions & obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values [6].”

(Abu Ghraib (2003))

These “unknown knowns,” completing Rumsfeld’s matrix of permutations (of which it, itself, is the suppressed coordinate), can be said to “stand for” a certain unpresentability of representation as such: the “pretence not to know” (as Žižek says) masking that which cannot be permitted to be shown, without subverting the system of “representation” itself [7].

This is where Žižek’s response becomes most interesting, pointing to the representation of a “secret” that disavows knowledge of itself while nevertheless performing its own revelation in advance, as the core of what Žižek calls its ”obscene enjoyment.” Reflecting on the photographs of bizarre humiliations & tortures inflicted on Iraqi prisoners by US military personnel at Abu Ghraib, Žižek made the salient observation that “the very positions & costumes of the prisoners suggests a theatrical staging, a kind of tableau vivant that brings to mind American performance art, ‘theatre of cruelty,’ the photos of Robert Mapplethorpe or the unnerving scenes in David Lynch’s films.” Above all, “recording the humiliations with a camera, with the perpetrators included in the picture, their faces stupidly smiling beside the twisted naked bodies of the prisoners, was an integral part of the process, in stark contrast to the secrecy of Saddam’s torturers.”

(Jonathan Hobin, “A Boo Grave,” from the series In the Playroom (2010))

To be clear: the “unknown known” isn’t itself a pretence. If “Abu Ghraib” shows anything, it’s firstly the possibility of its being shown – even more, the desire for it to be shown. This is its obscene dimension. Yet the dimension of the “unknown known” whose existence it is made to stand for in Žižek’s schema, is precisely that which, in the showing of the “Abu Ghraib scandal,” cannot signify: it is the secret kept even from itself. Not an unconscious knowledge (the unconscious, in the Freudian sense, cannot “know”), but rather the unconscious of knowledge, of which this “scandal,” this spectacle of revelation, stands in the same relation as a symptom. It defines that point where Reason “itself” (the State, the World Order) rests upon a rationale beyond its grasp (an “unreason”) [8].

Rumsfeld’s “unknown known” constructs an alibi, not for its concealment, but its revelation. Its analogue is the media frenzy around DAESH beheadings & American school shootings, paralleled by a #fakenews memetology that’s only too real – one increasingly familiar from Trump rallies, Fox News, White House press briefings, & their often surreal echoes across Europe & the rest of the world. This is the pornographic dimension of Žižek’s schema: the manufactured transgression of a taboo “secretly” performed in all its nakedness. As the accessible counterpart of that which cannot be represented as such, the “Abu Ghraib scandal” exposes a certain prurient dimension of “truth-showing,” in which the implied witness is both spectator & perpetrator, & in which the entire logic of media-epistemology is implicated. The revelations of Abu Ghraib, against a backdrop of impunity, exposed the ambivalence of that which knows within the Western system of political representation – for which reason it (both the revelation & subsequent inquiries) remained, like “American performance art,” merely une pièce de scandale & not a revolution.

3. In the introduction to their 2015 book, Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance, design collective Metahaven observe: “Much has been written about political transparency in recent years. Many authors appear to think that the degree of transparency in a system should be measured purely by the amount of information in it that becomes available to outsiders. How that information is released seems to be less important [9].” Black Transparency focuses on Metahaven’s work with WikiLeaks, its branding & various tactics for making classified documents public – from mass unmediated data-dumps (the US diplomatic cables), to mobilizing consortiums of investigative journalists to provide a critical narrative for leaked material (the Snowden files), to marketing & packaging individual items for maximum effect (the Collateral Murder Apache helicopter footage, showing the 2007 killing of Reuters journalist Namir Noor-Eldeen in Eastern Baghdad). The book returns repeatedly to questions of pragmatic manipulation of information economies & media sensationalism by WikiLeaks in order to produce a “shock & awe” effect to counteract that massive underwhelm produced by Freedom of Information & an all-pervasive redactology reducing the “right to know” to an absurdist theatre of nonpresentation.

(Max Ginsburg, “Torture at Abu Ghraib” (2009))

Like habeas corpus, transparency is held to be a basic tenet of democracy, in which government occupies a space between individual “rights” to privacy & the privilege of “national security.” Today, this position is better defined as lying between the globalisation of surveillance & the industrialization of secrecy systems, where “transparency” means civic compliance – according to the mantra that says, “those who encrypt are the terrorists.” This inversion of the principle of transparency raises anew the spectre of persecution against dissenting practice & of the denigration of the meaning of “civil disobedience” in the socalled information age. In the face of such threats, civil oversight is pushed into the shadows. Hence black transparency. “Black transparency,” in Metahaven’s formulation, “is a disclosure of secrets that aims to embarrass & destabilize their keeper. Originally an ethical imperative to blow the whistle on abusive government, it is not insensitive to the allures & spectacles of propaganda. [10]”  Disclosure of this kind, in its presentation of “real evidence,” in its appeal to a certain “documentary realism,” is never far enough removed from staged revelations like Colin Powell’s WMD performance at the UN, with its multimedia forensic paraphernalia & covert intelligence on show for the world to see. This is for the simple reason that as critique approaches the horizon of social transformation, or the transformation of collective consciousness – the “historical task” of revolutionary politics & the avantgarde – it draws into view a formal ambivalence in the discourse of “truth” (between disclosure & concealment; disclosure as concealment).

In WikiLeaks, too, we encounter something like Lenin’s exhortation to “always try to be as radical as reality itself. [11]”  It’s a formulation for a Realpolitik in which the logic of secrecy systems is itself the most effective instrument of a critique of a culture of secrecy. Yet also, in which the logic of transparency is the effective instrument of subversion of a “transparent society.” These dialectical parasitisms don’t, however, represent a deviation or perversion of some primordial truth, but a consequence – indeed a condition – of discourse itself. For the truth of discourse lies in these fundamental ambivalences (language itself has no ethical faculty) – just as the “Abu Ghraib scandal” is mediated on both sides by equivalent logics of representation: whether in the photographic spectacle of the prisoners & torturers or that of their mass media spectatorship, the official inquiries, the performances of contrition & deniability, etc.

This & not the specific content of the Abu Ghraib images – however disturbing – constitutes the “real” obscenity. And it is this disconcerting ambivalence that occupies the place of the “unknown known” – & from which both the disillusionment of the WikiLeaks project & the “obscene enjoyment” of Rumsfeld&Co’s licentiousness stem. It’s what provides the impetus of a certain “critical kitsch” – whereby the Abu Ghraib torture photographs are able to appropriate the status of avantgarde art (& to bestow upon the “art” derived from them not controversy but belatedness, poignance, triviality). Žižek’s contentextualisation of Abu Ghraib through reference to the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe [12]  points to the related spectacle of art’s vilification in a moral crusade by the same neo-conservative forces who authored US torture policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also points to a seemingly contrary movement within the avantgarde itself, [13]   in which tabloid sensationalism is appropriated and fed back into an economy of outrage and denunciation from which its ‘subversive’ value solely derives [14].

We’re not far here from the 1937 Entartete “Kunst” exhibit, staged by the Nazis to denounce the cult of modern art & its corruption of (German) civilisation. Like Sensation, Entartete “Kunst” exploited a logic of “degeneracy” as mass spectacle, inviting a seemingly paradoxical “obscene enjoyment” in staging the prohibited under the guise of denunciation, or staging denunciation under the guise of art. To produce this effect, the organisers of Entartete “Kunst” hung paintings by Max Ernst, Alexander Archipenko, Raoul Hausmann & nearly 100 others, alongside choice specimens by psychiatric patients & children, in an overcrowded & intentionally disordered space graffitied with denunciatory slogans & propaganda screeds that resembled nothing so much as a Dadaist provocation. There’s a suspicion that Entartete “Kunst” expressed – against the backdrop of Nazi revolutionary posturing – a desire to discredit competing avantgardisms so as to secretly usurp their language. By way of alibi, a coinciding exhibition was set up, the Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung or Great German Art Show, in Munich’s expansive Haus der deutschen Kunst, filled with regime-approved art.

(“Colourful Revolution,” Skopje (2016))

Famously, Entartete “Kunst” attracted three-&-a-half times the number who visited the “official” show, yet of course both were official (just as Abu Ghraib stands for both the US’s moralistic “War on Terror” & its advocacy of torture). This “masterful” appropriation of the subversive idea finds an otherwise unlikely iteration in the more recent “Skopje 2014” project for the reconstruction of the Macedonian capital, designed to erase the city’s “socialist modernism.” While the Nazi remodelling of German cultural consciousness assumed the outward form of an antimodernism, the construction of 20 “neoclassical” façades within the centre of Skopje – alongside a plethora of state monuments (including the very epitome of “nationalist” delirium, an enormous gold equestrian statue of Alexander the Great) – produced a hyperinflated postmodernism. Replete with red double-decker London busses & fake Arc de Triomphe, this parade of kitsch is reminiscent of nowhere more than Las Vegas & could just as easily have be signed by Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, were it not for a lack of conscientious irony.

Conjured into being for the avowed purpose of erasing Skopje’s previous reconstruction – a UN-supported project based on a design by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, following a devastating earthquake in 1963 that levelled much of the historic city – these multiple redactions in the social fabric produced, in place of a fabled “collective memory,” a collage of memes that exposes a perverse preoccupation with simulacra while sabotaging in advance any critique of its inauthenticity. When Francis Fukuyama proclaimed postmodernism to be capitalism’s masterstroke, he meant it in the same way: meaning the apparently unlimited capacity of commodification (the commodity being the “empty signifier” par excellence) to absorb & integrate into itself any critique whatsoever by inverting the conventional operations of subversion. “Skopje 2014,” Entartete “Kunst,” Abu Ghraib, the Prague Caliphate, all have this in common as an appropriative strategy. And just as Martin Konvička’s DAESH-inspired anti-immigration stunt was variously able to present itself as political subversion, performance art & self-parody, so the delirious kitsch of Macedonia’s renaissance equally serves as postmodern coup de théâtre, wherein the “truth claims” of its nationalist mythology signify not as history but as art. As the 2016 “Colourful Revolution” (anti-government protestors lobbing paint-bombs) went a long way towards demonstrating, “Skopje 2014”’s seemingly inadvertent postmodernism absorbed all attempts at defacement, integrating the protests into a living museum whose “monuments” were instantly transformed into contemporary objets d’art.

(Marco Zanin, “Chromoskopje” (2016))

Notes

[1] When Russian tanks had appeared overnight on the streets, bringing to an end a brief experiment in “socialism with a human face.”

[2] Metahaven, Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance (Berlin: Sternberg, 2015) xiii.

[3] Whereas, borrowing Benjamin’s 1937 formulation, fascism’s “aestheticisation of politics” represents a hyperstitional feedback from “art” into the “real.” Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1995).

[4] In the US, this conventionally assumes the form of First Amendment versus Political Correctness; in the EU, national “sovereignty” versus Brussels-enforced “internationalism” (i.e. immigration).

[5] To say that secrecy & transparency are complementarily coherent requires an understanding of the constitutive ambivalence in which “representation” manifests as either one or the other.

[6] Slavoj Žižek, “What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib,” In These Times (21 May, 2004): www.lacan.com/zizekrumsfeld.htm

[7] Of course this system is really a system of nonpresentation & vice versa: what “the Abu Ghraib scandal” shows, however, isn’t the place of danger (its real position in the matrix), but “where the danger lies” (in its equivocation: as Lacan says, the enunciation is never identical to the enunciated). Mimesis, here, always entails an act of contradiction within itself; of dissimulation in the absence of any possible similitude.

[8] This theoretical terrain is a familiar one, having served among other things as the background to the debate between Foucault & Derrida around the former’s 1961 study Madness & Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. See Jacques Derrida, “Cogito & the History of Madness,” Writing & Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 1978).

[9] Metahaven, Black Transparency, xiii.

[10]  Metahaven, Black Transparency, xiii – emphasis added.

[11] Lenin in conversation with the Romanian poet Marcu, during his exile in Zurich, quoted in Robert The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1951) xxiv.

[12] [1] And by association the Culture Wars waged throughout the 1990s by neo-conservatives against artists like Mapplethorpe, as well as his contemporaries Andreas Serrano, Karen Finley and Chris Ofili.

[13] One that begins with Warhol’s ‘Death and Disaster’ silkscreens and achieves its apotheosis in the 1997 Saatchi-sponsored Sensation exhibition in London.

[14] For example, Marcus Harvey’s ‘Myra,’ a portrait of child-murderer Myra Hindley composed of children’s handprints.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Louis Armand is the author of eight novels, including The Combinations (2016), Cairo (2014), and Breakfast at Midnight (2012). In addition, he has published ten collections of poetry – most recently, East Broadway Rundown (2015) & The Rube Goldberg Variations (2015) – & is the author of Videology (2015) & The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avantgarde (2013). He lives in Prague.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 1st, 2019.