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#7- 31: Tragedy or farce?

David Riff // Reluctant Notes on Tragedy

Ignorance is a demon, we fear that it will yet be the cause of many a tragedy
Karl Marx

1.

Not that I have anything against grand narratives. But the word tragedy makes me cringe, and not because this time is suddenly is out of joint with its mere mention, but because the context it opens is so imposing and at the same time so limited, like all great classical forms. The boundaries of tragedy – be it Attic or Elizabethan, Swedish or American – are historically determinate. And not just in the sense that they depend on a certain mode of production or its instability, but also in the formal sense. That is, the tragedy – especially in its ancient Greek version, as seen today – depends on closure. It is an ancient machine that still miraculously works, if its limitations are respected. Its “rhythm of sacrifice” (Raymond Williams) has to be timed perfectly, then it can survive even the most radical decontextualization.

Ignorance is a demon, we fear that it will yet be the cause of many a tragedy.
Karl Marx

1. Not that I have anything against grand narratives. But the word tragedy makes me cringe, and not because this time is suddenly is out of joint with its mere mention, but because the context it opens is so imposing and at the same time so limited, like all great classical forms. The boundaries of tragedy – be it Attic or Elizabethan, Swedish or American – are historically determinate. And not just in the sense that they depend on a certain mode of production or its instability, but also in the formal sense. That is, the tragedy – especially in its ancient Greek version, as seen today – depends on closure. It is an ancient machine that still miraculously works, if its limitations are respected. Its “rhythm of sacrifice” (Raymond Williams) has to be timed perfectly, then it can survive even the most radical decontextualization.

This remarkable closure of form is connected to the subject matter of tragedy itself: the central conflict between conscience and law, two perfectly legitimate ethical prerogatives. The tragic break marks the point at which both prerogatives fail. This failure can only be rectified through an act of individual sacrifice that provokes both pity and terror on the part of the audience. The sacrifice reestablishes both limitations. But the definition of humanity thus produced – the heroism of the sacrificed figure – will ultimately make the entire system go under. The tragedy, in short, is a drama of how contradictory limitations are reproduced in an all-too-human history that ultimately negates them. (1) I am taken aback at my own megalomania for even agreeing to write a text on such a closed subject. Is it possible to reclaim a form so bounded? Better perhaps at this point to remain silent. But even that is suspect. What chance does Antigone stand in the age of online HD “Battlestar Galactica”?

Of course you could say that tragedies are impossible in a world without heroes, where there is no Greek morality that could go under. The proletariat and the international are already gone. There is no other class that could disappear heroically, except, perhaps, in a procrastinated future, the bourgeoisie. And if we are still to believe Marx, a great connoisseur of the tragic form, this won’t be so much of a tragedy, but more of a ridiculous exit. “If the decline of former classes such as the knighthood could offer material for great tragic works of art, philistinism can achieve nothing but impotent expressions of fanatic malignity and a collection of Sancho Panza maxims and rules of wisdom.” (2) And really. It seems clear to most people from childhood on that the bourgeois epoch cannot produce epics, only episodes. The problem, basically, is that capitalism’s ethical and legal limitations are very different from those of the ancient Greeks. Again, Marx: they were producing “the human being,” albeit in a naive, almost childish form, we are producing for the sake of production, we are writing not poetry, but accountant’s prose. We can appreciate the beauty of that closed, limited production, but what we produce – and even worse, if we try to reproduce the Greeks – will look pitiful, pretentious and downright mean, capable of giving no other satisfaction other than a cheap and dirty thrill. (3)

2.

In everything I have written so far, there is a flatness and shortness of breath, a gold fish memory, an inability to see beyond a quick-and-dirty fix of affect. And that seems to make real tragedies impossible. Yet things are not that simple. The paradox is that most people get their daily dose of tragedy from things that are still so clearly structured and scripted according to Aristotelean poetics. That is, the miraculous thing – the great secret – is that those old forms still can afford so much aesthetic pleasure. And not only when they are received as a perfect reproductions. Their potency lasts even when the structure of the tragedy is taken over, even though its real meaning is invisible, dissolved like a lump of sugar in a glass of water.

Every scriptwriter, PR professional, and political consultant knows. Hook, line, and sinker. The audience laughs and cries; that’s the whole point of having an audience. But the limitations we feel, ultimately, are very much those of the medium, whose overall message remains affirmative, reducing everything to a cut-and-dry, quick-and-dirty fix. It’s all about the sheer physicality of gravitas. The sense of falling into the vortex and being saved and swooped up by some dragon avatar (4). The tragedy is reduced to this sensation. If you watch enough American TV series, you get an overdose of dissolved Aristotle, and that turns you into an an Epicurean. That is, you consume and enjoy so much tragedy that the affect wanes: you want to keep falling until you bounce into something, until the props and blurred out pictures surrounding the dramatic action inevitably become more interesting than the action itself. The gods that live in the intermundia, to whom one neither bows nor prays…(5)

Strangely, the place where you can best see the afterlife of theater is not on TV, but in contemporary art. Here, the props are traditionally in the foreground, but other older forms are also welcome, especially in the frame of big events. There is lots of performance and dance, but also film on the one hand, and participatory art on the other. Even if modernists and post-modernists alike always claimed to banish theater and literature from their art, it is hard today not to think of installations as stage sets without performers, but also objects installed at the center of attention and set into focus as “bare bone,” like what Hegel said about Yorick’s skull, bare matter that translates into the pure stage presence of a well-lit thing-in-itself that could be whatever carefully calculated angle from which you see it. (6) “You” in this case are the audience, and you are also on stage, because the whole point of exhibitions is for the audience to be seen against the backdrop of the artwork, where it performs certain versions of aesthetic enjoyment, collectively enacting a certain politics toward artworks that enact a certain politics toward life. (7)

If contemporary art is a “theater after theater,” the question is inevitably whether something like the tragedy might not reemerge like a mole on what is otherwise the unblemished countenance of contemporary art? It’s a stupid question, in a way, considering all the things I have just said. That is, why shouldn’t the general laws of the present mode of production apply here as well? On the one hand, contemporary art is always a little anti-climactic, even when it involves grandiose entrances and cliffhanger endings. On the other hand, it is post-traumatic, melancholic, absurd: almost tragic, were it not mostly about maintaining the illusion of autonomy, or to switch into Ur-Marxian mode, atomism without collision. (8)

Most exhibitions maintain this model, and that’s why catharsis is exceedingly rare, even in “pro-Aristotalean,” culinary, glamorous contexts, where each artwork is re-auratized and presented as what should provoke an orgasm of aesthetic pleasure: here, anything approaching tragic gravitas looks as heavy as a silicone implant, bouncing to the loop of a rhythmic moan; three second gazes that simultaneously reject the images they see while ooing and awwing and going “my god,” the post-conceptualist artist hovering above like an angel or a devil, whispering “I told you so, idiot, I told you so…” (9) More responsible art kills the possibility for tragedy with a no less commodified pathos. It bears witness to all the real political and social tragedies of the present; a memorial industry unearthing indices and producing accounts of how capitalist modernity drinks blood from the skulls of its slain, and how that violence is internalized and rearticulated as form, over and over again. Call it a choir that can’t get beyond elaborating the prelude. Which in turn is convenient to those who adopt the progressivist rhetoric of responsible corporate citizenship by providing a space for that choir of evidence to perform. Here, in the best case, we find an anti-tragic, anti-cathartic, anti-recognition of an anti-Aristotalean life in which you can piece together the evidence of tragedy from the evening papers: a spatial reinvention of Brechtian epic theater, perhaps, where a prehistory of the present permeates the dismal future. (10) In both systems of representation, it is always the others who die, as Marcel Duchamp famously put it, and they die elsewhere, one might add, off stage, at a great distance. That is, tragedy is a permanent state of exception somewhere out there, far from the less and less comfortable interior of the planetary petit bourgeois, who in the end, remains the real anti-hero and protagonist of the show, the real exhibit at today’s great exhibitions, in all her-his precarity. How could it be otherwise?

3.

I am coming to the close of a text that I didn’t really want to write on a disappointingly orthodox note. Namely, if there is any subject still worthy of tragedy today, it is still that of failed revolution. I am immediately sorry for saying this only now and not long before because actually, it now sounds like an exhortation for the defeated left to wallow in self-pity by reenacting every previous unrealized possibility of revolution in objects, installations, wargames, and songspiels then displayed to the middle class audience of contemporary art who goes home relieved that the period of revolutions indeed is over, that the tragedy of revolution, like tragedy in general, has finally exceeded its dual limitations, dissolving into a kind of overflowing Hegelian foam that is somehow everywhere. (11) That is the fundamental danger in the theater after theater of contemporary art. The point is not to give the audience a stage where it can see itself as a foamy collective subject that has survived a tragic-heroic age of revolutions, but to do something quite different. But what and how?

I don’t yet have an answer, but this is a question where aesthetics and politics intersect crucially, and one that has plagued the left since the mid-19th century, when Marx and Engels criticized Ferdinand Lasalle, the father of German Social Democracy, for resorting to aesthetic and political idealism when he wrote a history play on the German Peasant War. (12) The grandchildren and legators of Social Democracy are curators and contemporary artists, so it would be interesting to look and see if there is any geneological connection between these two ends of the ruptured historical continuum, but we are out of space and time, like at a session of psychoanalysis, and I haven’t even really begun to talk about the things that are really important and interesting to me and you.

Maybe just this: Marx accused Lasalle of “Schillering,” of idealizing heroes from a doomed class. He makes “aristocratic revolutionaries” into “mouthpieces of the Zeitgeist,” when he should have perhaps tried to look at the new social forces, at the vagabonds and merchants, the townspeople and the deterritorialized peasantry, and that would have forced him to “Shakespearize,” which would have been more than appropriate for a drama about the early 16th century. (13) Today, one could say that there is still a lot of “Schillering” going on, for example at conferences dedicated to the politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics, whose only real function is to uphold the doomed institutions that host them. Much of what you see is covert national revolutionary drama. Performed to confirm identity. Critics and artists spout forth Zeitgeist, while the public watches itself taking it all in, and the reality outside – the ultimate referent of most so-called critical leftists – goes on, untouched and oblivious. The contortions become more and more acrobatic, like the prose of this text, and then ultimately, it all falls apart, saved by the bell, as it were, like in the recent Chto delat video, where all of society collapses at the sound of a ringing telephone. (Everybody immediately reaches for their pockets.)

 

That was the Stalinist ending – the deus-ex-machina that would disqualify most ancient playwrights – but Marx’s “Shakespearian” concept of revolutionary tragedy will haunt us long after the bell has tolled, and it is presumably what this paper is supposed to be about in the first place, to judge by its projected title. Tragedy as farce. The Brumaire is a Racine play or a Jacques Louis David painting gone so horribly wrong, it’s not even funny. High priests are dragged with kicks and screams from their Pythian tripods by a horde of drunken soldiers, led by Louis Bonaparte, Daumier’s Ratapoil, the self-loving trickster who hides behind the death mask of Napoleon (14). Translate that into contemporary terms and you get plastic surgery performed on Putin or Berlusconi, and hordes of rightwing populists beating up on neoliberals, Russian Orthodox fundamentalists marching under the banner of Religion, Family, and Order to kill a Russian contemporary artist. The real tragedy is that they – like Napoleon III – came to power as the beneficiaries of a collapsing dual contradiction very much like that of the classical tragedy: the historical necessity of a revolutionary step on the one hand, and the impossibility of the revolution’s realization on the other, to paraphrase Engels. (15) This tragedy has no heroes, it is one where the choir dies, not because of the phone call from above, but because it just can’t open its mouth and say what really needs to be said.

Footnotes

(1) The preceding section is a sketchy retelling by memory of the section on Greek morality in G.W.F Hegel,The Phenomenology of the Spirit. 1807 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1977), pp. 265 ff.

(2) Karl Marx, I. G. Fr Daumer, Die Religion des neuen Weltalters. Versuch einer combinatorisch-aphoristischen Grundlegung. Review. Neue Rheinische Zeitung. No. 2., 1850. In: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 10, 246

(3) Karl Marx, Precapitalist Economic Formations. From the Grundrisse, 1857. Online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/precapitalist/ch01.htm

(4) I am indebted to Hito Steyerl for this precise metaphor.

(5) This entire section refers to Karl Marx’s dissertation “On the Difference between the Natural Philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus” (1838) in which, one could say, he elaborated his earliest views on art and politics.

(6) Cf. Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Spirit, 201.

(7) Cf. Tony Bennett,. “The Exhibitionary Complex.” In Thinking About Exhibition, ed. Reesa Greenberg, Sandy Nairne, and Bruce W. Ferguson, 81-112. New York: Routledge, 1996

(8) In the system of Marx’s dissertation, this would correspond to the atomism of Democritus.

(9) If pressed to give examples, I would probably let loose a cannonade of banalities: Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, Takeshi Murakami. Maybe even Anish Kapoor. It occurs to me that I am thinking of exhibitions I covered as a journalist in Moscow at the Garage Center of Contemporary Art, a place that could be considered as a kind of anti-tragic laboratory, its haute-haute bourgeois patroness as stolid, cold, and silent as Antigone, but lacking any moral claim other than that of money.

(10) Here, I am thinking of The Potosi Principle (Reina Sofia, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2010).

(11) Hegel famously ends the Phenomenology with a line from Schiller “Only from the chalice of this realm of spirits foams forth for Him his own infinitude.”

(12) For a detailed account see Georg Lukacs, “Die Sickingen-Debatte zwischen Marx-Engels und Lassalle.” 1932. In: Kunst und Objektive Wahrheit (Leipzig: Reklam) 1977

(13) Karl Marx, Letter to Ferdinand Lassalle, April 19, 1859, MECW Volume 40, p. 418, Online at: https://marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/letters/59_04_19.htm,

(14) Paraphrases from Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1851. Online at: https://marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/index.htm

(15) Friedrich Engels, Letter to Ferdinand Lassalle, May 18 1859, MECW, Vol. 40, p. 441, Online at: https://marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/letters/59_05_18a.htm

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