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#3-27: The Great Method

Peio Aguirre /// From Method to Change: Dialectics in contemporary Art

1. The day Godard and Gorin set out to America to finish Tout va bien (1972), it seems the latter forgot his passport at home, while the former went to a bookstore to buy Bertolt Brecht’s Me-ti when Gorin warned him that they would have an accident. In the Rue de Rennes a bus hit Godard’s motorcycle leaving him and his companion (film editor Christine Aye) seriously injured. Godard spent several years in and out of hospitals. It could be called a “dialectical” accident, or the “logical end of 68”, or the last days of the Dziga Vertov Group. This affected the shooting of Tout va bien and months later, when they encountered Jane Fonda again, she had changed her state of mind to the point of “not working with men” and the film ended with no less difficulties.

1.

The day Godard and Gorin set out to America to finish Tout va bien (1972), it seems the latter forgot his passport at home, while the former went to a bookstore to buy Bertolt Brecht’s Me-ti when Gorin warned him that they would have an accident. In the Rue de Rennes a bus hit Godard’s motorcycle leaving him and his companion (film editor Christine Aye) seriously injured. Godard spent several years in and out of hospitals. It could be called a “dialectical” accident, or the “logical end of 68”, or the last days of the Dziga Vertov Group. This affected the shooting of Tout va bien and months later, when they encountered Jane Fonda again, she had changed her state of mind to the point of “not working with men” and the film ended with no less difficulties.

Some other witnesses from the period place the same book, Me-ti, at the root of Godard’s political films since 1968 to 1972: “In particular, they both had spent four years reading and discussing Me-ti. This was Brecht’s uncompleted book of aphorisms and personal and political anecdotes written while in exile in Denmark and Finland. When I met Godard briefly in April 1973, while on tour in the United States, both he and Gorin reaffirmed this book’s importance for them. When I pressed to know why, Godard replied that it showed the need for a cultural revolution.” [1]

It is worthwhile to see Brecht’s Me-ti [2] playing a role and it is good to know now, in retrospect, that book was particularly influential in the development of such an aesthetic, namely Dziga Vertov Group’s filmography, an aesthetic extensive to the whole dialectical cinema also named as Third Cinema.

Brecht’s Me-ti is the literary equivalent of an artist’s artist. This means that it does not only exists at a book in itself but enables upcoming works and encourages their production. It is not by chance that Godard and Gorin were attracted by a book consisting in a fictionalization of politics as a masquerade of key intellectual and political figures (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Plekhanov and so on) turning them into Chinese characters. Me-ti appeared on their horizon in the middle of their Maoist days, as they were deep into the digestion of Mao Zedong’s On Contradiction.

Basically, Me-ti is a compilation of aphorisms using the name of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Me-ti or Mo-tzu. The style of writing is based somehow in the Chinese moral and pedagogical parable-like form. The doctrine taught by Brecht’s Me-ti is The Great Method and its aim or aspiration is to lead society towards the The Great Order, the first being a keyword for dialectics and the later for Communism. The path is rather simple then: a hidden revolutionary lesson. It has been said so often that the dialectic is neither a doctrine neither a philosophy but a method, also that the principal law that governs dialectics is contradiction. It also seems that Brecht wrote it to demonstrate dialectics at work by emphasizing the experimentation of the formal, as if form would define its own content.

 

In addition, it is still fruitful to review Letter to Jane: an Investigation About a Still (1972), the film that analyses in detail a fixed photograph of Jane Fonda taken in North Vietnam as the most vivid example of the use of the dialectic, beyond the fact that a debt seemed to have been charged by them after the shooting of Tout va bien. I could be said that Letter to Jane is an “exemplary” film in the way it serves as a model (or example) for the dialectical as well as helps to set up the visual essay as a specific form. In the same way than Me-ti, it might be arguable that Godard and Gorin made it to demonstrate dialectics at work (and it is well know that these two films mentioned above were fully Brechtian in the same way that others were Althusserian, as Luttes in Italie, from 1970), or at least to show up the analytical linguistic strength to be found in the dialectical method (beyond the ability to create dialectical sentences in their own). The deep concentration in the detail allows the gradual construction of an entire system in the search for the cultural, social, political and ideological totality. So, here we have an example for the study of the dialectic intertwined with Walter Benjamin’s claim of reading an image dialectically. But what does this mean? And where does it lead to read an image dialectically?

The dialectic has classically been defined through some of its features, such as the unity of theory and practice, as the search for totality and its inner contradictory tendencies, as the struggle or unfolding of the opposites, as infinite process, thought based in motion, as values of quantity and quality , as the eternal return of the old or as the struggle of content with form, to name just some of its premises. Yet none of these definitions can fully hide the inner contradiction between the dialectic’s own mode d’emploi through stylistic devices, from the carefully crafted (dialectical) sentences to montage or assemblage techniques, and the global goal it serves, namely social change or final revolutionary aspiration. Even if both have gone hand with hand in certain concrete passages of history, it is nevertheless true that each one might have taken its own path in a kind of disjunction, giving dialectics its own afterlife in the postmodern.

 

There is evidence too that the recent documentary turn in current contemporary art has been somehow heavily indebted to a Western Marxist tradition where the dialectic is attached to the form itself as a method or technique, from Brecht’s “ethics of production” in his own playwriting or in the film Kuhle Wampe (or Who Owns the World) [3] (1932), to Benjamin’s other technological essay “The Author as Producer”. [4] This emphasis in the method (as in the essay form) leads to productive analogies in different cultural or political spheres. In art, this essay form applied to visuality and discourse has lead to a number of conversational practices where the discussion is shared and where the dialectic (as “discussion on dialogue” in which the truth is reached by the clash of opposite opinions) might just turn into endless speech production if not ventriloquism. In this sense, Me-ti’s usefulness lay in that it drew a parallel line with these theatrical mono-dialogues and conversational genres, which one can encounter in several performative contemporary art practices, from writing to art making, and from artists that write to art criticism.

Earlier, the reading of Fredric Jameson’s Brecht and Method [5] became revealing to me to the point of discovering at the same time Me-ti’s Spanish translation, published together with Stories of Mr. Keuner. [6] At that time, I was surprising not to have an English version of Me-ti (so I wonder if Godard and Gorin used to read the original German, of if there were a French version of it). These associations (from the methodological to the dialectical) were at the heart of our Great Method, a book with artist contributions and writings on the question of methodology in artistic practice. The focus was on the presence or absence of methods and their ideological connotations and historical backgrounds, the goal to examine some of the conditions that surround the production of contemporary art. [7]

The fact that artists were addressing this very question of method, or the existence of a “great” method, did not necessarily mean that the contributions commented or questioned dialectics. No. Rather, the aim was to form a whole (as a unity of form and content, including its design) that could lead to a reflection of the dialectic in an indirect manner. The Great Method also included excerpts of Me-ti as a guideline translated into English for the first time.

Thus, search and reflection on method differs from the dialectical method in action, especially in the discoursivity of contemporary art in our days. Method is everywhere, including the method of the non-method, but dialectics as a method is somewhere else. Whatever this distinction’s relevance in this context, there is a strategic necessity to search for artistic examples in which (in the same movement) theory and practice form a synthetic whole. Without its secret codeword (as dialectics) any reference to the Great Method seems little more that a formula for achieving or accomplishing. Someone (an artist or a curator searching for the magic pattern or recipe) might think exactly the same (in dialectical fashion), I mean, that everybody is looking for (the Great Method), but in fact there is no Great Method, but just the search for it. Or rather that there is not just one, but many, etc. Yet the question still remains: what is the dialectic and how does one use it? But first, how it is possible to learn what dialectical thought means in order to apply the essential critical weapons it provides?

2.

But for an instant, just recall Me-ti’s entire title, Buch der Wendungen. Jameson himself translates and refers to it (intentionally I guess) in an unfixed way both as Book of Turning Ways, or Book of Twists and Turns, whereas in Spanish the book is translated as Libro de los cambios, literally as “book of the changes”. Arguably, Brecht was referring to the other “book of changes” in Chinese philosophy, the I-Ching. This is also actually the second meaning of the dialectic: infinite change (and motion).

There is another artist who wrote an entire theory of art as governed by the law of changes, even though he had little to do with China, aside from observing the Cultural Revolution from afar. I am refering to the Basque artist Jorge Oteiza (1908-2003), one of the most powerful and original thinkers in the Art History of the 20th Century. Oteiza’s Law of Changes establishes the rules for an understanding of art as an entire process in history (from prehistoric paintings to the avant-garde). This Law of Changes explains his political commitment and his conclusion in sculpture as the final stage of his own formalization (around 1958-59) as the result of the end of an experimental laboratory phase in his art, after which he turned to life, namely the city (cinema, architecture, urbanism and more). He wrote than “a Law of Changes in aesthetic expression, which includes all the research on a new language within a logical overall scheme, whose goal was to show all the experiments that have already been accomplished and those that have yet to be realized. It allows one to follow a method, a certain order in the evolution of trends. It allows each trend to exhaust itself in its moment, saving time for the artist researching within it and permitting the total and relative time of the artist’s stay in art to be established.” [8] But this Law of Changes, with its totalizing aspiration of how historical processes realize themselves in art, also offers its own explanation for its inner aesthetic developments and mutations, as if in a biphasic curve, when expression rises a progressively growth, or expression is accentuated geometrically via formalization (convex), and then the contrary movement when there is a cease or decline in expressivity, a disformalization a decomposition or a back to a negative zero (concave), as a spiritual frontier where the artist begins once again. Oteiza’s account does not only come to the conclusion of his own end in contemporary art around 1960, but provides (as a typically dialectical totalisa-tion) a full theory for the end of contemporary art itself. Of course, art has continued since then.

Here, it makes sense to remember the dialectic as a vision of the world based in infinite growth and notice that this consciousness is to be found precisely in the open-minded historicity of artistic trends in Modernism, which followed one another in quick succession (from Impressionism to Expressionism, Constructivism or Productivism, Bauhaus or De Stilj and so on), creating an operational field for both theoretical and practical experimentation. It seems pretty obvious that such a position seems somewhat outdated for artists of today, risking obsolescence, when the recognition of a postmodern condition seems to be the accepted general rule and where the “art after the end of art” advocated from the last modernists in the 60’s (as Oteiza’s), and later adopted by the postmodernists has not exhausted the production of commodities but increased it. Of course, there are artists in where a receptivity of historical consciousness still exists, but whether or it is mainly a privative matter for making the work, or becomes a metacommentary of a older paradigm (with its neo-, post- and ultra- prefixes, not to mention current revisions of Modernity via the vernacular) rather than a collective, strategic shared mechanism for a larger transformation.

However, Oteiza might become a relevant figure in this context, because he aligns both the development of an aesthetic of Modernity in the middle of a struggle between the universal and the particular (ahead with its formal laboratory), with a strong political and emancipatory commitment that calls for a reactualization of the old “Brecht-Lukбcs debate” in between an aesthetic of Avant-garde and another of Realism. [9]

This become especially relevant when a certain Realism (and certain examples of the new documentariness are not far from it) appears as the univocal method for achieving the dialectic.

For example, in Oteiza’s “Dialectical Law of Changes: one divides into two”, he links his own Law of Changes with the revolutionary transformative and destructive quality of the dialectic, as he wrote: “For Mao, the dialectics of movement is not produced through synthesis but through contradictions (as in my dialectical pair), one divides into two, and one major contradiction follows another and determines the displacements. These displacements in my Law of Changes correspond to a series of secondary law of changes that cut and situate themselves along the temporal axis and that correspond to the different experimental trends in contemporary art, like a chain of contradictions, in which trends follow upon and destroy each other. The struggle between different trends is the motor behind these displacements, as, for example, the class struggle in the history of social transformations. Without a dialectics of change, without such a logic of displacements that ends in the destruction of all tendencies, these same incompletely experienced trends would survive eternally”. [10]

So here the dialectic is defined in its transformative mode, different from the insolubility of the Hegelian idealist dialectic. And all this he experienced in the formal laboratory of sculpture. When people in the artworld today hold speeches about revolution, this artistic discourse often sounds like the same Idealism, drained empty of any truly transformative aim, especially if it comes linked as the subject (or theme) for the next international biennial.

There is, however, a provisional solution for the application of the dialectic specifically in cultural and political local situations that might bring sparks for an endless alteration in a world in motion. With Brecht, Godard, Oteiza and beyond.

 

 

1. The first anecdote is narrated by Colin McCabe in his Godard; A Portrait of the Artist at 70, Bloomsbury, London, 2004. The second is a quote from Julia Lesage’s Godard and Gorin’s Left Politics, 1967-1972, from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 51-58.

2. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti Buch der Wendungen, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1983.

3. Kuhle Wampe (or to Who Owns the World?) (1932) is a film conceived and written by Bertolt Brecht, directed by Slatan Dudow and music by Hans Eissler

4. Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”, in New Left Review I/62, July-August 1970, online at https://www.scribd.com/doc/8059339/Walter-Benjamin-the-Author-as-Producer

5. Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method, Verso, New York / London, 2003.

6. Bertolt Brecht, “Me-ti Libro de los cambios”, in Narrativa Completa nє 3, Alianza, Madrid, 1991

7. See The Great Method: Casco Issues X, (edited by Peio Aguirre and Emily Pethick). Contributions by Peio Aguirre, Stuart Bailey, Ricardo Basbaum, Martin Beck, Copenhagen Free University, Stephan Dillemuth, Falke Pisano, Florian Pumhцsl, Wendelien van Oldenburg, Haegue Yang, Stephen Willats. Published by Casco Office for Art, Design and Theory, Utrecht / Revolver Verlag, Frankfurt, 2007.

8. Jorge Oteiza, in “Ideology and Technique for a Law of Changes in Art”, from a 1964 paper, published in the catalogue Oteiza: An Experimental Proposition, La Caixa de Pensiones, Barcelona / Madrid, 1988, p.

9. See the volume Aesthetics and Politics (Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernest Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Georg Lukбcs), afterword by Fredric Jameson, Verso, London / New York, 2002.

10. Jorge Oteiza, “Dialectical Law of Changes: one divides into two”, fragment from 1975, in Oteiza: An Experimental Proposition, p. 327.

 

Peio Aguirre is an art critic and independent curator based in San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain

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