Interview with Boris Groys

German Art Critic and Media Theorist

Art critic Boris Groys is teaching philosophy and aesthetics on the School   for Design Karlsruhe, Germany. Amongst his books,   all in German, are   Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (1988), Die Kunst des Fliehens (together with Ilya   Kabakow, 1991), Ueber das Neue (1992), Die Erfindung Russlands (1995) and   Die Logik der Sammlung (1997). The following e-mail exchange took place in   response to Groys’ latest work titled “Under Suspicion – A Phenomenology of   the Media” which came out early this year.

GL: Strategies for cultural and artistic production, in your view, seem to   go in circles. All forms of expression, media and esthetic experiments have   been polluted, corrupted, played out. The pressure of globalization, to join   the free flow of opinions, styles and meaning is high. There is no other   option than to join the info market. In opposition, you have proposed to   pose the media ontological question. The overall presence of empty   signifiers is flattening all creative or subversive efforts and one of the   few strategies left you suggest is to question what is behind the world of   the spectacle. Wouldn’t it be better to remain silent and disappear   altogether? In your analysis, all imaginable answers seem to be caught   within the system. There is nothing left which cannot be deconstructed. Not   even Boris Groys. If neither elitist avant-gardism nor cultural populism   show us a way out, what does? Should your readers give up all hope and   surrender to good old European negativism?

BG: You are probably right: it is better to remain silent. But,   unfortunately, there is such a thing as curiosity. And I am, personally,   always very curious about the things happening around. And in the first   place: about how and why the cultural phenomena like theories, art   movements, certain fashions are emerging, moving, spreading around – and   disappearing. The question is not: Are they good or bad? Or: Are they true   or false? But, rather: Why are these cultural phenomena present in the   social space at a certain point in time?   It is being said that cultural products are spreading because “people” like   them. Or, they say: The cultural products are reaching mass circulation   because there is some power, money and influence behind them. But it is also   possible to say that certain cultural products are   multiplying and   spreading merely because of their viral nature. It is also possible to say   that the fate of cultural phenomena is determined by history, by being, by   language, by writing and so on. Or, it is possible to develop a   sociology   of culture as represented, for example, by Bourdieu. But all these theories   and explanations are themselves also cultural phenomena. So we still have to   ask ourselves: how and why these explanations are spreading in their turn?   It seems to me that some cultural phenomena are spreading around precisely   because the people believe – in one way or another – that these phenomena   are not just phenomena but that they give a deeper insight in the space and   in the interplay of forces behind the scene. If a cultural product is in   circulation, it is already an explanation in itself. And if this cultural   product is not getting any distribution, then there is nothing to explain.   This is why I do not try to formulate a new explanation. I am trying to   describe the conditions under which some phenomena thrive, as explanations   of their own cultural success.

GL: The subtitle of your latest book is “A Phenomenology of the Media”. I   was surprised to read that you are working towards a philosophical program   for the media, in rather traditional terms. You do not touch upon new   fashioned topics such as trans-humanism, trans-gender or any body-machine   matter. Which role do you see for the traditional discipline of philosophy?   Should reading of classics be encouraged or would you rather push new forms   of cultural criticism, which are not so concerned with the rewriting of the   few dead white male thinkers?

BG: The word “phenomenology” in the title of my book means only that I do   not attempt to give any new, different, personal, additional kind of   theoretical, scientific explanation of why certain cultural movements are   spreading. Instead, I try to show that every cultural product is an   explanation of its own presence and multiplication in the first place. So I   practice some philosophical, phenomenological epoch. It is a very   traditional gesture, indeed. But this gesture seems to me to be most   appropriate for the investigation of the cultural movements in the open   space. Until recently I was preoccupied with the processes taking place in   closed spaces like the museum. In that case, it is possible to formulate a   theory because there is a institutionally secured position for the external   observer of the cultural processes. In open spaces, there is no such secured   position. This is why the phenomenological epoch becomes necessary. It is a   way to introduce a position of a spectator into a field where this position   is not given from the beginning.   Topics like trans-humanism, trans-gender or body-machine do not interest me   in this particular context because these discourses believe to have answered   the question “What is behind being human” in a very traditional way of   “crossing the borders” between the human and non-human. That is, of course,   O.K. But the question of the spectator remains open here. Is this spectator   human, or non-human, or placed beyond this opposition? And in any of these   cases – how does this spectator knows about his or her own position in   relationship to this opposition between human and non-human? The only way to   know such things is to believe in your own theoretical discourse. But I   cannot believe in my own theoretical discourse – and I also cannot believe   in any other theoretical discourse. So the only way for me is just to   investigate why, how and under which conditions other people believe in   various theoretical discourses.

GL: Tell us more! How then do you write a sentence, or make a statement in   public, if you do not half way except it, at least as a temporary thesis?   Bringing up an idea does not automatically mean that it is turned into a   hermetic belief system.

BG: Of course, if somebody says and writes something it can always be seen   as a thesis. But, in reality, it is not always effectively seen in such a   way: Very often the people just don’t react, just don’t take you seriously,   just   don’t see that there is a thesis. So I am interested in the question:   What   does make somebody’s thesis to look like a thesis? My guess is that   you have to propose some insight, something which “goes deep into the heart   of the matter” to be taken seriously. Or, to put it in another way, your   discourse has to conform to the certain expectations, having to do with the   phenomenology of suspicion, e.g. with the wish on the side of the reader “to   go deeper”, to “get an insight”. By the way: If my discourse would   eventually turn to be a hermetic belief system for a greater public, I would   have nothing against it. Rather, I would find it very flattering.

GL: Could you explain the title of the book? For me, personally, “Under   Suspicion” has a somewhat dark, continental European connotation. You are   stating that it is the Other and its subjectivity which makes us suspicious.   Why is the Other associated with danger and a possible crime? You are   rejecting the “atheist” position that the world merely exists of empty   signs, with nothing behind the profane space of the media. Why does this   attitude results in paranoia, and not in curiosity? Suspicious of what?   Looks like a weird mixture of Calvinist and Stalinist culture of guilt to   me. Catholicism during the times of the Inquisition. Or the cult inside   certain leftist circles, where every act or expression is seen as being in   immediate danger of being appropriated by the System.

BG: Actually, I wanted that the title of my book should remind the reader of   the   crime fiction, Hitchcock movies or spectacular journalistic   investigations. Our media always try to bring an “inside story”, to allow us   to look behind the scene, to show us the places where “the fate of the world   is determined”. This is the context that is interesting to me – not so much   Catholicism and Stalinism. But, of course, religious or leftist, or, for   that matter, also rightist conspiracy theories are also relevant in this   context. And the atheism? The atheist believes that there is nothing behind   the signs. That is O.K. But for me atheism is merely one religion among many   others.

GL: I understand. Everything is ideology. There is no science. Facts don’t   exist. But which crime has been committed? I agree with you that the method   of deconstruction is based on the implicit presumption of a committed crime.   I like the idea of the media critic/theorist as a private investigator. A   fact is, though, that most media and communication students are not trained   to do this job. Media studies, as well as media art, are primarily focussing   on the (historical) structures of media technologies and its ever changing   platforms and standards. Information equals noise, that’s the consensus. Who   is doing qualitative content analysis, apart from a few linguists, activists   and investigative journalists?

BG: That is precisely the point that I tried to make in my book. The   technological characteristics of the media bearers, like TV, Computer,   Internet etc., are taken generally as a completely satisfactory explanation   of what the media are. This faith in the technical know- how is produced in   the people’s mind by a combination of a very naive interpretation of the   McLuhans “The media is the message” with a very naive interpretation of   Saussurian “the language precedes every individual speech act”. But how do   we know a priori what can be said? We have to explore, to investigate, to   use TV, Computer or Internet to find out what their medial possibilities   are. We can only know post factum how a certain media operate – and only in   a very preliminary, incomplete way. The technical description a priori does   not tell us anything meaningful about it. Nam Jun Paik used TV in a very   idiosyncratic way – not as it is “technically” supposed to be used. And that   is why his work is so instructive. But I must confess here that my book was   severely criticized by almost all its reviewers precisely for “concealing   the fact” that the public already very well knows how the inner core of the   media looks like – because it has all the technical instructions how to use   the computer, Internet etc.

GL: For decades now, cultural studies have emphasizing the “construction”   aspect of news, information, images. They neither represent Truth, nor are   solely made with the purpose to fool its audience. Media analyses are much   complex these days, and so is the perception of the audience. Do you see the   playful strategies of irony, difference, and multi layered meanings and   interests as a useless, failed project? Your statement that media are, in   essence, always lying looks to me as a somewhat populist, regressive step   back. Perhaps the cultural studies discourse has not yet been success   enough? Or at least in your circles, on the European continent?

BG: Well, it is not so important for me if the media are lying about the   “reality” or not. Let us suppose that they are telling the Truth, only   Truth – and nothing beyond the Truth. Also in this case, they are still   concealing how they do it – how they tell the truth. Every truth presupposes   a scene of its appearance – and conceals this scene at the same time. The   “constructivist” theory is incredibly naive because even if it does not   believe any more in the accessibility of the world outside us it still   believes in the possibility to explain how we construct the truth about the   world. But that is precisely the problem: We have neither access to the   world nor to our own construction of the world. We don’t know and we can not   know how we construct the world. Of course, we know – at least since   Magritte – that a painted apple is not a real apple. I guess that is what   you mean speaking about irony, difference and cultural studies. The problem   is only that we still don’t know what is the painted apple per se. Magritte,   Cézanne and many others tried to clarify that but they failed. My book is   not about the relationship of the painted apple to the real apple. My book   is about the relationship of the painted apple to the painting. And the book   states that this relationship is and must remain forever unclear – even if   we know what the “painting technique” is.

GL: In your previous, brilliant work, “On the New” you have described the   way in which new ideas and concepts are being developed and launched. “Under   Suspicion” could be read as a follow-up. Have you indeed developed “new”   ideas about the laws of cultural production, if I may ask?

BG: Our cultural space has a complicated topology: there are closed spaces,   open spaces and mixed spaces. In my book “On the New” I tried to describe   how the closed spaces, like museum, library, university, are functioning.   Being caught in the closed space, the people are interested in the open   spaces – in crossing the borders, breaking the rules, discovering the new.   But being   left in the open spaces, the people get more interested in the   closed spaces – in getting the insight, discovering the hidden, getting the   access to the forbidden. The closed spaces are the spaces of curiosity   directed to the outside. The open spaces are the spaces of suspicion   directed to the hidden inside. The insider is curious, the outsider is   suspicious. In our mixed reality, we are, of course, both because we are   always insiders as well as outsiders.

GL: New media, for example, can easily be deconstructed as a repetition of   the same old mechanisms. Still there is a lot of excitement, debates, and   not to forget economic opportunities for a great deal more people than   previously employed in the old media (and arts) sector.

BG: Well, but my question is: How are these old mechanisms look like? It   seems to me that the people working in the media – people like you and me –   are, as I said, insiders and outsiders at the same time. Now, the things are   moving all the time and, therefore, we are also changing our places all the   time – yesterday we were insiders in one respect, today we are outsiders in   the same respect, but maybe insiders in some other aspect – and tomorrow?   Who knows. But this permanent topological change of our cultural space seems   to me to be the reason for the permanent activity you are speaking about.   Every morning we wake up on a different place in the cultural space because   this space somehow moved overnight. And, of course, it makes us nervous.

GL: Anxious too, perhaps? Change as a danger, not a challenge? One can even   get used to permanent change, I suppose. Our globe is indeed going through   rapid, radical transformations. For example, one can easily accept, and deal   with the fact that the nature of media these days is lying in their ability   to (digitally) manipulate. There is no “natural” image anymore. All   information has gone through the process of digitization. We just have to   deal with the fact that we can no longer believe our eyes, our ears.   Everyone who has worked with a computer will know this.

BG: I think I am not so much anxious about what I am looking at. I am rather   amused by that. And, of course, looking at the things around me, I am not so   much interested if they are true or not. And I feel no angst about them. And   I am very little interested in the “real”. Actually, I am only anxious about   how other people look at me. And if I speak about the changing world, I   doesn’t mean the spectacle of permanent change taking place before my eyes.   I am perfectly comfortable about this kind of spectacle. But I am not so   much comfortable about the possible change of my own position in the eyes of   the others. Am I still insider? Or have I already became an outsider? I   guess it is just the inner voice of my Jewish ancestry: The way the others   look at you is changing permanently – and this change may be dangerous.

Boris Groys, Unter Verdacht, Eine Phaenomenolgie der Medien, Hanser Verlag,   Muenchen, 2000.