New Left Review no. 45: Unnatural History

Issue no. 45 (May/June 2007) of New Left Review is a special issue on “Globalization and Biopolitics”, guest-edited by Malcolm Bull. It contains my essay “Unnatural History”, which is part of my book project "History in Motion". It analyses current anxieties about climate change and genetic engineering—moving from Al Gore and Jared Diamond to Robert Smithson and Mark Dion via Hegel, Adorno, King Kong and J.G. Ballard. An extract:

“To some extent, current discourse follows Adorno’s deconstruction of the identification of nature with dumb, mythical being: mythical nature is itself already historical. But whereas Adorno also argued that human history results in another nature, in a return of myth, current conceptualizations of the new unnatural natural history often avoid probing the dynamic deadlock of contemporary cultural production in the process of absorbing the shockwaves of new nature—a process that sabotages possibilities for radical change even while signaling imminent collapse. The musings of liberal authors such as Jared Diamond are typical in this respect: comparing ‘ecocides’ in various historical and contemporary societies, Diamond tries to draw lessons that can be applied to the approaching global ecological disaster, but his comparative approach and focus on social, biological and psychological invariants robs the current situation of much of its specificity, and in the end we are only left with consoling ‘examples of courageous leaders and courageous people’ who did the right thing. For today’s liberals, the collapse of the existing order can only be imagined in biological and ecological terms; any social and political changes can only be minor adjustments. Even an author as concerned and informed as Diamond is unable to think beyond this limit.

"In public discourse, ‘the free market’ or ‘liberal democracy’ appear as a second nature whose collapse would be more dramatic than that of the physical environment; the latter may yet allow for some form of ‘business as usual’—especially for the financial and (therefore) genetic upper class. Contemporary culture is often branded ahistorical, as being marked by repetitious vogues and industrial nostalgia; this state would appear to be shattered now that history reasserts itself as natural history in a period of revolutionary turmoil. But even if the consensus now is that current global warming cannot be explained in terms of normal fluctuations in the earth’s temperature, the human and therefore social and political component of this development is minimized; man-made nature is naturalized, the new (un)natural history presented as fate. The truly terrifying notion is not that it is irreversible, but that it actually might be reversible—at the cost of radically changing the economical and social order.”

Image: Still from The Lost World (1925)

Texte zur Kunst 66: Kurzführer / Short Guide

In an attempt to reconsider terms that are used more or less habitually in current art criticism and theory, issue no. 66 of Texte zur Kunst (June 2007) consist of a critical glossary of terms ranging from “autonomy” to “dinner” and from “multitude” to weird”. I contributed the text for “event” (pp. 65-70). An accompanying volume contains exhibition reviews, including my review of Karen Kilimnik’s exhibition at the Serpentine gallery (pp. 54-58). Here is the shortish event text in full:


It is a truth universally acknowledged that we live in an event culture. The large installations in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and the media attention lavished on them; the “museum nights” staged regularly in Germany and other countries; the grown importance of art fairs and of “art fair art”: all of these phenomena contribute to making the term “event” ubiquitous. The events devised in the early 1960s by George Brecht and other artists associated with Fluxus seem far removed from such contemporary cultural events. Nonetheless, such events prefigured and indeed helped to inaugurate “event culture”, signalling the increasing importance of immaterial commodities in capitalism since the 1960s – the partial transition from commodity-objects to services and beyond, to services-become-events. But if the term “event” now triumphs as omnipresent label for this apparently dematerialized capitalism, in the 1960s it was the notion of the “happening” that proliferated. “Hippie groups, discotheques, PTA meetings, Rotary Club outings, a popular rock-and-roll band, a hit record by the Supremes, a party game kit, and at least to regular-run movies – all are called Happenings”, Allan Kaprow noted with wry amusement in 1967. (1) While the hippie-ish connotations of “happening” limited its life span, “event” had no such drawbacks. Once everything was a happening, now everything is event.

Notwithstanding the understated nature of many Fluxus event scores and some of their realizations, Fluxus concerts could garner significant controversy and media attention, while Dutch Fluxus artist Wim T. Schippers even had a TV crew record his “Event on the Beach at Petten”, which consisted of Schippers emptying of a bottle of Green Spot lemonade into the North Sea. This event was broadcast in a 1963 TV programme on new art masterminded by Willem de Ridder and Schippers himself; in making a deliberately understated and uninteresting act the subject of media attention, he suggested a fundamental complicity between artistic events and what Daniel J. Boorstin characterized as mediated pseudo-events. In 1961, Boorstin attacked the rise of news created especially for the press by politicians, corporations and their spin-doctors; such news he called pseudo-events. Defining a pseudo-event as “a happening” that is not spontaneous, but planned and planted “for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced”. (2) However, the events of Schippers and other Fluxus artists call the very possibility of drawing clear distinctions between authentic events and pseudo-events – a given for Boorstin – into question: by focusing attention on far from extraordinary acts and objects, they found Cagean truth in planned and scored events.

Fluxus events substituted the supposedly timeless, instantaneous perception demanded by Clement Greenberg with a work that unfolds in time; paradoxically, this temporalization of the work of art was also a de-historicization, and thus another form of “chronophobia”, as the historical succession in which Greenberg situated his “timeless” works was abandoned. (3) If Greenberg’s quasi-logical historical narrative was eventless, George Brecht in particular kept history at bay by focusing on ephemeral occurrences that might as well not occur, and need not be recognized or experienced by another person. By contrast, since the 1980s Alain Badiou has sought to move beyond impoverished notions of historical necessity – which characterized the thinking of some of the protagonists of the political movements of the late Sixties just as much as that of Greenberg, the former Trotzkyist – by focusing on “historical” events. Badiou mentions his “incorporation” into the event of May 68 as a decisive factor in propelling to elaborate his theory of the truth-event that shatters a situation, a status quo ruled by a certain order of knowledge. (4) Such events cannot be predicted or brought about intentionally; one may find oneself in an event, or more likely after the event, but in both cases one has to decide that the event is taking place or has taken place. As an event that upset the symbolic order of the time, May 68 continues to demand loyalty – fidelity to the events – from those who choose to accept it as event, and in this way constitute themselves as subjects.

However, May 68 seems to question one of the central tenets of Badiou's overtly Platonic philosophy, namely that truth-events are only enabled within one of four “generic procedures”: politics, science, art and love. While one may well argue that, from the French Commune to May 68, revolutions have tended to marginalize artistic production sensu strictu, one of the aims of the event(s) of “1968” was precisely the total reconstruction of politics, love, and art – as well as science, which had to be politicized and socialized. While the problematic nature of such a project is now clearly apparent, it is nonetheless telling that “May 68” continues to haunt at least the domains of art and politics – the former in films such as “Les Amants réguliers” and exhibitions and publications concerning the Situationist International, the latter in endless debates about the alleged damage done to society by the “generation of 1968”.

As nostalgic as some of these discussions, films, exhibitions and books may be, they still retain some memory of attempts to transcend Badiou’s cherished divisions. The same can be said of art-world events like Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall installations and nocturnal openings of museums: even in the compromised and instrumentalized forms of sociability thus generated, the improbable possibility of a more than purely artistic event is commemorated. The distinction between art events and other events may be as treacherous as that between genuine events and pseudo-events.


1 Allan Kaprow, “Pinpointing Happenings” (1967), in: Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (ed. Jeff Kelley), Berkeley / Los Angeles / London 1993, p. 84.
2 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), New York 1992, p. 11.
3 See also Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, Cambridge, Mass./Boston 2004.
4 Alain Badiou in conversation with Lauren Sedofsky, “Matters of Appearance”, in: Artforum XLV, no. 3 (November 2006), p. 253. See also Badiou, L’Être et l’événement (1988) and Logique des mondes (2006). Žižek has emphasized that there are also “historical pseudo-events”, such as the rise of Nazism, which preserve the extant power relations even while appearing revolutionary; see Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, London/New York 1999, p. 131.

Image: Wim T. Schippers, Event on the Beach at Petten (Manifestatie op het strand te Petten), 1963.

Essay in critical reader "Citizens and Subjects"

Citizens and Subjects: The Netherlands, for example (co-edited by Rosi Braidotti, Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova) is the reader accompanying the Dutch pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. “The critical reader Citizens and Subjects: The Netherlands, for example is a site where issues of fear, anxiety and (illegal) immigration - but also cultural resistance and emancipation - are discussed through the example of the Netherlands, which stands here as neither a particular nor universal case for discussing the so-called western condition. It asks how art and artists can react to these issues and what possibilities they can create to see things differently. The reader is co-edited by philosopher Rosi Braidotti, curator and writer Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova." My contribution, “Art and the New Image Wars” (pp. 159-173), investigates the renewed religious contestation of images, of the spectacle. Modern art and theory secularized and thus radically transformed the monotheistic rejection of idolatry; monotheistic “idolatry critique” was pried from its dogmatic context, used reflexively and frequently turned against monotheism itself. How do (or can) art and theory react to the increasing resacralization of the critique of images, which marks contemporary culture? The article discusses works by a number of artists, including De Rijke/De Rooij, Fransje Killaars, Krijn de Koning and Gert Jan Kocken and Lidwien van de Ven.

A slightly different version of this text, which is part of a more extensive project that will result in a book, was published under the title “Idolatry and Its Discontents” in New Left Review no. 44 (March-April 2007), pp. 107-119: Someone has put the entire text online here:

Image: Fransje Killaars, Figures no. 4 (2006).