Postmodernism and The Trail of the Floating Signifier

THEORIES OF THE POSTMODERN

From Mauss to Lévi-Strauss to Lacan, the Signifier Floated

The search for origins are always futile but the process often turns up interesting moments in time. For example, when did Postmodernism begin? The answer depends upon the place one looks. If one looks at art, one might ask did Postmodernism or the challenges to to the hegemony of Modernism being with Marcel Duchamp? With Neo-Dada? With Architecture? On the other hand, if one simples the search and asks something much more simple: when was the term first used, then it is possible to locate, not an artificial “beginning” but a gradual dawning that a shift had taken place. An idea is being expressed, a discourse is being formed when a term is coined. In 1998 Perry Anderson pointed out in The Origins of Postmodernism that the word “postmodernism” was coined, not in the cafés of Paris but in Spain, which, as he said, was also the origin of the term “modernism.” As Anderson wrote,

We owe the the coinage of “modernism” as an aesthetic moment to a Nicaraguan poet, writing in a Guatemalan journal, of a literary encounter in Peru. Rubén Darío’s initiation in 1890 of a self-conscious current that took the name of modernismo drew on successive French schools–romantic, parnassian, symbolist–for a “declaration of cultural independence” from Spain that set in motion an emancipation from the past of Spanish letters themselves, inthe chhort of the 1890s…So too the idea of a “postmodernism” first surfaced in the Hispanic inter-world of the 1930s, a generation before its appearance in England or America. It was..Frederico de Onis, who struck off the term postmodernismo. He used it to describe a conservative reflux within modernism, itself: one which sought refuge from its formidable lyrical challenge in a muted perfectionism of detail and ironic humour, whose most original feature was the newly authentic expression it afforded women..

The interesting detail in Anderson’s book is that the Spanish postmodernism was a reaction against the voices of women, for one of the major critiques of Postmodernism was the way in which the intellectuals pulled away from confronting authority except in the erudite world of theory. The fact that Postmodernism surfaced in the scholarly world as a word and as a practice at the same time as a political backlash against women and people of color and a marginalization of gays and lesbians broke out in America is a confluence that was probably entirely coincidental. As was pointed out in several of the earlier posts, the French and German writings that became part of “Postmodernism” were translated into English and were dispersed in a random fashion, often twenty years behind the original publication. That said, the impact of Postmodernism was to stop the forward motion of the arts, a movement that might have benefited women and other groups pushed to the edges and to bring back the canon of the great white males. So to play on the famous statement by Audra Lorde (1934-1992) “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”, the master’s tools were used to redirect attention towards the master’s house.

The pluralism celebrated in Postmodernism is not the pluralism of cultural expressions that were non-canonical; instead the Postmodern pluralism was more a cacophony of white male precursors in the arts and philosophy. The plural reiteration of the canon was inevitable, for, in order for one’s quote or appropriation cannot be understood if the borrowed motif is not recognized. Pushed to the sidelines, the works of the Other were also sidelined and were ineffective tools to undermine the older generation. Therefore, the Postmodern system of challenge and its condition of belatedness was self-defined as acknowledging the precursors–they had already thought it all, said it all, made it all–and there is now, in this post time, nothing left but muteness. In fact, lacking the engines of progress, Postmodern was very passive and resigned and like the politics of the eighties looked backwards.

Resigned to the idea that there was no way out of the prevailing capitalist system, accustomed to the work of art as being a commodity, Postmodernism made peace with the world of commodity fetishism and commercialism. Because of its proximity to mass culture and its acceptance of so-called low art, Postmodernism was a bridge between high art and life. Postmodernism erased hierarchies, opening the way for an acceptance of street art at the same level as, for example Robert Rauschenberg, who married art to life. The new ideal in Postmodernism was not elitism but difference–the free-floating signifiers, signifiers emancipated from the tyranny of the referent, both the sign and the signified. Signifiers become unconditioned by their supposed “place” in the structure. This pure play of difference is, as the Postmodern theorist, Richard Wolin, expressed it in his 1984-85 article in Telos, “Modernism vs. Postmodernism,” a liberation from the ideal of a rational and coherent ego, existing at the expense of the Other which it suppresses. Like Julia Kristeva, Wolin was interested in one of the two major elements that destabilized language: the subverting power of the semiotic or the unauthorized incursion of Otherness into language. But there is another destabilizing aspect to difference and that is the mobilized signifier which floats and in its arbitrary journeys also destabilized the structure.

In returning to the impossibility of finding origins, it is interesting to try to track back on terms and to revisit the mindset that gave rise to new ideas. Like the suppressed Other, the floating signifier is defined in terms of excess or surplus. The term “floating signifier” surfaced early in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) in his work on Marcel Mauss (1872-1950). Mauss had written a significant book Essay sur le don (1923–24) which was not translated into English until 1954 and this book became the site where Lévi-Strauss would begin to rethink his approach to anthropology. The trail of the “floating signifiers” went back to the first part of the 20th century, a time where the concept of “primitivism” flourished and there was an avant-garde fascination for the exotic and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) used sociology to examine tribal societies. While the Surrealists followed this Eurocentric trail of the apparently “irrational,” the nephew of Durkheim, Marcel Mauss amassed an unsurpassed body of knowledge about non-Western societies and cultures.

Mauss seems to have been a brilliant hoarder and collector and teacher who knew much but published little. However, his short essay, “The Gift,” would, thanks to the analysis of Lévi-Strauss, echo throughout French thought. According to Patrick Wilcken in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology, it was Mauss who, after the death of his uncle, established the Institut d’enthnologie in 1926. Although in its time, this Institute was ahead of its time, by the 1940s, when Lévi-Strauss was lecturing there, French anthropology was sadly out of date. But Lévi-Stauss began to create a circle of French intellectuals who were working to rebuilt French scholarship after the war. He met Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) who was trying to recover from years of not writing in protest the the occupation. It is well established that it was Lévi-Stauss who introduced Lacan to the ideas of Jakobson, enabling Lacan to “return to Freud” through Ferdinand de Saussure and Structuralism. But first, how did Lévi-Stauss in the early 1940s ever put together Freud, Structuralism and Marcel Mauss?

The scholarly work of Lévi-Strauss had been interrupted by the Second World War and, being Jewish, he found safety in New York City in 1941. With his dissertation, “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” still undefended, he began teaching at the New School of Social Research where he was undoubtedly a colleague of the much more established scholar Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). But it would not be Arendt who would impact his later work; that individual would be Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), also an émigré from Russia via the Prague School. Jakobson, a far more senior and well-established scholar, taught at Columbia during those exile years and his theories on the structural analysis of language would have a foundational impact on Lévi-Strauss.

When Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris and resumed his scholarly life, he was able to both defend and to publish “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” in 1949, but already he could see that the methods he used to study kinship–organizational charts–were too limited and had reached a dead end. However, the book was a landmark and Jean-Paul Sartre made sure that it was introduced to the French intellectual scene in his journal, Les temps modernes. Simone de Beauvoir reviewed Les Structures élémenataires, opening with the famous line, “For a long time French sociology has been slumbering; Lévi-Strauss’s book, which marks it dazzling awakening must be hailed as a major event.” Lévi-Strauss had hoped that a man he considered to be his predecessor in this field, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) would be his advisor, but when he had returned to Paris after the war, Mauss did not recognize him. The old scholar would leave behind a pile of unpublished works and apparently Lévi-Strauss felt some obligation to the legacy of a man who had once occupied a chair in the History of the Religions of Uncivilized Peoples.

Clearly, the unfinished rendezvous with Mauss and the ideas of Jakobson on Structuralism were on his mind when Lévi-Strauss was given the same (renamed) chair once occupied by Mauss at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and it is a this point that Lévi-Strauss moved away from the study of kinship to the study of religion as anthropology. In 1950 this change of direction was announced as it were with his publication of Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. Lévi-Strauss re-read Mauss through the lens of Structuralism and in so doing laid out some of the basic concepts of Postmodernism. In this book Lévi-Strauss laid out three key points in introducing the writings of Mauss, explained by Christopher Johnson in his 2003 book, Claude-Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years. According to Johnson, “structuralism seems to emerge as the logical point of conclusion of Mauss’s work.” Lévi-Strauss made three points: first that society was to be defined as symbolic systems, and second that these symbolic systems were modes of representations which existed at “deep-level” structures of the mind and this unconscious is revealed by structural linguistics. The third conclusion that Lévi-Strauss came to was an unexpected one: an idea of surplus of signification and a “floating signifier.”

The slippery term, “floating signifier,” was inspired by another slippery term used by Marcel Mauss, “mana.” In a gift society, the giving of the gift generates mana also called “hau” which indicate the power of the gift. Pierre Bourdieu would take this idea and translate it as “symbolic capital.” Mana is the excess or surplus meaning of the gift, which is not simply an object or service exchanged, it is part of a complete or total presentation, an expression of the entire culture. Therefore, by expressing the entire society, the gift, as part of a whole, functions metonymically. The giver, through the gift, has the power–through the surplus meaning of mana to move and change society due to the rich surplus symbolization of the gift. As Lévi-Strauss explained it, “The nature of society is to express itself symbolically in its customs and its institutions; normal modes of individual behavior are, on the contrary, never symbolic in themselves: they are the elements out of which a symbolic system, which can only be collective, builds itself.” In other words, symbolic systems are definitionally overdetermined.

This overdetermination comes from the way in which Lévi-Strauss conceived of the unconscious of language: if human beings have always been endowed with the a priori ability to symbolize, then as he explained, “..language can only have arisen all at once. Things cannot have begun to signify gradually..a shift occurred from a stage where nothing had meaning to another stage where everything had meaning…that radical change has no counterpart in the field of knowledge, which develops slowly and progressively…So there is a fundamental opposition, in the history of the human mind, between symbolism, which is characteristically discontinuous, and knowledge, characterized by continuity.”

Knowledge, as Lévi-Strauss explained it is able to keep signifiers and signifieds in check: “the work of equalizing of the signifier to fit the signified,” but symbolism is part of a “signifier-totality”..“he is at a loss to know how to allocate to a signified..There is always a non-equivalence or ‘inadequation’ between the two, a non-fit and over spill..So, in man’s efforts to understand the world, he always disposes of a surplus of signification..” Lévi-Strauss explains this surplus as “Supplementary ration” and links this surplus to “mana type” of symbolic thinking, which “represent nothing more or less than that floating signifier which is the disability of all finite thought “ to “staunch” or “control” it. He states that mana is the expression of a semantic function, whose role is to enable symbolic thinking “to operate despite the contradiction inherent in it.” Mana is structure in terms of antinomies–the gift is concrete but the system in which is operates is abstract. As a result, mana “is all of those things” because “it is none of those things” and therefore exists as “a symbol in its pure state,” meaning that “it would just be a zero symbolic value..a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains..”

Lévi-Strauss had an ambivalent attitude towards Les Structures élémenataires, much like an seasoned scholar would look back on the effort that formed a life’s work: with great affection but with a clear eye to its deficiencies. However, there was a key element in his analysis of kinship that inspired further interest in Sigmund Freud: his critique of Freud’s assertion of the incest taboo. It would be Jacques Derrida who would take up Lévi-Strauss’s discussion and find its inherent contradictions, but Lévi-Strauss approached Freud not so much in terms of his theories of a “cure” but in terms of his theories of the mind. In doing so, Lévi-Strauss combined anthropology and psychology and structuralism in an effort to make the symbolic actions of human beings make sense. The son of Ferdinand de Saussure, Raymond de Saussure (1894-1971) was a close associate. Saussure’s book La méthode psychanalytique had a preface written by Freud himself in 1922. Obviously, Saussure was the bridge between linguistics and psychology and Lévi-Strauss began to study the power of symbolic narratives told by shamans, using Freudian ideas of unconscious structures. This stage of Lévi-Strauss’s work would mature into his seminal work, Mythologies, but it would profoundly shape the ideas of Lacan in his own re-reading of Freud through structuralism: “The Mirror Stage.” In his article “Sociology before Linguistics: Lacan’s Debt to Durkheim,” Stephen Michelman, in the 1996 book, Disseminating Lacan, wrote,

“..I will maintain that the French tradition of sociology and social anthropology play the determinative role in the development of Lacan’s mature thought that it is not a theory of the sign but a new picture of the social that constitutes one of Lacan’s major contributions to analytic theory..” Michelman pointed out that Lacan seemed to have a general knowledge of the anthropological and sociological ideas of Dukheim, Malinowski, Frazer and Mauss, “..it is not until Lévi-Strauss’s programatic Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950) that Lacan is able to appreciate–and begin to appropriate–the full scope and ambitions of the anthropologist’s approach. His passage from an “imaginary” to a “symbolic” conception of psychoanalytic action thus involves less any clinical or technical discovery than a gradual but momentous shift in perspective in regard to already established material: rather than any precise doctrine, Lévi-Strauss provides Lacan with a sociological framework…it is Lévi-Strauss’s polemical Introduction to Mauss that makes a lasting impression on Lacan.”

Lacan was able to appropriate Lévi-Strauss’s idea of the floating signifier as being a repository for the yet unnamed and un articulated and suggest that the floating signifier becomes a way for the child to control the entry into the symbolic order. For Lacan, the floating signifier is the “pure signifier” and in displacing the idea of mana as a pure signifier or as symbolic thinking itself, he is using the concept to explain that the child becomes socialized or enters the social through using language symbolically. Lacan, apparently concerned about these freely floating elements, stated that, at some point, they would have to fix themselves at some given points de capition, or signifying sites. Jacques Derrida, as discussed in another post, will have none of this idea of points de capition, and Jean-François Lyotard will also critique Lacan’s approach to the signifier. Indeed, Lacan introduced the bar to separate the signifier and the signified, putting the signifier on top to demonstrate its ascendency over that which is signified. Lacan completely destabilized the careful architecture of Structuralism, replacing it with some kind of mad math or algorithms.

The signifier floats to another signifier as the signified, below the bar slips and slides and floats below while the signifiers flow above. There is an endless relay or a chain of signifiers but there is no conceivable end to the activity of language. If the signifier and the signified merge–the flow is stopped–metaphor (sense) emerges (from non-sense) and meaning is fixed. However, the signified is metonymy and in contrast to the wholeness of the metaphor is the annihilating part, because, as Lacan asserted, going back to Lévi-Strauss, the signifier means nothing. As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen explained in his 1991 book on Lacan, The Absolute Master, this kind of signifier is the symptom or the dream, not the prefabricated signifier already ready already in use. In layering the signifier and the signified, Lacan was also indebted to Saussure’s idea of the floating kingdoms of ideas and sounds that lie one on top of the other and produce signs. For Lacan, the signifiers and the signifieds, float and slide, and always, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy explained in their 1973 book, The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan, the signifier is the victim. Since the points de capition is only mythical, the endless movement becomes that of the making of language itself.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Post-Colonial Theory: Frantz Fanon

POST-COLONIAL THEORY

PART TWO: FRANTZ FANON

Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth

Since the voyages of Columbus, Europeans sought out the territories of the Other, claimed the dark skinned people for slaves, and exploited the resources of those alien “virgin” lands. There are two steps to imperialism: economic imperialism in terms of a trading relationship in which the Europeans dominated the indigenous peoples of South Asia, and Asia and the Middle East and colonialism, in which colonizers are sent to these subjugated territories to either conquer and control them and keep them safe for capitalism. In this dyad of economic exploitation, the Americas were a special case: a huge continental mass supposedly “empty” and “undeveloped” through the inability of the “inferior” natives to properly put the lands to good use offended the European sensibility. Territories left in their virgin state, unclaimed and untamed cried out to be tended and in the colonial era, colonization was a migration to a permanent new home. Colonial Americans, seeing vast spaces in need of cultivation, an undertaking that required cheap of free labor, followed the lead of the British, French, and Dutch and brought in captured Africans to build the new continent.

Elsewhere, the Europeans settled in outposts that were embedded within large already established robust often urban cultures, from Hong Kong to Dubai to New Delhi. The outposts developed from trading stations to centers of conquest and rule, activities that were staffed by military and civilians shipped over from Europe. This ambiguous approach to colonialism in Africa and Asia brought a small but dominant population of Europeans into close contact with a large mass of the original inhabitants. As with American slavery, control could not be only physical–never could such a small number of people effectively control and subdue millions of human beings. As was pointed out in the last post on Albert Memmi, the problem of maintaining dominance was solved through establishing a psychological order of Master and Slave which was internalized by both the colonizer and the colonized alike.

Post-colonial writings have many points of beginning, both European and American, but among the most eloquent were the two books published by Frantz Fanon (1925 – 1960), Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Like Aime Cesaire, Fanon was Caribbean, born in Martinique, one of France’s “possessions,” like Albert Memmi, he studied in France but in Lyon, practiced medicine in Algeria, next door to Tunisia, and like, Memmi experienced the end of colonialism in North Africa. Fanon’s books came out of his experiences with racism as a black man and the struggle for self-determination as the colonized. Like Memmi, he attracted that positive attention and patronage of Jean-Paul Sartre. After a short life and an all-too-short career, he contracted leukemia and went to Baltimore for treatment where he died in 1961 of cancer. In his lifetime, Fanon was little noted but he would be long remembered for his anguished and emotional accounts of what it meant to be the Other. Algeria was the last major French colony to be relinquished to its “rightful owners,” after a long and bloody and repressive war.

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Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)

After the war in which they absorbed a humiliating defeat and occupation, the French viewed their former imperial empire from two perspectives–either the empire should be retained as a point of pride or, so as to not mimic the Nazis, the colonies should be set free. The French public was split, left and right, over the ethics of retaining a colony and the immorality of keeping a people in imperial bondage. The French were the colonizer and their dual positions were political ones, but Frantz Fanon viewed the struggle between Algeria and France as one of racial and not religious difference. This political contest between unequals was not just a cultural clash or a quarrel over aspirations but, on a deeper level, there was also a psychotic confrontation between two wounded souls and maimed minds. Fanon sought to analyze the combatants as one would study a patient in need of help.

Educated in the French Hegelian, Marxist, Freudian tradition/s, Fanon asked “What does the Black man want?” He relied on Georg Hegel for his answer: the Black man wants to be recognized by the White man. The problem is that the White man and the Black man are caught up in the master/slave relationship that is not mere theory but is an actual psychosis. “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.” Fanon wrote freely and expressively in his first book, while The Wretched of the Earth, with the preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, is more measured and clinical, a theoretical critique. The early publication date of Black Skin, White Masks–1952–is remarkable, predating the rise of the Civil Rights movement in America and the wars of independence in North Africa. But this book is a shout of anger against the regime of colonialism, a form of rule that had outlived its usefulness. Fanon understood the power of the linguistic construction of opposites, the One and the Other, in which one term subordinates the other term and renders it inferior. The linguistic construction mirrored the domination of the white man over the black man in the colonies and in America. Both sides, guilty and innocent, are trapped in a sick relationship.

Fanon also paralleled the writing of his contemporary, Albert Memmi, who wrote of the “colonizer” and the “colonized”, in appropriate Structuralist language. Fanon dealt with language and pointed out that when the black man speaks the language of the white man, the black man assumes the culture and the civilization of his oppressor. The conqueror has no interest in the culture of the conquered who are considered in need of civilizing. As a result of the civilizing mission the mask of imperialism, colonized people have been stripped of their own languages and, without their own culture, they lived with inferiority complex. The colonized individual is faced with the “superior” culture that dominates her and is “elevated” above “jungle status” only to the extent that he adopts the mother country’s standards, from language to learning.

“I ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of language. To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization,” he wrote. The black man who approaches the white world and attempts to fit in–to learn French, to be educated in France, to live in France–becomes “white” only to his black friends but remains irredeemably “black” among white people. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Fanon writes of what DuBois called “two-ness,” or the sense of being caught between cultures, a state that Fanon called “two dimensions” or “self-division” or what DuBois called “double consciousness.” This self-division is the result of colonialism and subjugation by the colonizer. The result is a psychotic break that is a recognizable mental illness.

Descended from slaves captured in African to work the plantations of the Caribbean, Fanon writes of the mental state of “the modern Negro” as a “clinical study.” “The black man becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.” “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.” The black man wants only to break through this “seal” which is the white belief in white superiority to show the richness of black culture and African intellect. In other words, the black man/slave wants recognition form the white man/master. The black man has only one way out of his inferiority and that escape route is through the white world. The result of this contact or impact of whitening is that the black man is radically changed into what Fanon refereed as an “absolute mutation” with the result of “ego-withdrawal” or “restriction” or a renunciation of authenticity to avoid the pain.

The accommodation of the black man to the white man brings no rewards, only alienation, and this alienation or de-humanization, is the object of Fanon’s study. Writing in the early fifties and early sixties, Fanon could see no way out for either of the parties. “The Negro is enslaved by his inferiority, the white man is enslaved by his superiority”. The neurotic withdrawal of the black man is a defense mechanism and the Negro become abnormal due to the trauma of his encounter with white culture. Desiring the approval of the white man, the black man becomes impaired in his development and becomes one sided. In his deeply felt book, Fanon explains, more eloquently than any Hegelian variation on the One and the Other, what it is like to be judged negatively on the color of one’s skin. Fanon combined psychoanalysis and Marxism, understanding that colonized people were traumatized and could never create their own cultures unless they were truly liberated. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon described the process of “decolonization,”

Decolonization, which sets out to change the oder of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder..Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content. Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. The first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together–that is to say the xpoloiatiaonof the native by he settler–was carried on by dine of a great array of bayonets and cannons. The settler and the nataive are old acquaitances.

Fanon was a warrior and a healer. He actually fought against fascism in the Second World War and was disgusted with the racism of the Allies. The American military was shamefully segregated and racist elements at home in Washington D. C. plotted to prevent soldiers of color from voting in federalized elections. The British military, as well as the Free French, kept their colonials carefully separate. After the war, even the French Communist Party supported the continuation of colonialism, perhaps because to be a colonial power would still mean something to the nation’s prestige. It was his disgust that led Fanon to participate as a revolutionary in the Algerian uprising against their French masters. Fanon also participated, as a teacher, in what we would term terrorist activities. Indeed, modern terrorism has as one of its beginning moments, the war in Algeria. Fanon realized, however, that the revolutionaries were like any other revolutionary power: essentially bourgeois and wanting only to take over power from the French and to maintain the class and religious oppressions that the French had set up. As he stated, “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.”

Today, Algeria is a fundamentalist Muslim country, a far cry from Fanon’s Marxism vision of equality, even for women. The new interest in Fanon, for the uninitiated, can be dated back to 1995 London conference organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The book published in relation to an exhibition of the same name, Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire is an interesting example of how a writer—Fanon—has been re-contextualized and depoliticized and appropriated for contemporary purposes. The difficulty for the post-colonial writer lies in the famous opposition between the Colonizer and the Colonized, set up in a book of the same name by Fanon’s contemporary, Albert Memmi. To speak and to be heard, it is necessary to speak “in the master’s voice” and thus lose the specificity of one’s own heritage, one’s own voice. Fanon is an interesting writer because his voice was not blunted by accommodation or co-option. Although he died decades before the literary écriture feminine movement in France, Fanon, like Luce Irigaray, was an early disrupter of the politeness of university French. Fanon concluded,

I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.

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Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905-1980)

EXISTENTIALISM

“Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”

Existentialism set the tone for Postmodern thinking by being negative: it is defined in terms of what it is not and discards previous systems rooted in the 19th century. The ideal philosophy for a lost and troubled century, Existentialism is against scientific positivism (Auguste Comte), materialism (Karl Marx), and technological pragmatism (William James). Existentialism discredited philosophical idealism (Emmanuel Kant), Hegel’s transcendental pan-logism and all assumptions of the absolute primacy and supremacy of human reason and intellect. In rejecting the metaphysical, Existentialism was anti-intellectual and anti-rational, setting the reality of life as lived or “bios” against “logos” or abstract reason. Georg Hegel had identified human reason with concepts of Logos (coherent discourse), Absolute Reason, and the Absolute Idea or Spirit, and this philosophical concept can be summed up as immanence or the functioning of pure reason.

As Alexandre Kojève explained it, “Hegel insists at length on the passive, contemplative, and descriptive character of the “scientific” method. He underlines that there is a dialectic of “scientific” thought only because there is a dialectic of the Being which that thought reveals.” Opposed to the notion of abstracted “human reason,” existentialist thinkers, such as Henri Bergson, considered the human intellect as a practical tool, an instrument that was adaptable according to the need to create objects through the dynamic force of élan vital. In contrast to the philosophy of contemplation, the existentialist, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jean-Paul Sartre to Albert Camus, was interested in the individual who is concrete, singular and unique, original, free and responsible–in other words a person of action. Previous philosophical traditions were centered upon a system of epistemology or the foundation of knowledge, which had to be reason. Reason could be justified only within as abstract structure which had to transcend the real, reality, in order to be universal. But existentialism shifted its focus to existence itself–what it means to live, to be alive, to the human experience–and, while accepting the irrational disorder of life, attempted to come to terms with the reality of being.

Therefore, Existentialism compares practical action to the contemplative intellect, which imposes logical forms that are arbitrary and abstract, the products of thinking (not acting). A (human) being is in a constant process of becoming and evolving. The knower is penetrated by the known. To express this always-becoming state of being, the existentialist writer must use literary tactics, such as metaphor, analogy, symbolic, and symbolic imagery. Intellectual knowledge is subjective or inward compared to “true reality” which is external and in a constant state of flux and change or caught up in a “creative evolution.” What gives Existentialism its unique position in 20th century philosophy is the time of its re-birth, the Second World War, and the place, Paris, a city under the occupation of a long-hated enemy, Germany. What did it mean to act or not act when one is under the all too watchful eyes of the Nazi panopticon? Now that the known world had come to an end and the age of reason had crumbled, it was necessary to re-write the terms of existence, without God,without Logos.

It is certainly correct to think of modern Existentialism as the product of World War II, but the specificity of its re-working should not be thought of as a limitation, any more than idealism should be thought of as being limited by the Enlightenment. The times forced the philosophy and this most terrible war waged against humanity demolished all the cherished assumptions of the Enlightenment and suggested a new role for philosophy. If God had gone into retreat during the Holocaust, then reason had also gone into hiding and philosophy had been rendered irrelevant. The task of building a philosophy for the end of the 20th century fell to a scholar, schoolteacher, intellect and writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was part of the literary-philosophical world of war time Paris.

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Jean-Paul Sartre about 1950

Sartre was hardly a man of action. His role, such as it was, as a warrior consisted mostly of being a prisoner of war, an unfortunate soldier caught up in the disaster of the French defeat. When he returned to Paris to be reunited with his on-again, off-again lover and companion, the independent minded Simone de Beauvoir (“Beaver”), Sartre had to consider the position of an intellectual who must retain honor, resist the occupiers, but also stay alive. Whether or not Sartre flew too close to the German wind in order to continue his work is a matter for others to decide (Sartre wrote for collaborationist or Occupied Zone publications), but he acted in such a way so as to get his work out in public and performed for audiences. There is no doubt that his experiences during the War, his brief tenure as prisoner of war, his devotion to the French Resistance, his determination to speak out against the Nazis, caused a creative explosion and an outpouring of his most important works: the 1943 production of The Flies, with its hidden protest against Vichy, the staging of No Exit, a contemplation of Hell (others) in 1944 just before the invasion, and, of course Being and Nothingness, the master statement of Existentialism.

There is no question that Sartre, before finding himself in the midst of a rather too cozy Occupation where the German army seemed less like active enemies and more like passive “furniture,” a typical insular intellectual, was naïve about world affairs. He had actually visited Germany in 1933 to meet with the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, but the letters of Sartre written during the 1930s indicate he had little awareness of the implications of Nazism which and already co-opted Heidegger. But Sartre changed. The Age of Reason written during the long war was a dialogue between Sartre and his leading character, Mathieu, both of whom were concerned with how to survive in wartime while retaining one’s own dignity. Over time, Sartre created a new character that essentially split the difference: the engaged intellectual who lived a life of political activism,but who managed to embed the politics in art.

Like most modern philosophers, Sartre was a “literary” figure, writing plays and novels, all of which were different expressions of the existential mood of the Second World War. Being and Nothingness, his major existential work, was written in 1943 and was translated into English and published in 1947. Heidegger was discredited due to his shameful treatment of his Jewish colleagues but was still producing a discourse on Being that was eloquent enough to be reckoned with, but Sartre emerged from the rubble of the war as the leading modern philosopher of existentialism. In a reply to his critics, in a 1944 article in Action, Sartre both brushed aside the charge that his work should be dismissed due to the association of existentialism with Heidegger and condemned the philosopher: “Heidegger has no character; there’s the truth of the matter…Don’t you know that some times the man does not come up to the level of his works?”

For decades French intellectual though had been impacted by Marxism, but Sartre was uneasy with economic determinism precisely because Marx proposed that society was determined, suggesting that humans were mere pawns of a dialectic. Although he would not discard Marxism, for Sartre, it was clear that human beings had to act alone. It was important for human beings to act out of choice. One’s existence is one’s character and that character depends upon the active choice of projects or what one choses to do or to act within. Writing just after the Occupation in “A More Precise Characterization of Existentialism,” Sartre remarked, “Since existentialism defines man by action, it is evident that this philosophy is not a quietism.” Although many misread Being and Nothingness as a monument to despair, a shout against God, Sartre insisted that “Existentialism is a Humanism.” As he wrote in 1946,

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

Existentialism is about life’s concrete existence and how the human being constantly comes into being through inter/acting with the changing environment. “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” “Truth” is “my truth” and “Being” is “my being.” The human reality is “being-in-itself (en-soi)” and “being-for-itself (pour-soi),” a combination that produces an ambiguity at the heart of humanity. Sartre would later add a third term: “being-for-others (pour-autrui).” Being-in-itself is actually nothing constituting an absolute polarity to Being-for-itself, which is free and unbridled but nothing else until it encounters the Other. Note that this is not a Hegelian triad, in which one term is deduced logically from the other, but a doubled and split Being that can only “encounter” the other. Sartre asserted, “We are completely alone with no excuses behind us or justification before us.” What Sartre is asserting is that because we are not a self but a presence to self–we are the Other to ourselves–we are free.

As free human beings, we are responsible for our own actions and our own lives. We must live with authenticity. Presumably, a Nazi could live with authenticity in the full belief that his or her actions constituted an ethical life, but Sartre would argue that the Nazi was acting in “bad faith” and was refusing to take responsibility for his or her own life. In thrall to Hitler, a Nazi cannot be free. Sartre asserted that “man” makes “himself” through “his” own activity. Obstacles to our freedom are “our past, our place, our surroundings, our fellow-brethern, our death.” We have the choice to be free and to be free we must freely accept the present. Freedom is being in control of the present and only when one is in control is one free to change. In many ways, Existentialism is an extension of certain aspects of the Enlightenment: the subject or the Self stands alone, all else—the reason for living, the purpose of life—is stripped away.

Many observers considered Being and Nothingness to be bitter and hopeless in its refusal to provide a purpose for life outside of existence. But what has really occurred for Sartre is the century in which he lived. The War changed the rules of the game of life, so to speak, and the idealism of older philosophy must be dismissed–logic, logos, and reason–all discarded in order for the human being to be set free to act as an individual. The acting human being may have no rules and no guidance from “higher powers,” whether philosophers or God, and the person who accepts this (unguided and unfettered) freedom is also taking on a burden of total responsibility. The moral and ethical goal of the post-war human was to be authentic. The final acceptance of the death of God, proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche and proved by the Holocaust, would be the final assertion of individuality in philosophy and the final celebration of the free human being.

Sartre’s philosophy expressed an ontological fatalism: “Existence precedes essence”–we exist before we have any specific perfection or nature. But this essence, this being is all we are. In other words, breaking from Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, Sartre asserted that there is no unconscious mind lurking behind our actions and ultimately limiting our authenticity. The Ego is not in consciousness but can be described as a consciousness of oneself. We are conscious minds, and, if this is the case, we are thrust into being and we make ourselves through action. Our individual humanity is nothing but what we make through our individual actions. Every being is alone and every human activity is characterized by anguish. As Sartre wrote, “Anguish, abandonment, responsibility, whether muted or full strength, constitute the quality of our consciousness in so far as this is pure and simple freedom.” We must choose but nothing can assure us that we have made the right choice.

The true struggle is to make sure that we act with full understanding and cognizance of our own being and are acting in good faith. With the background of the Holocaust and the French participation in the extermination of the Jews, this refusal of moral absolutism takes on sinister tones and could slide dangerously into action justifying action for action’s sake. On the other hand, the Nazis were nothing if not morally absolute and exposed the dangers of existentialism (Heidegger) untethered to ethics. Existentialism was an angry and pained expression of the disarray of the European belief systems after the Second World War. It would take generations for a continent to restore its honor and to absorb the lessons of the post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jacques Lacan: Historical Context

JACQUES-MARIE ÉMILE LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART ONE: HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Among the most important philosophers of the post-war period was Jacques Lacan who lectured to a number of future Postmodern thinkers, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, all of whom sat in on his famous lectures. A careful reading of his lectures, the Écrits, followed by a careful reading of the ideas of his students reveals traces of his thought in their writings. Lacan became more widely known in America through his appearance at the now famous 1966 symposium at Johns Hopkins University. This symposium introduced European post-Freudian thinking, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction to an American audience, but, because these lectures would not be published in English until 1970, it would be years before these seminal discussions would take root in the United States. In fact his last essays, concerning his now controversial interpretations of women and their position in psychological theory, were not translated until 1998.

Jacques Lacan was first and foremost the fulcrum through which many impulses of Postmodern thought were injected into a wide range of disciplines, from literary theory to feminist theory to Marxist theory to philosophy. The scatter-shot effect of his texts indicate the very complex construction of his widely influential books and lectures. One of the themes in Elizabeth Roudinesco elegantly laid out in her 1990 book, Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, Lacan’s entire career was certainly self-invention and re-invention and his re-take on Freudian theory was a bricolage re-construction.Born of a middle class Parisian family whose ordinariness he would take pains to hide, Lacan was, in many ways, a reinvented man by the time he entered into the still new medical field of psychoanalysis. For one seminal year, 1928-1929, he interned at the Infirmary for the Insane of the Police Prefecture under the colorful Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, a specialist in “erotomania,” paranoia, and the draping and knotting of cloth. Clérambault held dramatic sway over his pupils and, believing in the power of the “gaze,” observed his patients, who were never allowed to talk with him, and based his conclusions on his observations.

It is important to understand that when Lacan began his independent professional career, he was part of a purely French take on psychoanalysis: from Clérambault’s reworking of Freud’s teacher, Jean-Martin Charcot to his own reworking of Clérambault (who accused his pupil of plagiarism). But this French foundation would be infused with more than a touch of alien German-ness. It is through his interest in Dada and then Surrealism that Lacan discovered the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in the early 1930s, but, once again, it is important to note that Lacan came to Freud through late Surrealism and ideas of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) on paranoia. For Dali, seeing one thing and thinking (due to paranoia) that it is something else–different and threatening–is the equivalent of living in an hallucination.

Although Freud was alive and quite accessible in the 1930s, Lacan and the second generation of French psychoanalysts knew Freud through reading his books, and it was through Freud’s writings that Lacan learned of the “talking cure” or the “couch,” and of the importance of language. Clearly, the young doctor could see, first, that his field was changing and that with the demise of the teachers, the students could now assume leadership positions and that, second, there was nothing and no one preventing him from stepping forward with new ideas. Through sheer will and force of personality, Jacques Lacan took the lead in re-creating a new version of psychoanalysis. Lacan was not and would never be an originator or an innovator, instead his talent lay in a penchant for theatrical delivery and in drawing together numerous concepts, already in circulation and recombining and reinventing the already invented. His method as a teacher was to teach (dramatically) the work of others, especially Freud, filtered through his own re-interpretations, which then, in and of themselves, could become a distinct body of work in its own right.

If the first step towards a re-thinking of psychoanalysis was Freud, then the second step was Georg Hegel (1770-1831), but Lacan would absorb a very particular re-interpreting of Hegel. As a member of the generation of 1930, Lacan was influenced by Hegelian thought transmitted to the French through the 1933-34 lectures of Alexandre Kojève from 1933 to 1939. Although other work was discovered posthumously, Kojève’s most famous book was his Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (published in French in 1947 and in English in 1968). Because this book is a compendium of a series of lectures, the text is a bit oddly segmented but it presents the ideas of Georg Hegel in a succinct and comprehensible fashion. As philosopher Michael Roth recounted in his 1985 article, “A Problem of Recognition: Alexandre Kojève and the End of History,”

The center of Kojeve’s oeuvre is, and will remain, however, his book on Hegel. This interpretation, a collection of notes and texts assembled by Raymond Queneau, is gleaned from a seminar which was a hothouse for intellec- tual development: Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eric Weil, Aron Gurwitsch, Gaston Fessard, Alexandre Koyré, Queneau, Andre Breton, and Jacques Lacan were among the auditors.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit introduced the notion of a dialectic between the self and the other and/or the master/slave. As Alexandre Kojève pointed out in his lectures, the desire for recognition, which leads to self-consciousness, is linked to the desire for the Other. As Michael Roth explained, “Human desire, properly so-called, has as its object another desire and not another thing.” What is significant about Kojève’s re-reading of Hegel through a Marxist filter is that by placing “desire” at the center of Hegelian thought, Kojève moved the desire for recognition (self-consciousness) out of Hegel’s theological (transcendental) time to Marx’s material time (class struggle as the basis for history itself). Then he substituted Hegelian being with the Being of Heidegger, in which Being or Dasein is achieved through the anticipation of death. So what beings in desire ends in death, all enfolded in a life lived in real historical time. Desire creates history and even time itself.

Lacan would take up the psychological implications of the One/the Other and sexualize the alterity or otherness between the self and the other. For Lacan, following Kojève, the emergence of individuality would revolve around Desire, which is always directed toward an/Other Desire, which is always deferred. Lacan also re-cast Marxism in that economy became a way to explain an “exchange” system of loss and gain, now connected to the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Unlike Freud, an original thinker, who labored alone, Lacan re-examined Freud by filtering him through other disciplines–anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss) and semiotics (Ferdinand de Saussure)–and focused on what is particularly human about the human mind. Rejecting Freud’s biology, which insisted that the workings of the mind was determined by the body, or to put it more bluntly, “anatomy is destiny,” and borrowing from Saussure, Lacan substituted nature for culture and biology for anthropology and sociology and claimed that the unconscious was structured by language, in other words by culture. As Lacan stated in Seminar XX:

…I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say – and I come back to this all the time – that the unconscious is structured by a language. The unconscious is structured like the assemblages in question in set theory, which are like letters…

Although Lacan had already presented his idea of the “mirror stage” in 1936, he did not announce his fabled Return to Freud until November 7, 1955 with the aim of dislodging the ego from its position of ascendancy and of dethroning consciousness. As Terry Gamel pointed out in his “Summary of Lacan’s ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,'” Lacan posited that the “mirror stage,” or how a child comes to literally “see” herself as a separate (conscious) individual, evolved through (trace of Dali’s ideas) “paranoiac knowledge,” or how we make sense of the world. By the 1950s, the interest in Freudian studies had declined in France. There was no psychoanalytic study in France until 1926 (remember Surrealism emerged a few years earlier), during the war, Freud had been rejected for being “German,” and many (Jewish) practitioners of Freud’s ideas were killed during World War II.

The post-war scene in French philosophy was dominated by Existentialism and its notion of the self as an actor with individual autonomy. But in 1963, Louis Althusser (1918-1990) revived Lacan by inviting him to bring his famous seminars to École normale supérièure from Sainte Anne Hôpital. At the hospital, Lacan had performed in the amphitheater from 1954 to 1964 as a spellbinding and prophetic leader: the kind of scholarly superstar that is unique to France. He claimed he made the unconscious manifest through his self-conscious style of performance. In keeping with what would later be called “postmodernism,” Lacan radically critiqued psychoanalysis by re-reading Freudian theory. In keeping with his linguistic take on Freud, Lacan asserted that the whole truth could never be spoken and that any perceived totality was imaginary.

Once he moved to the École, Lacan’s circle quickly expanded and included Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), author of Structural Anthropology to whom he owed some of his thinking on the role of culture in shaping the human mind. In addition, both Althusser and Lacan were re-thinking the philosophy of Karl Marx without reference to Hegel’s absolute and Freud without reference to the unified self/ego, respectively. But, as Elizabeth Roudinesco stated, the events of May 1968 transformed psychoanalysis from an academic enterprise to a psychoanalytic culture that was dedicated to social and political issues and to social criticism. These events of 1968 created a political community that changed the French intellectual psyche. In comparing Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) to those who came after him, one could now say he was the last Enlightenment philosopher and perhaps the last Modernist philosopher after Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and that Lacan was the first Postmodernist in that he was one of the early re-writers and re-thinkers who also used bricolage to re-assemble a new take on old ideas.

To the generation of 1968, the theory of language as a discours engagé, meaning politically committed writings, had to be reappraised. Although a political uprising had begun spontaneously, the end result was a reassertion of power under an autocratic and dictatorial Charles de Gaulle. Discouraged by the collapse of oppositional forces—labor and students—French intellectuals began to manifest their refutation of the “classical” tradition, which stressed clarity above all, in French literature by deliberately writing with oblique political gestures. In other words, the new philosophers position themselves in a postmodern position of critique by re-reading and re-writing or re-newing the philosophy of Others, or to put it still another way, they overthrow or overwrite their precursors. One of the best books on this transformation of French thought, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution was written by Richard Wolin, who explained,

As a result of the May events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninsit authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence French intellectual life was transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insights into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holds of power by flaunting timeless moral truths.

At all costs, totalitarian thinking or grand narratives must be avoided. The experiences of 1968 also explain the commingling of philosophy and other disciplines, especially with the arts. As with the Frankfurt School, political events brought about an interdisciplinary approach within philosophy. Lacan’s Seminar of 1969 reflected not only his long apprenticeship and absorption of multiple strains of pre-war intellectualism but also his post-war reactions to political upheaval. First, he stated his objections to the idea of totalization of knowledge and began a critique of the Hegelian idea of the Master, by pointing to what he termed the “hysteric” discourse of Socrates. Lacan blended the dialectic between question and answer with the circular and symbiotic relationship between the doctor and patient. The presumed role of the pupil/subordinate/hysteric who asked questions of the Master, demanding the Master’s answer, only brings the master and the hysteric into a symbiosis or a symbiotic or mutually dependent relationship. This entangled and self-enclosed discourse of universality is the discourse of the Master, implying a mastery of all disciplines.

The Master reinforces his Mastery through mystification of ideas and deliberate obscurantism of intellectual thought, which produces the non-mastery of the subordinated and bewildered students. In his rejection of Socratic thought and method, Lacan was echoing Friedrich Nietzsche (184401900), who saw Socrates as destroying the balance between Apollo (the rational) and Dionysius (the irrational). In his dialogues with his pupils, Socrates attempted to upset this balance to make logic (the rational) the primal mode of thought which should dominate (like the Master) the workings of the mind. It is not clear how Lacan, the “master” performer surrounded by students and disciples, avoided the position of the Master and the consequent mutual identification in his turn, but he was part of the post 1968 reconfiguration on the part of French intellectuals who took a subversive turn. The goal of the Postmodern enterprise was to question prevailing wisdom by critiquing the already said.

In the decades after this death, his possible upending of authority attracted a new commentary on and a new critique of Lacan himself by a younger generation. A more contemporary reading of Lacan would find a bias towards Eurocentrism and a phallocentric (male) perspective on the world. Although the “culture” of Freud and Lacan was a white European male culture, Post-colonial writers have found Lacan’s notions of Desire to be an important aspect of the colonial question of the relationship between the One and the Other. Since the seventies, many feminists debated both of these writers, while other feminists did not bother to do battle on a terrain that does not include women. Re-reading Jacques Lacan in the 21st century is a challenging enterprise and calls into question the relevance of Postmodern thinking to a world that has so clearly moved beyond the culture that formed Lacan. For women and for people of color, for people who are not heterosexual, Lacan is at best anachronistic. Yet it cannot be denied that the relevance of Lacan lies in his insights into how relationships of power shape the consciousness, bending it towards either dominance or submission: concepts that have profound political implications today.

The next four posts will discuss Lacan’s re-reading and re-writing of Sigmund Freud.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Simone de Beauvoir, “The Second Sex,” 1949

SIMONE-ERNESTINE-LUCIE-MARIE BERTRAND de BEAUVOIR (1908 – 1986)

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

Longtime companion to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir was the other half of France’s glamour couple of the Left Bank. Both philosophers were arguably brilliant and both took up pre-exiting ideas and brought them into the late Twentieth Century. The Second Sex (1949) by de Beauvoir brings up the age-old “woman question” yet again. Asserting that a woman is not born but made, de Beauvoir turned the assumption that women were determined by their “natures” on its head. Writing in the face of a near universal acceptance of the dictum of Sigmund Freud that the anatomy of women was their destiny, de Beauvoir countered his “nature” with her “culture.”

In order to replace The Second Sex as an essential expression of existentialism is not to take the book out of women’s studies but to reassert its role in philosophy. The pieces of her life informed her writing, which took place in the immediate post-war period, a time still heavy with the realization of the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem” or the problem of the Other. In addition, Beauvoir attended lectures by Lacan and by Claude Lévi-Strauss and, on a visit to America in 1947, she was exposed to racism. In contrast to Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre who took a universalist taken on the “subject,” Beauvoir’s very comprehensive volume demonstrated the very real effects of what it means to establish a philosophical and theoretical and sociological order in which the One opposes itself to the Other.

Simone de Beauvoir undertook the unprecedented task of writing a book about women, something a man would never do—there was no need to write a book about men because all books were about men.Opposed to “essentialism”, the writer asked, “Are there women, really”? She asserted that the social and functional answer was that a woman is a womb, meaning that all cultures since the dawn of time had defined women in terms of procreation. Given that this is the case, then women are “less than human” and thus have no lives, much less identity or history. And yet women have lived and their lives have been determined by their biology and by what society decided to make of this biology.

According to Beauvoir, the male is “human,” positive and neutral, and the common use of the term “man” is used to designate humanity. Women represent only the negative and are defined by limiting criteria or the particular. She is defined “relative to” a man. She is not autonomous. The woman is always wrong, not just different but negative in the sense that she is not “right” because she is not male. She is imprisoned in her own (inadequate and defective) body and is understood only in terms of her uterus and ovaries. She is defined simply as “Sex” in that she appears to the male only as a sexual being and once her sexual duty, that is, her reproductive duty, is done, she is incidental and inessential.

Thus he is the Subject, he is the Absolute; she is the Object, the Other. To be the Other is not simply being “othered”. To be the Other is to be so excluded, so outside the realm of discourse, that the other is inexpressible, falling beyond the scope of discourse into formlessness. The only language available to “explain” women is man-made language that expresses maleness. The question is how to insert the female into the body of discourse and to retake language so that a new term “the Mistress Bedroom” could penetrate the culture and become as dominant a term as “the Master Bedroom”. If language is gendered male, how does the female speak? Language condemns the Other to a speech of absurdity. As a result, practically, the only language available to “explain” women is man-made language that expresses maleness. As Beauvoir wrote,

..to reject the notions of the eternal feminine, the black soul, or the Jewish character is not to deny that there are today jews, blacks, or women; the denial is not a liberation for those concerned but an inauthentic flight…The category of the Other is as original as consciousness itself. The duality between Self and Other can be found in the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies; this division did not always fall into the category of the division of the sexes, it was not based on ay empirical given..”

Beauvoir traced the concept of the Other back to primordial consciousness. The Self and the Other is an ancient expression of duality. Groups create themselves as the One by setting up another tribe as the Other. But in the limited paleolithic world of tribes, it seems that the primal groups were male and female and that sexism is the first act of discrimination. As Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out in Les Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté,

Passage from the state of nature to the state of culture is marked by man’s ability to view biological relations as a series of contests, duality, alteration, opposition, and symmetry, whether under definite or vague forms, constitutive not so much phenomena to be explained as fundamental and immediately given data of serial reality.

For the male, there is no one else to have “biological relations” with other than the female. Lévi-Strauss implicitly understood “man” to be male, not female. It is the male who “viewed” these relations and therefore it must the the male who set the terms of “duality, alteration, opposition,” etc. In perceiving women to be opposed or the Other to the man, men put themselves in charge. De Beauvoir asked why was it that women did not dispute male sovereignty?

She stated that women have always been subordinated to men because they did not bring about a change in status or position. The oppression of women is so absolute it seems a historical fact because it is without historical fact. Even if women wanted to assert themselves, they lack the means for organization. Isolated, women cannot communicate with one another. Put together, they are thrown into a condition of competition and begin to identify with male goals. Thanks to the social practice of “exchanging women” among men, women are dispersed from father to husband and are attached to male residences and their social standing is aligned with men. Consumed by the male world, women have no past, no history, no religion and no solidarity and thus no group identity.

The invisible oppression of women as Other cannot be compared to other oppressions. The bonds that unite her to her oppressor is not comparable to any other situation. Men and women must come together to continue the human race. Driven together by instinct, they must mate and in order to organize a society men and women must come together to raise the offspring. However, once society formed, a social hierarchy formed and women were designated as the Other, although means of the primal subordination women remains unclear. Beauvoir asserts that the division or the segregation of human sexes is a biological fact not an event in human history.

Nevertheless the results of this division are real: nowhere is woman equal to man and everywhere the economic sector is divided into two castes and the entire political and economic world belongs to men. Therefore for a woman to renounce a man or men, she would renounce all the advantages conferred upon her—indirectly—as an associate of the ruling caste. Although women have the possibility of renouncing these privileges, there are similarities between their lot and that of African-Americans. Women are kept separate and not equal, and their lives are governed by Jim Crow type laws. The Master wants to keep both in their “place” and to keep them in a situation of inferiority. Beauvoir stated (predicted) that men regarded the equality of women to be a threat and their emancipation would menace the dominance of men who dread female competition.

The question is how to insert the female into the body of discourse and to retake language so that a new term “the Mistress Bedroom” could penetrate the culture and become as dominant a term as “the Master Bedroom”. If language is gendered male, how does the female speak? According to Robin Lackoff’s critique in Language and a Woman’s Place, Language condemns the Other to a speech of absurdity.Although men feel that women have no place in “their” world, men never doubt their rights to this world in its entirety. The subordination of women serves the needs of both sexes. Women are “protected” by men and are kept out of the game. Their exclusion allows any man to feel superior to any woman. The Second Sex was an examination of the mechanisms whereby women are “made.” De Beauvoir thematically examined the lives of (European) women from birth to old age, always discussing their life time situation in relation to the dominance by men. Men can be written about as autonomous human begins; women can be written about only as appendages to the male.

In the post-War stress on a return to “normalcy”, that is the return of women to the home, any political, social, or economic needs of the “The Second Sex” would be overlooked. Just as Beauvoir would be overshadowed by her more famous companion, the lives of women were always incidental and contingent to their roles designated by society. As the women who found freedom during the war years when men were away did not forget their “liberation,” times began to change. Simone de Beauvoir’s book on The Second Sex would proved to be more relevant in later years than Sartre’s work. Her insightful book laid the ground for theories post-War feminism and anticipated the Postmodern assertion that humans are socially constructed and that all gender roles are artificial constructs.

The Second Sex was an examination of the mechanisms whereby women are “made.” Beauvoir thematically examined the lives of (European) women from birth to old age, always discussing their situation in relation to the dominance by men. In the post-War stress on a return to “normalcy”, that is the return of women to the home, any political, social, or economic needs of the “The Second Sex” would be overlooked, just as Beauvoir would be overshadowed by her companion. But times would change, as the women who found freedom during the war years when men were away did not forget their “liberation.” Beauvoir book would proved to be more relevant in later years than Sartre’s work would prove to be. Her book would lay the ground for post-War feminism.

Despite the slow gains in women’s “liberation”, the writing of Simone de Beauvoir proved its accuracy. Not all women welcomed knowledge about themselves or their oppression or wanted liberation. The Woman’s Movement encountered a great deal of on-going opposition from women as well as men. The Equal Rights Amendment would be defeated. Abortion clinics would become sites of murder, harassment, and terrorism. Women would encounter the notorious “glass ceiling” which allowed them to teach in a classroom but not to preside in a board room. Cultural conservatism and male control was reasserted when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Affirmative action was stalled; and the white male backlash against women began. For women and people of color, it was one step forward and two steps back. Indeed, in her own lifetime, Beauvoir would be challenged on all fronts–most surprisingly from an inpatient younger generation of women. Although she lived long enough to be part of the French feminism of the seventies and the eighties, she did not live long enough to see the struggle continue and start to show real results.

Today, sixty years after the publication of The Second Sex and thirty years after the resurgence of a conservative agenda in America and Europe, the struggle to free the Second Sex from its Otherness continues. Post 2010 in the United States ushered in an unprecedented number of political efforts, mostly successful, to pass laws that take constitutional rights away from women, who are still regarded mainly as a womb. Equally unprecedented have been uncounted and unreported sexual assaults and rapes of women in the armed forces and those crimes that have been reported have rarely been prosecuted must less have the predators been brought to justice. There are days when one wonders if we have not reverted to those dark days when Beauvoir was trying to write women back into Existentialism and back into meaningful existence. And then there are other days when it is possible to see powerful women standing up for the rights of women, women with political power and social prominence, women who have made the propositions of Simone de Beauvoir come true: women are made, yes, and today they make themselves.

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Fluxus as Experience

ART AS EVENT

Compared to the brief flash of the Happenings in New York City, in Europe, Performance Art was a far more important part of the post war experience for artists in Germany and France. Many of the European artists re-connected with the old Dada spirit, going back to art as it existed before the First World War to retrieve avant-garde art in order to play out the final fate of the pre-war art movements. For German artists, it was necessary to go back in time to the decade before Nazi art had polluted all art forms, except for “Degenerate Art” or Modernist Art. For the French artists, the period between the wars was a conservative one, ultimately leading to New York taking the lead. So there is no place to go but backwards in order to move forward. Dada had been a performance based art movement, derailed by New Objectivity and Surrealism and it was with performance that the Europeans could combine their own heritage with the kinetic art of the painter Jackson Pollock.

If the origins of Dada were “disgust” as Tristan Tzara put it, the origins of Fluxus were American. The founder of Fluxus was George Macinuas, a Lithuanian expatriate, an entrepreneur and art dealer who coined the term “fluxus.” Maciunas, who was working as a designer-architect with the American Air Force, discovered the word “flux” as the result of a random search thorough the dictionary, much like Tristan Tzara found the term “dada” in the Larousse dictionary in 1916. The movement was born in Wiesbaden, West Germany in September 1962 at the “Fluxus Internationale Festspiel Neuester Musik,” the first public appearance of the word, “Fluxus.” Although many of the Fluxus artists are still alive and active, the international art movement, Fluxus, dates from approximately 1949 to 1979, and the glory days of Fluxus were between 1962 and 64. When Maciunas, who published the works of Fluxus artists and produced their concerts and exhibitions, died in 1978, it was said, “fluxus has fluxed.”

Just as its prototype Dada was shaped by the First World War, Fluxus was profoundly impacted by the philosophical change in Euro-American culture following the Second World War. The Post-War world was a brave new world recovering for a Holocaust and facing immanent annihilation from the newly invented atomic bomb. Existentialism, a philosophy developed by Jean-Paul Sartre, insisted upon a nihlism—total despair in a world now without meaning or purpose. With all institutions of church and state discredited, the human being could exist only through act or “acting out” a life. The pure act was the only means of self-affirmation and of self-confirmation of individual existence. Existentialist philosophy had influenced the writings of Harold Rosenberg, the famous New York art critic, who used Existentialism to explain “American Action Painting.”

Beyond philosophy, other changes, more material and social, shaped Fluxus. Mass media was becoming a genuine force in society, spreading knowledge of art movements from one continent to another; and economic changes made it possible for artists to travel and maintain close contact with each other. As a result, Fluxus was an international and racially diverse movement, made up of men and women, European, Asian and American. Fluxus members included the Danish musician and artist Erich Andersen, the Korean video artist, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Robert Watts, Alison Knowles, La Monte Young, Jackson Marlow, Philip Corner, and Benjamin Patterson, an African American artist who was a student of John Cage, Daniel Spoerri, Terry Riley, Ben Vautier, the Fluxus power couple, Toshi Iohiyangagi and Yoko Ono, the performance and word event artist and musician, George Brecht, master of the pure word event, painters Georges Mathieu and Lucio Fontanta, Robert Filliou, Addi Kopcke, and Emmett Williams, author of My Life in Flux–and Vice Versa, 1992.

Former enemies, German, Japanese, and American artists, became friends and collaborators. Women artists, Shigeko Kubota and Yoko Ono, were able to create and work as equals in an art world that excluded women from other movements, because Fluxus was outside the mainstream art world and outside of the white cube. In such a movement, a Japanese woman who was an American expatriate, Yoko Ono, could find acceptance and a venue for her conceptual art works and performances. An African-American musician, Emmett Williams, could escape American racism in Fluxus. Fluxus was not placed in museums, was thought to be not object based and, therefore, not collectable, and for many decades was ignored by the art world and its critics.

The post-war mood produced a dialectic of creation and destruction, seen in the performances of Gutai in Japan, and a preoccupation with the temporal dimension of art–the act, the performance. The act or the performance existed only in the moments of time when it was enacted and then it ceased to exist. The emphasis was upon the process of artistic innovation and creation during the performance. Unlike the lone “performance” of Jackson Pollock “dancing” around the canvas, Fluxus allowed and even demanded that the audience participate in the act. Performance Art existed, however briefly, in contrast to the supposed timelessness of solid or material art works, such as paintings or sculptures. Planned but not repeatable, Performance art vanished completely at its conclusion, could only be preserved in documents and in artifacts.

Performance art could not be “art,” according to Modernist critics because it was not permanent and could not be judged in terms of its formal properties. Any arguments against performance art would be intensified in relation to Minimal Art. Installation art, like performance art, was audience-dependent and temporal or temporary. In a word both movement were “theatrical” or acts of theater. Therefore, Fluxus was a profound challenge to Modernism. In contrast to Modernism’s emphasis on the lone creative artist, Fluxus artists worked together and in reference to one another’s work. In contrast to Modernism’s insistence on purity, Fluxus art was hybrid, a combination of objects, images, sounds, music, theater, and audience participation. Neo-Dada in America was already working with the confluence of art and life and, indeed, John Cage merged easily from Neo-Dada to Fluxus. No clear line separates the art of Fluxus from life’s ordinary actions.

The Fluxus Weltanschauung was shaped by the concerns of John Cage who was interested in redefining “sound” as “music,” Merce Cunningham, who was interested in redefining “movement” as “dance,” and of Marcel Duchamp, the discoverer of the “found object,” or oject trouvé, who was still alive and well as an underground artist in New York City. Cage and Duchamp felt that the effects of personality and taste should be removed from art, which should also be purged of aesthetics. Fluxus exhibitions were about the commonalities of everyday life and of ordinary everyday activities. Slices of life were transported onto a stage where the ordinary was made to look extraordinary. For Fluxus artists, the very environment was art: life flows into art, art flows into life.

Blurring of the boundary between art and life, Ben Vautier, a French performance artist, brushed his teeth on the street, as a Fluxus Happening for the Parisian passers by. Daniel Spoerri, another French artist, displayed the remains of his meals, fixed to a tray, and hung from a wall like a painting. Fluxus, like Dada is also anti-art, meaning that the artists eschewed aesthetics, that is they rejected (like Duchamp) attractive and beautiful art. Fluxus pushed art out of museums and galleries and into the streets. George Maciunas understood Fluxus in social terms and as a stance against wasting materials and human energy. Like Joseph Beuys, who advocated people as “social sculpture” in Germany, Maciunas thought of all people as artists. In his 1963 Manifesto for Fluxus, Maciunas wrote (by hand):

“Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, “intellectual,” professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art—PURGE THE WORLD OF EUROPANISM!” (sic)

Inspired by the early anti traditionalist works by John Cage, such as 4’33”, a performance, which used silence or ambient noise as music, the Fluxus artists proceeded boldly without traditional musical or conservatory skills into a new definition of music. In order to pay homage to John Cage’s Chance methods of production and the indeterminate results that followed, Fluxus musicians and artists produced “Event Scores,” often of a single word, such as George Brecht’s “EXIT.” “Composition 1960 #10 to Bob Morris” by La Monte Young read: “Draw a straight line and follow it,” and was realized by the late Korean artist, Nam June Paik, in his performance “Zen for Head,” “Destruction in Art,” 1968 symposium and performance by Charlotte Moorman and Paik at the Judson Memorial Church, New York City, in which Moorman repeated Paik’s Word Event by destroying a violin. Because of John Cage’s work on the Prepared Piano, 1941, the piano was the preferred instrument of Fluxus.

The title of Hannah Higgins’2002 book, Fluxus Experience is an apt one, for Fluxus is an experience, difficult to interpret. The historian is very much limited to a description of a fluid and fluctuating event that almost certainly escaped any intentions the instigator may have had. Key to erasing the old-fashioned separation between art (incarcerated in museums) and life (existing everywhere else) was audience participation in the Fluxus experiences. On no account was any spectator allowed to simply spectate. Yoko Ono asked the people who attended her 1965 performance, Cut Piece, to cut off her clothes while she sat still until everyone had had their turn in the acts of “cutting.” According to Fluxus member, Ken Friedman, “The radical contribution Fluxus made (to art) was to suggest that there is no boundary to be erased.”

When the Fluxus artists made objects, they were not called “art” but “Fluxkits.” These Fluxkits were a cross between Duchamp’s Boîte en Valise (1935-40) and a children’s game. One was encouraged to handle, touch, pull, poke, and explore, sometimes at one’s own peril. Annemarie Chandler and Norie Neumark’s 2005 book, At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet, compare Fluxus acts and kits to play or what the authors call “infinite play.” According to the authors, the Fluxus kits were like informal games that are continuous, without beginning, middle or end; play that is “expansive” and as “open ended” as Fluxus discourse that “stresses relations rather than a linear production and discrete pieces of information.” Although there are no particular rules to these forms of free play or activities without purpose, the Fluxus artists had very particular reasons for making these “kits.”

In 2011 the Fluxus artist, Alison Knowles explained that the Fluxkits and mechanized objects were part of an effort to combat “the work of art” hung on a wall with a multimedia and multi-art, as it were, combination of creative encounters. These Fluxkits were extensions of art books which within Fluxus became cans, like containing objects which, unlike unique sculptures, for example, can be replaced. One of the best known Fluxkits was the Finger Box by Ay-O, a wooden box with a set of instructions on the front: “Put your finger in the hole.” The player would insert finger…at his or her own peril. Of course, as soon as Fluxus became encoded into official art history, these playful, toy-like objects became “works of art” and the viewers were discouraged to keep their distance. Sadly, playtime was over.

The humor and the wit of the well-crafted objects in well-constructed boxes are a visual signal that Fluxus was an anti-art movement that sought to make “art” more inclusive. In contrast to Dada, whose surviving members denounced Fluxus, Fluxus did not emerge from the Second World War with the intent of rejecting the entire premise of Western civilization. As the activities of Joseph Beuys would demonstrate, Fluxus was a social and often a political activity the aim of which was to change the world for the better. In 2010, Dorothée Brill argued in Shock and the Senseless in Dada and Fluxus that the difference between neutral and passive position of Abstract Expressionism and Fluxus was the political activism of the decade of the sixties. There are powerful examples of Fluxus as social critique such as Yoko Ono who worked with John Lennon to end the war in Vietnam but ultimately Fluxus was mild-mannered and benign. As one of the pioneers of Fluxus Dick Higgins wrote in his 1979 A Child’s History of Fluxus,

…Fluxus has a life of its own, apart from the old people in it. It is simple things, taking things for themselves and not just as part of bigger things. It is something that many of us must do, at least part of the time. So Fluxus is inside you, is part of how you are. It isn’t just a bunch of things and dramas but is part of how you live. It is beyond words.

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Charles Baudelaire, Author of Modernism

BAUDELAIRE AND MODERNITY

Every age needs its observer and every era requires an interpreter. To elevate the culture above mere description, that individual has to be an odd cross between a poet and a reporter. Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a renegade poet, a syphilitic art critic, and, above all, a disaffected and alienated student of a society undergoing the pressure of a transition. That Baudelaire was a marginal character who lived on the fringes of a cynical consumer society was crucial to his ability to describe and define the new phenomenon, “modernité.” Although the poet wrote extensively on a variety of topics, he is especially significant for essays, prose poems, poetry and art criticism that articulated a new way of life. In 1947, Jean-Paul Sartre accused Baudelaire of “bad faith” due to the many contradictions in his life and work. However, a self-destructive poet and drug addict, who lived in debt on the run from creditors, while, at the same time, taking part in the intellectual and artistic life of Paris, can hardly be expected to be consistent. The very times of Baudelaire were paradoxical.

The art critic straddled the divide between waning Romanticism and emerging Realism, watching the painter Eugène Delacroix after his creative peak but not living long enough to see Èdouard Manet reach his full artistic potential. While there may never have been an artist who coincided with the poet’s desire to describe modernité, Baudelaire addressed the unfolding of a new way of life in a dense urban environment of the “crowd” and noted the impact of industrial technology upon society and art. By the 1840s, not only was Romanticism over but the art being produced by the salon system was also becoming increasingly irrelevant. The excuse for academic art was that it portrayed the “heroic” life of the ancient world, but, for Baudelaire, it was necessary that artists to be of their own time. But what did that “their time” mean?

The industrial revolution came slow and late to France, not in small part because many of the technological changes had been developed in the homeland of their hated enemy, England. While England was already adjusting to industry, France, by mid-century, was just beginning to cope with the transition from an agricultural society to an urban and industrial one. It is possible to see the process of artistic adjustment to these changes in the paintings of Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet. Millet presented the countryside as frozen in time while Courbet showed the class tensions even in small villages. Meanwhile, the mainstream salon artists chose to ignore the present in favor of the historical past. In Baudelaire’s time, few artists had to ability to see their age in all its uniqueness. To be fair, the cultural changes caused by the Industrial Revolution were so extensive and far-reaching that it was easier to look away. The problems for the artists during this long transition period were, first, content of art—contemporary or traditional? and second, what new artistic techniques would be appropriate for the new age?

More than anyone, Baudelaire articulated both the new content and the new way of expressing the new content. In doing so, he impacted many of his contemporaries and influenced later generations of writers and poets who would be known as Symbolists. As an art critic who had to work the salon beat, it was his job to discern a trend or a concern with each annual exhibition. One of his most important salon statements was penned in 1846. In this early essay published as a section of “The Salon of 1846″: “On the Heroism of Modern Life,” Baudelaire argued that modern life was as heroic as ancient life and that men in frock coats were as brave in their own time as the Roman gladiators were in the arena:

It is true that this great tradition has been lost, and that the new one is not yet established. But what was this great tradition, if not a habitual everyday idealization of ancient life—a robust and material form of life, a state of readiness on the part of each individual…? Before trying to distinguish the epic side of modern life, and before bringing examples to prove that our age is no less fertile in sublime themes than past ages, we may assert that since all centuries and all peoples have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours. That is the order of things…But to return to our principle and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions…The pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences—-criminals and kept women—which drift about in the underworld of the great city; the Gazette des Tribunaux and the Moniteur all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism. For the heroes of the Iliad are but pigmies compared to you—-who dared not publically declaim your sorrows in the funeral and tortured frock coat which we all wear today!—you the most heroic, the most extraordinary, the most romantic and the most poetic of all the characters that you have produced from your womb!

The “hero” is male but not just any male. The poet’s hero is not the contented businessman who had prospered under the Citizen King, Louis Philippe, but the hero of la bohème, a cultivated and well-educated man who was also an outsider: the dandy. “…a dandy can never be a vulgar man,” Baudelaire said. The dandy wears the new uniform, the habit noir, the black suit, with distinction, proclaiming his proud middle class status. And yet the dandy keeps himself apart from the bourgeoisie, the newly rich and powerful class, by moving with the “crowd,” where classes mixed and mingled, without ever being part of the crowd. Being a dandy, meticulously well-dressed, standing aside and watching the stream of life flow past, is a strategy of self-defense in an urban landscape. Although he moves in cadence with the ebb and flow of pedestrians, all of whom have destinations and purpose, a dandy, par excellence, is also a man who is able to walk the city, free of ties and responsibilities.

Baudelaire is the new man, the flâneur, the detached man who strolls the side streets, peruses the new arcades and watches the ostentatious carriages pass down the wide boulevards, made for spectacle. At the same time the arcades were ushering in a new form of looking, the art and craft of window-shopping, a new nocturnal Paris sprang into being with the introduction of gaslight in the 1820s. Here, in the darkness, is where we find the poet’s world of marginal people who live a “floating existence,” and it is here were we find the female counterpart to the dandy, the prostitute, the only kind of woman allowed to go abroad at night. Modernism and its heroes is not for the respectable nor for the faint-hearted.

Baudelaire, like many inhabitants of the changing city, felt the stresses of the transition. The city he had been born in was vanishing before his very eyes, crumbling under the determination of urban renewal and bending to the will of Georges Haussmann. Former inhabitants were being pushed out and a new group of aspiring writers, poets and artists moved into slums, scratching out a living before Haussmannization eliminated the buildings. According to one of Baudelaire’s greatest biographers, the German writer, Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire was part of Bohemia, la bohème, the new avant-garde, the alienated, the aspiring artists in waiting. A Marxist writer, Benjamin linked Baudelaire to the territory of the dispossessed by quoting Marx on the precarious position of this social class:

…Their uncertain existence, which in specific cases depended more upon chance than on their activities, their irregular life whose only fixed stations were the taverns of the wine dealers—the gathering places of the conspirators—and their inevitable acquaintanceship with all sorts of dubious people place them in that sphere of life which in Paris is called la bohème….the whole indeterminate, disintegrated, fluctuating mass which the French call la bohème….

By the time of the Second Empire, the chasm between rich and poor had stranded a number of middle class people on the wrong side of prosperity. “It is bourgeois society that Baudelaire holds guilty of the suffering of the post-aristocratic period, and not the least that art has gone to rack and ruin, that poets and artists like himself now belong to the déclassés,” John E. Jackson remarked in 2005. Baudelaire actually came from a well-to-do family, but he was terminally unable to manage his finances. His family put him on a budget with an allowance, which he always overspent–usually on clothes–causing him to go into debt. Being reduced to a child was highly irritating to the poet, who was always at pains to remove himself from the class that fed him. Thus Baudelaire wrote as an outsider, not an insider, taking advantage of an unprecedented expansion of the press. But the press, while expanded, was not free or uncensored, as he learned with the publication of Les fleurs du mal in 1857, a scandalizing collection of poems (some of which were withheld from the public) for which Baudelaire was prosecuted.

Over the past two decades of the early nineteenth century, new opportunities had emerged for writers, such as Baudelaire, who was able to find his unique voice as a poet and to carve out a position as an observer and witness, a stance that appeared in his essays and in his art criticism, where he mixed art and social observations. This poet was a character composed of unabashed contractions who had no problem in proclaiming, “Any newspaper, from the first to the last is nothing but a web of horrors….” As a writer (who wrote for newspapers) he tried to defend traditional art making against the onslaught of technology, mainly photography, while, at the same time, rushing out to be photographed many times.

In “The Salon of 1859,” there was a section, “The Modern Public and Photography,” where Baudelaire complained about the clash between art and photography:

Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place. If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude, which is its natural ally.

These two essays, “On the Heroism of Modern Life” and “The Modern Public and Photography,” written over ten years apart, are indicative of the contradictions and confusions over the role of modern life in art. On one hand, Baudelaire was convinced that the “heroism of modern life” was worth of depiction, but, on the other hand, that depiction had to be hand-made, done in the old fashioned “art” way. A machine can never replace art. But more should be said of the difficulty of writing in a moment of social becoming, for Baudelaire, like Denis Diderot, was looking for the artist who could capture modernité or the pulse of his (or her) own time. Courbet painted contemporary life, but this life was rural and, hence, not the “urban modern” condition that was the daily life of Baudelaire. The poet was clearly looking for someone who expressed modern life in Paris, the city that Walter Benjamin called “the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.”

Baudelaire found his candidate, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in a fellow member of the fringes of society, an obscure illustrator named Constantin Guys. The result of the relationship between the poet and the illustrator, both inhabitants of la bohème, was a long essay, almost book length, which described the social condition Baudelaire called modernité. That essay was the famous The Painter of Modern Life. The poet states, “By ‘modernity,’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable…” Guys, an illustrator and a quick sketch artist, was the outsider, who, because of his position on the fringes, was able to produce hundreds of quick studies of all that was fast-moving and fleeting in modern life. Modernism, for both Baudelaire and for Guys, becomes defined by the concept of constant change, or what the art critic, Harold Rosenberg, would term, a hundred years later, “the tradition of the new.”

See also: “Baudelaire as Art Critic” and “Baudelaire and The Painter of Modern Life

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Charles Baudelaire and Art Criticism

BAUDELAIRE AS ART CRITIC

“We are going to be impartial. We have no friends—that is a great thing—and no enemies.” Thus Charles Baudelaire began his career as an art critic with the Salon of 1845. With a tone we suspect to be sardonic, the young writer addressed himself to the bourgeoisie, “a very respectable personage; for one must please those at whose expanse one means to live.” The poet completed his introduction, which is his manifesto of art writing, by saying, “We shall speak about anything that attracts the eye of the crowd and of the artists; our professional conscience obliges us to do so. Everything that pleases has a reason for pleasing, and to scorn the throngs of those that have gone astray is no way to bring them back to where they ought to be.” In the Salon of 1846, the writer again targets the middle class art audience, stating that, “…any book which is not addressed to the majority—in number and intelligence—is a stupid book.” In other words, Baudelaire, a member of la bohème, would not be writing to the artistic reader but to those who were woefully in need of education, the middle classes.

Baudelaire followed the traditional format of the art critic, a walk through a huge salon exhibition, pausing here and there, giving some artists an entire page and others a mere sentence. Interspersed were pages of commentary on the state of the arts, which, combined over time, created a description of the culture of two decades in Paris. The art writer was a product of the Romantic period. Reading his reviews of the Salons, it is plain that he was imbued with the tenants of Romantic thought, but by the time his career began, Romanticism was on the wane and new ways of thinking about art were being developed. Although Eugène Delacroix was making official art for the establishment, Baudelaire worshiped him and despised his great rival, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, who we now consider an exceptionally innovative and willful artist. “M. Delacroix is decidedly the most original painter of ancient or of modern times…M. Delacroix is not yet a member of the Academy, but morally he belongs to it.” Baudelaire refers to the painter as “a genius who is ceaselessly in search of the new.”

In The Salon of 1846, Baudelaire wrote some of the most definitive words on Romanticism. “…if, by romanticism, you are prepared to understand the most recent, most modern expression of beauty—then…the great artist will be he who will combine with the condition required above—that of the quality of naïveté—the greatest possible amount of romanticism.” As will pointed out in the text, “Charles Baudelaire, Author of Modernism” (Art History Unstuffed), the writer was obviously familiar with Friedrich Schiller’s “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” in which the poet compared two artistic types. Schiller’s “naïve” poet (artist) who was “childlike,” and allowed nature to flow through spontaneously creating art through an individual sensibility was the precursor to artistic individualists like Delacroix. “Romanticism,” Baudelaire echoed, “is precisely situated neither in choice of subjects nor in exact truth, but in a mode of feeling. They looked for it outside themselves, but it was only to be found within. For me, Romanticism is the most recent, the latest expression of the beautiful.”

And yet, in the same Salon, Baudelaire acknowledges the pressing conditions of the urban present. For him, and for many artists, Romanticism was the very expression of all that was modern: artistic freedom and the expression of individuality. But in the writer’s section “Of the Heroism of Modern Life,” there are passages that prefigure The Painter of Modern Life. In order to understand the importance of Baudelaire’s writing at this point, it is necessary to remember that the Romantic artists, especially during the time of this Salon, were often involved in historical subjects. Unknowingly working against waning Romanticism and predicting Realism, Baudelaire made a case for modern subject matter.

Before trying to distinguish the epic side of modern life, and before bringing examples to prove that our age is no less fertile in sublime themes than past ages, we may assert that since all centuries and all people have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours…All forms of beauty,” the writer continued, “…contain an element of the eternal and an element of the transitory—of the absolute and the particular. Absolute and eternal beauty does not exist, or rather it is only an abstraction skimmed from the general surface of different beauties. The particular element in each manifestation comes from the emotions; and just as we have our own particular emotions, so we have our own beauty.

The notion of “beauty” is already an old fashioned one, inherited from the Ancients, would will soon be replaced by a bracing does of realism and the introduction of “ugliness.” Here we see the appearance of Baudelaire’s fascination with fashion that would emerge in The Painter of Modern Life. In contrast to the colorful attire of the past, contemporary fashion for men had become democratized by the uniform of the black suit, which, according to Baudelaire, “…not only posses their political beauty, which is an expression of universal equality.” After reassuring the reader that artists were capable of capturing shades of blacks and grays, something at which Èdouard Manet would excel, he continued, “…our principal and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions…” and urges the artists to look away from “public and official subjects” to “private subjects which are very much more heroic than these.”

Indeed, Baudelaire moved directly to the world he knew best, the world inhabited by the disenfranchised, including artists and writers, “the pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences—criminals and kept women—which drift about in the underworld of a great city….all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism.” It is in this underworld where modern life existed. Indeed, as Baudelaire pointed out, the comfortable bourgeoisie cannot be a hero; that status is reserved for those who deserve it—those of “floating existences,” the men and women struggling to keep alive in a hostile city. The need for this new kind of heroism intensified, for the gaps that appear in his art writing coincide with the Revolution of 1848 and the establishment of the Second Empire, events that brought about the very “modern life” he predicted. For years, Baudelaire the art writer went dark, while he translated the American poet Edgar Allan Poe and wrote his ill-fated book of poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).

Baudelaire’s silence and withdrawal are interesting. On one hand, one could speculate that the writer was confounded by the death of Romanticism, but, on the other hand, he had been on the cutting edge by predicting the coming of an art that demanded contemporary subjects. But the kind of realism that developed after the Revolution of 1848 was based upon observation of the base and the banal, the ordinary world according to Gustave Courbet. The natural world of the petit bourgeoisie did not appeal to Baudelaire, who, according to Jean-Paul Sartre, “hated and regretted” “naturalness.” “Baudelaire’s profound singularity,” Sartre wrote, “lay in the fact that he was the man without ‘immediacy.’” The art critic is silent during the first decade of the Second Empire until the occasion of the Exposition Universelle in 1855. Picking up his earlier thoughts, Baudelaire returns to the subject of beauty. “The Beautiful is always strange,” he said in one of his most famous statements. “…it always contains a touch of strangeness, of simple, unpremeditated and unconscious strangeness, and it is that touch of strangeness that gives it its particular quality as Beauty.”

Oddly Baudelaire devotes his review of the Exposition to the dialectic of the display of Ingres and Delacroix as the official artists representing France, ignoring the outsider Courbet, his Realist Manifesto, his innovative Pavilion of Realism, and the two decades of works it contained. Halfway into the Second Empire, Baudelaire wrote of “The Modern Artist” and “The Modern Public and Photography” in The Salon of 1859. In writing of photography, Baudelaire also expresses his horror of the new tendencies towards objectivity and of scientific observation. “Each day art further diminishes its self-respect by bowing down before external reality; each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees.” “…it is happiness to dream,” the poet protested and, in the next section, wrote on Imagination, “The Queen of the Faculties.” Once again, Baudelaire uses the opportunity to repudiate Realism.

In recent years we have heard it said in a thousand and different ways, “Copy nature; just copy nature. There is no greater delight, no finer triumph than an excellent copy of nature.” And this doctrine (the enemy of art) was alleged to apply not only to painting but to all the arts, even to the novel and to poetry. To these doctrinaires, who were so completely satisfied by Nature, a man of imagination would certainly have the right to reply: “I consider it useless and tedious to represent what exists, because nothing that exists satisfies me. Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to what is positively trivial.

Baudelaire dismissed the realists, “…let us simply believe that they mean to say, ‘We have no imagination, and we decree that no one else is to have any.’ He continued, “How mysterious is Imagination, that Queen of the Faculties! It touches all the others’ it rouses them and sends them into combat.” “…Without imagination, all the faculties, however sound or sharpened they may be, are as though they did not exist…” Speaking of Delacroix (without naming him), Baudelaire elaborated upon the painter’s dictate, “Nature is but a dictionary,” in order to compare the artist to the realists. Earlier the art critic had written of Delacroix that, for the painter, “The entire universe is only a dictionary of images and signs.” “Painters who are obedient to the imagination seek in their dictionary for which the whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform…”

The concept that nature was a dictionary, seen by the artist as a symbolic, not literal, source for ideas was echoed in his poem, “Correspondences” in Les Fleurs du Mal (1857):

La Nature est un temple oû de vivants piliers

Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;

L’homme y passé à travers des forêts de symbols

Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Writing in 1990, the critic, Jonathan Culler, translates Baudelaire’s “forest of signs” as a doctrine of Correspondences in which the poet “seems to disrupt the one-to-one correspondence between natural sign and spiritual meaning that the others promote.” In other words, Baudelaire caused a rupture between the word and the thing, between the act of transcribing and the object recorded. The so-called “correspondences” are arbitrary, making the signs into symbolic substitutes that do not name but suggest. By continuing to insist upon the primacy of the imagination, Baudelaire founded a modern poetry of nuance.

Baudelaire ends his work as an art critic by paying homage to his friend Courbet, “we must do Courbet this justice—that he contributed not a little to the re-establishment of a taste for simplicity and honesty, and of a disinterested, absolute love of painting.” And Baudelaire included a nod to Manet who had yet to become the artist he would be. And so, with the Salon of 1859, Baudelaire moves on to other forms of writing. Somewhere along the way, Baudelaire seemed to find a balance between poetry and prose with his “prose poems” in Paris Spleen in 1869. Waiting almost a decade after his last Salon, Baudelaire seemed to come to terms with Realism, but not in terms of “simplicity and honesty,” but in terms of the artificiality that Sartre insisted Baudelaire preferred. The poet realized that the next life for art would be not in the country scenes of the painters of the lower classes but in the interpretation of “the heroism of modern life” he discussed in The Painter of Modern Life.

See also “Baudelaire and Modernity” and “Baudelaire and The Painter of Modern Life”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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