Boris Groys: Communist Art Historian
Rex Butler

Victor Alimpiev

Author’s Bio

The revolution that marks contemporary philosophy – its distance from the long-running hegemony of post-structuralism – is perhaps seen no more clearly than in the recent defence of Plato against the Sophists. Of course, it is found in its most high-profile instance in Alain Badiou’s advocacy of Plato in his Being and Event against – for all of his admiration of him – Gilles Deleuze’s championing of the Sophists in his The Logic of Sense (Badiou 2005: 31-7). But it is a defence that the Russian-born art historian Boris Groys also participates in. In some very important pages of his recently published The Communist Postscript, Groys takes as well the side of Plato against the Sophists.

In an inversion of the conventionally held view, it is the Sophists for Groys who do not expose the paradoxical nature of reason but seek to hide it. While they know very well that reason is essentially self-contradictory, they attempt in their oratory to construct logical, consistent argumentive surfaces, which take only one side (the one that is paying them), although they understand the point of view of the other to be equally valid. As a result, the true nature of reason remains obscure, and this produces the suspicion in their listeners that there is something hidden beneath these surfaces, a suspicion that the Sophists for their part are happy to play on. In fact, for all of the Sophists’ denial of the merits of the other side, ultimately they are prepared to compromise. This compromise is brought about not logically, but through money, involving the compensation of both sides for accepting the argument of the other. The Sophists – and Groys undoubtedly means to speak here of such figures as politicians and the proponents of justice in our society – win either way, which leads to Groys’ definition of a commodity. A commodity, says Groys, is a paradox that has lost its paradoxical quality (Groys 2009: 4).

As opposed to this, Plato is the one who exposes paradox, both in the speech of others and in his own speech. As a result of such self-exposure, Plato is able to win the trust of his listeners, so much so that, as Groys suggests, “for lengthy periods of time” (5) – and this is complicated – they are spellbound and unable to tear themselves away from him. Here precisely – and this is the basis of the paradoxical and self-contradictory nature of philosophy – the philosopher is not a “wise man”, but merely a ‘seeker after wisdom” (6). They do not stand somewhere outside of the paradoxes they are remarking, as with the “dark spaces” (11) of the Sophists. On the contrary, they operate entirely within the realm of the paradoxes they speak of, in the “bright light” or “effulgence” (17) of their exposure.

We might see the distinction between Plato and the Sophists more clearly in some subtle passages Groys writes concerning the relation of each to doxa or opinion. Of course, it is often said that philosophy began in Ancient Greece because we had there for the first time with its commercial markets and its international trade the free exchange of ideas. And yet – and Deleuze and Guattari also argue this in their What is Philosophy? (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 203-4) – it is the breaking with this opinion that constitutes one of philosophy’s defining tasks. And, in many ways, Groys retraces the same trajectory. He begins by noting the situation of our modern democracies, crossed as they are by rumours, paranoias, conspiracies, characterized we might say by the collapse of the symbolic order. And within this democratic space, each person is entitled to their own opinion, regardless of its truth or coherence. No opinion rules out any other; no opinion understands itself as ruling out any other. (When Groys speaks of the “dark spaces” behind the pseudo-logical surfaces of the Sophists, into which their listeners can settle, he means to speak of the way both that these Sophists’ – think radio shock jocks – arguments are constructed so that we see ourselves reflected in them and that there is a fundamental lack of curiosity about others’ opinions.) And, as Groys argues in his essay “Religion in the Age of Digital Reproduction”, the famous religious freedom of the West also works like this (Groys 2010: 137-38). Not only do the various religions have to tolerate each other, but even the atheist has to tolerate the religious, as the religious has to tolerate the atheist. There can be no attempt to refute another’s beliefs by reference to any “fact” or “truth”, or to persuade them that you are right. (Indeed, Groys sees much post-structuralist theory working in this manner: its emphasis on “otherness” or “difference” does not truly confront the capitalist marketplace, but merely adds another voice, another opinion to the chorus.)

What is the proper philosophical response to this? Certainly, in one way, the philosopher is only able to offer another conflicting opinion. But, in another way, they must also seek to formulate the rule of these conflicting opinions. In a first step, they must note that there are a number of conflicting opinions, and that, moreover, each opinion – although it would explicitly deny this – secretly acknowledges that there are other opinions and that it would make no sense outside of them. This insight is essential, but it is ultimately no more than that of the market itself: each opinion is only one of a number of conflicting opinions, without a common measure but with these differences able to be reconciled via the medium of money. It is the market in the end that judges which opinions are best, and by how much. No, the real philosophical insight is not that opinions are contradictory, but that each opinion is self-contradictory. As Groys writes: “Every speaker says what he intends to mean, but he always says the opposite of this… For this reason, the philosopher can conceive of what is common to all discourses, the totality of discourses, and can transcend mere opinion in this way without thereby asserting a claim to the truth of his own opinion” (8-9).

But Groys’ argument here is very subtle. As he suggests, it is not a matter of the philosopher simply formulating the truth of the plurality of opinion. This is not only because the philosopher does not offer their own truth but only their own paradox, but also because it is this paradox that allows us to see this plurality of opinion for the first time. It is what Groys calls the “icon” (16) that allows us to see for a while – again, the temporality is very complex – the whole of language. In other words, this totality does not exist before its paradox. (Groys is using “icon” here in its Christian meaning of an image that does not refer to any pre-existing original or referent.) It is in this sense that we would say that the contemporary marketplace of ideas is both a falling short of the paradox of philosophy – a kind of not-yet – and a forgetting or covering over of the paradox of philosophy (which is why Groys speaks of the icon holding only for a certain time). It is why Groys argues that the philosopher must appropriate the “diabolical reason” of the market – which would otherwise remain hidden and undeveloped – and that the sophism of the marketplace will come to cover over the paradox in order to enclose or “privatize” it again. (At this point Groys draws close to Hardt and Negri’s argument about the way that capitalism draws on or parasitizes the previously liberated or deterritorialized state of paradoxical opinion or “commons” – and, indeed, Groys has an essay entitled “Privatizations, or the Artificial Paradises of Post-Communism” in his recent collection Art Power that speaks of just this (Groys 2008: 166-67).) Although formal logic very much seeks to do away with the third or tertium, following the law of the excluded middle, this compromise is nevertheless always provided by money. There is the inevitable compromising – selling out – of the paradox by both the Sophist and the market. Capitalism does, in fact, get close to self-contradiction. It involves a constant overturning or transgression, but like the Sophist it is assured of a profit no matter what the outcome. As Groys writes: “If the worker receives higher wages, they can buy more and profits grow. If the worker receives lower wages, savings can be made on labour power and profits continue to grow” (Groys 2009: 24). It is for this reason that capitalism, like the Sophist, gives the impression that it is not entirely caught up in its own self-contradiction, that somehow behind it there is a “diabolical subject” (24) manipulating these contradictions for its own unknown ends.

How then does the philosopher expose the self-contradiction of opinion and the marketplace? How do they actually produce or bring about paradox? Groys provides several examples of this philosophical paradox in practice. He begins, of course, with Plato’s Socrates, who not only uncovers the paradoxes of others, but also makes paradox the basis of his own activity. He then suggests Descartes, whose decision to suspend all opinions while living through a moment of doubt is logically just as paradoxical as the decision to reject or affirm all opinion. And Husserl and his phenomenological epochē or bracketing is seen as another form of this. The post-structuralists too, like Bataille, Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze and Derrida, are understood – whatever else their limitations – as striving for an ever more radical and all-encompassing paradox. And Stalin himself, like every Communist leader a proper philosopher, was also a thinker of paradox. As Groys writes, understanding Communism as precisely the fulfilment of the original Platonic inspiration: “The [Communist] exposure, production and appropriation of paradox are genuine philosophical achievements, which empower the philosophers to rule” (29). (Interestingly, Groys considers Hegel, whose dialectical method, of course, involved the holding-together of oppositions, to be not paradoxical but finally attempting to legitimize a discourse that was formally-logically valid.) But, again, how to produce this paradox that reveals or, better, actually constructs the whole? How to bring about this state in which – as opposed to the Sophists, who secretly choose sides, or the post-structuralists, whose otherness or difference merely repeats the contradictions of the system – opposites are simultaneously true, authentic self-contradiction? In fact, Groys is not always as good on this as he might otherwise be. Perhaps it is his rejection of Hegel that blinds him. (Hegel’s notion of reflective determination, in which the identity of a thing is given by it standing in for its opposite, for example, would appear to be very useful for Groys’ undertaking.) Groys’ account is in some ways very good on description, but not so good on the logic. Certainly, as the examples above indicate, paradox involves a particular bracketting or suspension along the lines of Descartes’ doubt or Husserl’s phenomenological reduction, and even a certain finitization or hastening of time, a bringing on of the end. In a later chapter of The Communist Postscript, Groys will speak of it using the word “metanoia” (106), a religious term referring to a change or alteration from the object to the context surrounding the object, brought about by adopting a different perspective, say from life to the after-life.

In fact, considered properly, “metanoia” in Groys’ sense is precisely the attempt to reveal the “transcendental” ground for things. As Groys describes it: “Metanoia, understood as the transition from the usual, worldly, natural perspective to an alternative, universal and metaphysical perspective, entailed the abstraction from one’s worldly perspective” (108-9). This is why paradox allows the whole – in the sense of both the object and its context – to be seen for the first time. And it is for this reason that it is only paradox – and not contradiction – that involves the question of both a thing and its opposite. That is to say, how again to produce the authentically paradoxical statement, in which we have at once A and not-A? The point is that no matter how subversive or transgressive, extreme or extravagant we make a statement, we do not necessarily have a paradox (and this is once more Groys’ position with regard both to Bataille and the post-structuralist tradition that comes after him and so much self-proclaiming radical art). This is merely different, another opinion for sale on the market. It is not authentically self-contradictory. We only have true opposites, paradox, self-contradiction when we attempt to formulate that for which all of these differences (of opinion, of commodities) stand in. Metanoia is the statement of that absence which all that is present takes the place of. Now the word for that for which all stands in – even in dialectical materialism – is “spirit”, which is ultimately a kind of nothingness. This is why, to recall for a moment an argument from Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism, Russian poet Vladimir Khlebnikov and artist Kazimir Malevich both sought to overcome ordinary linguistic and artistic forms, discover a new artistic language of universality and desired to remodel the world in its image, and did all of this, moreover, on the basis of a certain “nothing”, an “all-negating material infinity, a non-objectivity of the world” that “transcended all beliefs and ideologies” (Groys 1992: 31). And yet, as Groys’ subsequent criticism of Malevich for dubbing his artistic movement Suprematism reveals, this “nothing” is always something; he could not transcend all beliefs and ideologies. Malevich falls finally into the trap of thinking that his discourse is non-paradoxical. This is the unavoidable risk in speaking of the transcendental, which is why the attempt is always self-contradictory, and why Groys speaks somewhat puzzlingly of the necessary hiding or covering over of paradox, when this is meant to be merely an outcome of the market. It is to point to the fact that the transcendental is always both transcendent and, insofar as we can think it at all, empirical. Groys puts this in precisely Hegelian terms when he speaks of the way that, if there is metanoia, there is always another possible metanoia, in which we ask not about the context but about the context of that context, leading back, as Groys says, to the “earlier perspective at a different level of reflection” (Groys 2009: 107). It is to begin to think – in what Hegel indeed called reflective determination – not that there is some opposite beyond things for which they stand in, but that things are their own opposites, stand in for themselves. (And this would be Groys’ response to those “deviationists”, a term of Soviet obloquy, who insisted with regard to dialectical materialism that it was not enough to assert the thesis, it was necessary also to deny and negate the opposite of what had just been asserted: “The negation of what has been asserted appears to be a trivial consequence of the first assertion itself. But for dialectical materialism, this second step is logically independent of the first step, and moreover it is this second step that is critical” (40-1). In fact, Groys’ argument is that the first step is its own denial and negation. Things are already the opposite of their opposite. Or to use Hegel’s terms, they are already the negation of their negation.)

It is for this reason that metanoia leaves us in a radically undecidable position. Dialectical philosophy does not simply propose some new and unrealized transcendental condition. Groys breaks with any Kantian Enlightenment-style infinite striving, which he compares to the “bad infinity” of capitalism. Rather, the radical “anti-utopianism” of the Russian revolution – which is also a form of utopianism – tells us that we are in a world that is effectively post-Enlightenment, post-historical and post-modern, in which there is no rational striving towards the real. Utopia is at once already here (insofar as language always goes further than capitalism) and can never be realized (not only because capitalism still persists, but because this utopia could always be the work of the devil). Metanoia operates as a kind of pure doubling of the world, at once irrefutable and undemonstrable, in which everything is at once the same and different. As Groys says of Stalinist Communism: “It is impossible to dismiss the famous claim ‘it is done’ from the world once and for all simply by referring to factual injustices and shortcomings, for it involved a paradoxical identity of utopia and anti-utopia, hell and paradise, damnation and salvation” (125). And the example Groys uses to explain this performative doubling – very reminiscent of Baudrillard’s arguments concerning simulation, which are also a perfect instance of this paradoxicality Groys is discussing – is terrorism. The paradox of terrorism, the so-called “war on terror” that we seem to be involved in, is both that random accidents can now only be understood as coming about as the result of terrorist acts and the fight against terrorism – the state of constant surveillance, the foregoing of civil liberties – would be the very terrorism anti-terrorism fights against (both in the sense that these infringements are undoubtedly what would happen if we were taken over by terrorists and that these infringements, as seen perhaps in Britain, are actually what produce home-grown terrorists) (26-8).

We might return again to Groys’ argument that French philosophy’s arguments against capitalism fail because capitalism is already self-subverting, because it can be not-A just as easily as A. No, we would not oppose capitalism by means of the Other but only by proposing another Reason. It would be the idea that behind capitalism there is a possible conspiracy, a diabolical subject that plays a game it always wins insofar as it profits from opposed outcomes. But then, as Groys goes on to argue, the aim of the philosophical subject – by which he means the revolutionary subject – is to “appropriate” (25) this diabolical logic by means of a doubling in which it cannot lose. But at the same time it must also be admitted that capitalism would not be diabolical before its appropriation like this. This is why Groys speaks of the “suspicion” (25) that there is not just capitalism but also a certain conspiracy of capitalism. This doubling would undoubtedly be a slander but, as Groys argues, following Kojève, the ultimate responsibility for this slander would be seen to lie not with those making it but with those who allow it to be made. And this is why Groys speaks of this capitalist diabolical reason as a kind of “obscure object” (26), which cannot be seen because it can only ever be represented as “black on black” (24). For precisely the aim of these doubling hypotheses is to bring out this obscure object by introducing a split between it and itself, between the world and its transcendental condition, between black and black. It is an exercise motivated by the belief that there is a subject or reason lurking behind appearances; but this subject does not exist until after the attempt to bring it out by means of this doubling, and indeed this doubling is this very subject. The philosophical task begins with a kind of suspicion, and yet it does not want it entirely confirmed, when it would turn into a merely another opinion or commodity. (If Groys speaks of a paradox that conceals its paradoxical nature by becoming a commodity, we might equally suggest that a paradox that entirely reveals its paradoxical nature also becomes a commodity. In a way, one paradox is revealed only by another, in what suggests itself as an infinite cascade of paradoxes.)

Following this logic, Groys suggests that Communism is revolutionary not only by opposing capitalism, but by proposing itself as the diabolical reason behind capitalism. It puts itself forward as an “answer” (29) to the paradoxical nature of capital and its commodities, which means as the hidden paradoxical explanation of capital. And the great achievement of Soviet philosophy, particularly under Stalin, is its absolute liberation of paradox in this sense. Soviet philosophy exists, insists Groys, only insofar as it is able to think its opposite. As he says: “The demand to think and feel globally and with the whole of language was paradoxical insofar as it presupposed that the thought of the Soviet person was both Soviet and anti-Soviet at the same time” (70). And the most profound sign of this anti-Soviet thinking was the idea that capitalism was possible only because of Communism, that capitalism becomes visible only from the perspective of Communism. Indeed, this doubling is repeated from both ends, in line with that paradoxical temporality we have attempted to outline. We would say that Communism comes after capitalism, as the linguistic freeing-up of the restricted economy of the circulation of commodities. This would be Groys’ argument that in capitalism projects are always unfinished because of a lack of funds, that capitalism is a necessarily incomplete project: “The reason why things are finite, why they are present at all, why they have a form, why they are offered to the gaze of the observer as these concrete objects, is because they are under-financed” (94). And against this, Communism seeks to complete things from a radical metanoic change of perspective (like that of the religious after-life), which at once sees things as complete and opens them up to an entirely other destiny. But perhaps more profoundly – and paradoxically – Communism can also be seen as coming before capitalism. This is Groys’ idea that the advent of capitalism in the former Soviet Union is to be understood not as any kind of defeat or resignation of Communism, but on the contrary as the last act of Communism, its perestroika or auto-dissolution. That is, capitalism is possible only because of a prior Communism: the commodity is a forgetting of the paradoxical nature of reason; exchange value is the compromise struck between various incommensurable and self-contradictory positions. Again, as Groys says: “Passing from a project to its context is a necessity for anyone who seeks to grasp the whole. And because the context of Soviet Communism was capitalism, the next step in the realization of Communism had to be the transition from Communism to capitalism. The project of building Communism in a single country is not refuted by this transition, but is instead confirmed and definitively realized” (103-4). If capitalism makes the contradictions of Communism clearer by turning them into commodities, so capitalism for its part is able to be explained only because of a certain Communist reason. As Groys notes of the recent period of Soviet privatization or the appropriating of formerly Communist resources: “In both cases [Communism and post-Communism], private property is equally subordinate to a raison d’état… The post-Communist situation is distinguished by the fact that it reveals the artificiality of capitalism, in that it presents the emergence of capitalism as a purely political project of social reorganization, and not as the result of a ‘natural’ process of economic development” (123-4). In other words, if there is a Communist post-script, it is written by Communism itself. Or, indeed – and this brings us back to the Christian origins of the notion of metanoia – if Communism lives on after its death, it is in a sense because it is already dead. It lives its life as a kind of after-life, as its own post-script, as it were.

The Communist Postscript, originally published in German in 2006, is in many ways the logical continuation of Groys’ Gesamtkunstwerke Stalin or The Total Art of Stalinism, originally published in German in 1988. There, in a now famous thesis, Groys argues that Stalinism is to be understood not as the enemy of, opposition to or censoring of the avant-garde of Malevich and the Constructivists but as its continuation. It is Stalin who inherits – and ultimately realizes – the avant-garde ambition for the total making-over of society (Groys 1992: 36). In a sense – and here we have a premonition of the analysis to come – he represents a more complete “nothing” than even the Suprematism of Malevich, for he adds the figure of the diabolical to it. He is the author who is always missing in the avant-garde – the author precisely in the figure of the “demiurge” (56). The only thing that Groys does not like about Stalinist art at this stage – this is where he differs from his later Postscript – is its belief that it has effectively brought history to an end. In a complex formula, uniting modernism, post-modernism and anti-modernism, Groys writes that we have post-modernism as the anti-modern in the (Stalinist) modernist idea of a totally harmonious society brought about by the halting of history (79). This is why Groys sees Stalinist art – again, against the common conception, and perhaps in a taste of his later emphasis on paradox – as essentially eclectic, citational and heterogeneous. And it is a post-historicality that Soviet dissident art, for all of its apparent opposition to Stalinism, would share. What Communism did not see – and how could it in 1988, the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall? – is that history had one more twist in store for it: the turning of it into capitalism, capitalism as the completion of Communism.

We have the same paradoxical Communism in Groys’ “The Logic of Equal Aesthetic Rights” from his recent collection Art Power. In this essay, Groys argues for a certain universality or making-equal of all images. But, read carefully, this universality is not a mere plurality. Again, Groys sees the post-modern plurality of simple difference or transgression as merely standing in for the market. Rather, this universality is to be grasped only through paradox, or this universality must itself be paradoxical. In his essay, Groys brilliantly inverts the usually understood relationship between the museum and the mass media, between what we might call elitism and populism. In fact, it is not the mass media or popular taste that opens up the otherwise closed and restricted canon of images. On the contrary, it is the museum that challenges the consensus – the consensus of both the market and the media – towards what can be recognized as the shocking and different. The paradox of the museum today is that a new work can enter it only if it resembles nothing else inside of it. But implied in this is something more than “opinion”. The new work of art is also about this newness, about this break with other works of art. It is about the fact that it can enter the museum only insofar as it is different from everything that comes before it. In a complex sense – which we will tease out in a moment – it attempts to state the conditions of possibility of all of those other words of art in the museum. The avant-garde, as Groys says, produces “transcendental images, in the Kantian [but, as we will see, not quite Kantian] sense of the term” (Groys 2010: 111). Each new image – as new – is the image that all images now stand in for. But this is paradoxical because this image is at once the same as and different from all other images, which – it demonstrates – also did this. It is for this reason that Groys can speak of each new image as at once “clarifying and confusing” (116) the others. That is, again – and here Groys renovates the logic of Harold Rosenberg in his Tradition of the New: Groys is profoundly modernist at this point – the image is new insofar as it reveals all others as the same, insofar as it speaks of what is in common to all of them. In fact, as we have seen, this “wholeness” or “equality” could not be seen before it. But each new addition to the museum has to be able to do this. This is why modernism has constantly to be renewed. As Groys writes in The Communist Postscript: “Metanoia leads to a renunciation – namely the renunciation of always doing the same thing, of always following the same path, always seeking to ride out further in some bad infinity. Badiou speaks about fidelity to the revolutionary event. But fidelity to revolution is fidelity to infidelity” (Groys 2009: 112).

Paradoxically, then, each new image aims at the equality of all images by being the one single one different from all of them. This image is therefore self-contradictory, not so much in the sense that it is both the same and different (this will be realized at different times: it is another that will speak of how it is the same), as because it speaks of all images as the same while it regards itself as different. This is undoubtedly the modern image’s (eg, Warhol’s) complex relationship to capitalism: it at once stands outside what it is speaking of like a Sophist, hoping to profit from either alternative (the same or different), and it is a critique of the capitalist necessity to have one image different from another. All of this is why in the essay “The Weak Universalism” Groys speaks – perhaps against his earlier Kantianism – of all new images being at once transcendental and empirical. Again, not simply because they have to be visually manifested in order to be art, but because, if each new image stands as transcendental, it does so by rendering all images empirical. The new arises not merely to replace what has become old and familiar but to show that what we have taken to be new is itself old and familiar. This is why Groys’ “taste” prefers not the otherness or difference of post-modernism but the universality or regularity of something like the Bauhaus. It is undoubtedly because from the beginning it understands not merely that all other images are equal but also that its own are equal, seen from the point of view of its transcendental. It is why Groys speaks as well of Duchamp’s readymade as introducing not a difference but a “difference beyond difference” (Groys 2008: 29): it is the difference that allows all other images to be seen as different, the variety of possible images to be universal, the entire range of visual experience to be covered in these images’ difference from each other. The avant-garde work of art does not repeat a difference, even a critical difference, such as race, gender or class, which society already formulates for itself, but invents a transcendental difference, a difference that does not yet exist, which allows us to see all of those other differences.

But all of this must be treated with great caution. Groys in The Communist Postscript speaks of the way that there can be any number of philosophical paradoxes because paradoxes do not affect each other, but it is perhaps also true to say that each new entry to the museum becomes harder and harder because each has to double, that is, reveal the transcendental condition of all of the others. Put simply, it gets more difficult as time goes on to make a work of art that at once looks like and does not look like a work of art (Groys 2009: 100). It is in this sense that we must understand Groys’ point that modern art is not a series of liberations or breakings of taboo that makes art easier, but rather a series of reductions or renunciations, a constant introduction of limits or things that can no longer be done, which make art harder. And this is Groys’ point in “The Weak Universalism”: that any proposed universal or transcendental condition of art has to be weak insofar as it is what all images have in common. Indeed, this universal must constantly be getting weaker insofar as it has to keep on including all of those previous “weak” universals. It is just this “weakness” that is Groys’ unemphatic, almost invisible avant-garde art – it is what connects Malevich’s Black Square, Duchamp’s readymades, Fischli and Weiss’ remakings of Duchamp’s readymades as fabricated objects, we might even say such things as Rosalind Krauss’ grids and her post-medium condition. It is also what explains for Groys the revival of religion and religious images in an age of digitality (and let us not forget that Groys refers to Duchamp’s Fountain as a “Christ” among things and the art of the readymade as a “Christianity of the art world” (Groys 2008: 29-30)).

Why is it exactly, Groys asks, that religious images are so suited to the era of mechanical reproduction, when this has previously been associated with the loss of aura? In his essay “Religion in the Age of Digital Reproduction”, Groys makes the point that what characterizes fundamentalism is an adherence not to some inner spiritual truth but to the external form of ritual, by which he means the repeated performance of belief and not belief itself. But Groys then goes on to invert the usual view that this adherence to the letter is the sign of a “dead” rather than a “living” religion. On the contrary, it is the living religions in their flexibility and adaptation to changing circumstances that are dying today and the dead ones in their adherence to outward form and the letter that are flourishing. As Groys writes: “Thus, contemporary religious fundamentalism may be regarded as the most radical product of the European Enlightenment and the materialist [we would add dialectical materialist] view of the world. Religious fundamentalism is religion after the death of the spirit, the loss of spirituality” (Groys 2010: 143). That is, if we can say this, if fundamentalism reduces religion to the letter, this is only because for it this letter is the spirit. Conventional religions in seeking to adapt themselves, universalize themselves, propose themselves as different, reduce themselves to the status of “opinion”, and will always eventually run out of the circumstances where they apply. They are not truly transcendental, and will die out in wishing to retain some inner spirit or content, no matter how minimal. On the other hand, fundamentalism in being a kind of nothing, having no inner content but existing only in its repetition, will live on forever. And this is like digital reproduction. Again, in one of Groys’ startling inversions of common sense, he insists that what characterizes digital reproduction is precisely not its unchanging code, the way that unlike analogue it reproduces itself perfectly, but the fact that it is now transmissible across a potentially infinite number of platforms, in a potentially infinite variety of circumstances. Indeed, that apparently “unchanging” code is never seen as such: it is already reproduced, different from itself, from the very beginning (147-9). And this is, for all of Groys’ criticism of it, the deepest truth of Christianity. Again, not only is God’s Word not some unchanging core of prophetic truth, but – as historically has always been the case – only whatever its listeners take from it. And, more than this – this is what allows it to break with doxa and become a true doctrine – its proper lesson is this. The fundamental content of Christ’s teaching is the very scene of instruction itself. Put simply, the Word of God is always different, but it also about this difference. As Groys says, in an undeniably religious locution: “Only those who are themselves flames can pass through the flames unburnt” (Groys 2009: 73).

All of this accounts for Groys’ interest in the new participatory media – blogging, Facebook, Twitter – in which the participants are the audience. Not only, argues Groys, are such social media indebted to the practices of the neo-avant-garde artists of the 1960s, but they come to realize the dreams of such utopians as Joseph Beuys that everybody become an artist. The idea of actually becoming an artist today when everybody already is an artist, therefore, is a weak gesture, but it is not altogether nothing. Groys notes at the end of his “The Production of Sincerity” that “when the viewer is involved in the artistic practice from the outset, every piece of criticism uttered becomes self-criticism… To put it bluntly, it is now better to be a dead artist than a bad artist. Though the artist’s decision to relinquish exclusive authorship would seem primarily to be in the interest of empowering the viewer, his sacrifice ultimately benefits the artist by liberating his or her work from the cold eye of the uninvolved viewer’s judgement” (Groys 2010: 49). It is, of course, the fundamentally Christian idea of the artist living on through their disciples that is at stake here, the undoubtedly paradoxical idea that the artist’s death is necessary for them to live on. And Groys’ own critical writing – pursued primarily today through the internet in such journals as e-flux – follows a similar logic. It is transcendental, unsurpassable, indispensible, precisely in its weakness, its unemphaticness, its non-judgementality, even its self-erasure and self-contradiction. In a radical sense, as Groys admits, it is not even critical, in the sense of negating, excluding, opposing to the world as it is the way it should be. Rather, Groys’ discourse attempts simply to double the world, opposing we might say the world only to itself. The world now, after the revealing of its transcendental condition, which is also nothing else but more of the world, is at once unchanged and totally transformed. Like the world after Communism. Indeed, as Groys says of the utopian ambitions of Communism, in a description that applies also to his own practice: “The politics of inclusion was pursued by many Russian and Eastern European artists even after the break up of the Communist regime. One might say that it is the extension of the paradise of real Socialism in which everything is accepted that had previously been excluded… This kind of radicalized utopian inclusivity was often misunderstood as irony, but it is rather a post-historical idyll that sought analogies instead of differences” (Groys 2008: 170). And Groys’ point ultimately is that this utopia has already been realized. Groys is not only a Communist art historian, but the world itself is already Communist in the most profound sense: it includes everything.


This paper was originally delivered in the session “Post-Socialist Prospects and Contemporary Communisms in Art History” at the 2011 Association of Art Historians Annual Conference. I would like to thank Anthony Gardner and Klara Kemp-Welsh for their kind invitation to take part in this session.


Badiou, Alain. 2005. Being and Event. London: Continuum
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1994. What is Philosophy? London: Contnuum.
Groys, Boris. 1992. The Total Art of Stalinism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Groys, Boris. 2008. Art Power. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Groys, Boris. 2009. The Communist Postscript. London: Verso.
Groys, Boris. 2010. Going Public. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

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