The Ersatz Image [1]

As someone deeply invested in the disciplines of art history and visual culture studies, the recent shitstorm over a comment Jeremy Corbyn made in 2012 regarding a mural by Mear One (Kalen Ockerman) keeps flying into my radar range. Because it’s Easter and I’m supposed to give myself a break, I’ll stick working towards my research pro forma on hold for a day or two and wade into this furore.

Firstly, let’s talk about this mural. Yes, it is antisemitic. No, this cannot be watered down into ‘features antisemitic elements’. When you are used to perusing images, you come to regard them in terms of not just what they represent (if anything), but in terms of what they do, and what they want with us. Art (of this kind at least) does not occur naturally, it is fabricated by human intelligence. Furthermore it is publicly displayed, which means it has a claim on us; it is staked upon, motivated by and addressed to our attention. Visuality is a primary modality, perhaps the primary modality (it’s tempting to rank it equal to musicality), in which ideology is propagated and reproduced in contemporary life. Since at least the early 20th Century this was recognised among newspaper editors, who coined the idiom that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’: if you had something to say, say it with a bold image, then append the argument textually. Since that time, among the weaponry of journalists their cameras have taken pride of place and it is often (though not always) the case that it is the securing of an image that will make or break the rationale for a story. No one can doubt the extraordinary impact of images today. However, the powerful ‘speech’ of images, their ability to hail or interpellate a public, precisely by virtue of standing in for or condensing the argumentative impact of ‘a thousand words’, also elides the discursiveness and rational argumentation that those thousand words would have had to present in order to achieve a similar intensity of effect. In other words, the impact of images takes place largely in an affective register; they appeal to the emotionality of their public and not, primarily, to their discursive or critical thinking, which they tend to short-cut. It is this emotive character of images that lends to them a rhetorical, persuasive character. All of this is absolutely obvious of course, but it is necessary to step through it in order to approach the specific image.

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Lesson Plan

If history teaches us anything, it is that lesson plans are lies. Useful lies, sometimes, but lies nonetheless. How do we really learn things? How is it that something I did not understand yesterday, I can understand today? What did I do that uncovered a new relationship to the object of my inquiry, and can it even be replicated? I’ll leave these kind of probing questions to professional epistemologists (there’s a few out there I assume, with ID and job title swinging from their institutional lanyards). For my purposes here it’s best to look at the paradigmatic cases: things that might have gone unexamined but which at some moment in time gave up their workings — things we became ‘educated’ about.

Marx dared to enter the holy and mystical cave of the economists with a crystal-cut determination to see what was really going on there, he dared to lift the lid on the illusionist’s cabinet. He wanted to understand precisely what this thing ‘value’ was; where it came from, how it was born, how it functioned and changed its own shape and its name, what it did. He wanted to understand its own logic. There is something at least minimally sacrilegious, heretical, or even blasphemous in the gesture by which Marx enters into his discussion of the commodity. It is like taking a forbidden camera into a church with the desire to document its material culture accurately and meticulously, and to analyse how it worked as a whole system. This transgressive, profaning gesture — that of trespassing in a sacred space and liberating its apparatus for a human use, the use of analysis upon the supposedly numinous — is something Marx learned from the Young Hegelians: Feuerbach in particular.

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The Apparatus

For Michel Foucault power is not a substance held by one person and not by another. Nor does it function in a ‘top-down’ manner as classically considered. With Foucault, power is decentralized, and operates through a distributed agency. Power functions through a range of relationships. For Foucault power is ‘capillary’,[1] ‘cellular’,[2] and ‘exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations.’[3]

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Le bon Dieu est dans le détail

It’s a commonplace that the art historian is related to the detective. I find the pervasiveness of this analogy interesting, and although I am by no means a believer in astrology, I was mildly amused to see that the trope of art-historian-as-sleuth had even penetrated into that murky field when I read that a Scorpio (which I am, coincidentally) is ideally suited to work such as crime scene forensics, depth psychology, investigative journalism, espionage, police or private detective work, and art historians. Presumably there is something forensic and interrogative about the methodology of that traditional connoisseurial-biographical school of thought which even today (i.e. even after formalism, iconography, social history, feminism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, cultural studies, structuralism, queer theory, post-structuralism, postcolonialism, visual culture and ‘the iconic/pictorial turn’ have all had their methodological impact) tends to typify the art historian in popular imagination. The persistence of the myth also probably owes something to the stock cinematic bow-tied curator, invariably male, fastidiously interrogating documents and images through half-moon glasses, which for many people outside of the discipline could well mediate their impressions. As is the case with many contemporary mythologies, a compound of historical realities with earlier mythologies is at play.

Museums, Morelli said, are full of wrongly attributed paintings – indeed assigning them correctly is often very difficult, since often they are unsigned, or painted over, or in poor repair. So distinguishing copies from originals (though essential) is very hard. To do it, said Morelli, one should abandon the convention of concentrating on the most obvious characteristics of the paintings, for these could most easily be imitated – Perugino’s central figures with eyes characteristically raised to heaven, or the smile of Leonardo’s women, to take a couple of examples. Instead one should concentrate on minor details, especially those least significant in the style typical of the painter’s own school: earlobes, fingernails, shapes of fingers and toes.[1]

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Explanandum and Explanans

An explanandum (L.) is a sentence describing a phenomenon that is to be explained, and the explanans is the sentences adduced as explanations of that phenomenon. For example, one person may pose an explanandum by asking ‘why is there smoke?’, and another may provide an explanans by responding ‘because there is a fire’. In this example, ‘smoke’ is the explanandum, and ‘fire’ is the explanans.

As a siderbar, consider similar latinate terminology:

  • Explicandum — that which gets explicated vs. Explicans — that which gives the explication
  • Constitutum — that which gets made up, constituted vs. Constituens — that which makes it up, e.g. the constituents
  • Definiendum — that which is being defined vs. Definiens — that which constitutes a definition

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Real Abstraction

The Marxian conception of Real Abstraction can be found all over the place; for example, in Simmel[1], Sohn-Rethel[2], Adorno[3], Toscano[4] and more generally, scattered throughout critical theory.

Marx wrote:

Within the value-relation and the value expression included in it, the abstractly general accounts not as a property of the concrete, sensibly real; but on the contrary the sensibly-concrete counts as the mere form of appearance or definite form of realisation of the abstractly general … This inversion, by which the sensibly-concrete counts only as the form of appearance of the abstractly general and not, on the contrary, the abstractly general as property of the concrete, characterises the expression of value. At the same time, it makes understanding it difficult.[5]


It is as if together with and besides lions, tigers, hares and all the other real animals, which as a group form the various genuses, species, subspecies, families etc of the animal kingdom, there also existed the Animal, the individual incarnation of the whole animal kingdom.[6]

In the second edition of Capital, we find the famous phrase: ‘[t]he equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract’, while in the French edition Marx added a comma, continuing ‘… and only exchange produces this reduction, by bringing the products of the most diverse kinds of labour into relation with each other on an equal footing’. [7]

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Against Banter

This was written partly as a response to an article I recently read in which alt-right trolls were compared with Kierkegaardian ironists. To the degree that trolling deserves any theoretisation at all, the argument seems initially seductive, but I have very serious reservations about it.

With the prospect of generalized irony as a feature of all language, a la Cleanth Brooks (who, in a definition that constituted a famous landmark in terms of its sheer scope, claimed that irony was simply the way in which a text registers the pressures of context), we have to face the extinction of a certain opposition of irony to serious language. That is to say, we must stop insisting that there is a clearly non-ironic use of language in which the speaker coincides entirely with the subject of the statement, standing completely within or behind it without residue, and entirely committed to the social meaning of the utterance. Rather, the gap between subject and subject of the statement must be seen to be operative in all language. Although, to be sure, this gap is not always ‘operative’ to the same extent, it nonetheless remains a fundamental non-relation between the subject and the subject. The paradigm of this gap’s operation would today be the internet chatroom or below-the-line readers’ comments sections, in which no-one can be sure that a participant is committed in any way to their comments, that they are not simply ‘trolling’ (or indeed trolling in a non-simple, multilayered or ambiguous, complex way). In such an environment, one sees the most ridiculously anachronistic and wilfully transgressive of political views expressed as if earnestly, and one sees the attempt to defuse or counter-argue as either ‘taking the bait’, ‘feeding the troll’, or ‘white-knighting’. The ‘better’ player emerges in these comment streams as the one who can up the ante, amplify the trolling of others, and so on. The internet is couched as a space of freedom: principally the freedom of the anonymous to transgress, to voice or enact puerile fantasies detached from the meaty encumbrance of socialised identities with their materially-consequential responsibilities, substantial duties, bonds and relations; freedom from personal consequences, freedom from having to endure the returning effects of what one circulates. It might appear as if posting on the internet was a realisation of precisely that substancelessness, that ‘infinite negativity’, which Kierkegaard (after Hegel) criticised in the Schlegelian theory of romantic irony. Hegel and Kierkegaard both criticised romantic irony as being potentially limitless. After a certain point the ironic conscious is entirely free to dispose of all substantial (that is, normative, social, intersubjective, moral: ‘political’ in its modern sense) concerns, even those which might appear to further its own subsistence. This is where the line between ‘constructive’ (i.e. Socratic) and ‘destructive’ (Schlegelian) irony (as understood by Kierkegaard and Hegel) is often drawn.

While the possibility of anacoluthon (the abrupt interposition of a changed direction, e.g. of argumentation, position, etc.) and parabasis (the sudden shift to a metaregister) mark ironic speech, in Schlegelian destruction they leave nothing but the empty position of irony itself, as infinite negativity — according to Hegel. One drops bombs and dances onwards in the same floating dissociation from whatever is said, because whatever is said is merely noise or pixels, and can’t really hurt anyone, or so the dangerous, evil ironist thinks. But while this criticism certainly functions to describe one of the ways in which today’s trolls excuse their excesses, Hegel (and subsequently Kierkegaard) may have misunderstand Schlegel. We’ll come to that later; first let’s examine why Hegel and Kierkegaard are right about infinite negativity, but are nonetheless quibbling since it represents a position that is impossible to assume.

Such a position of infinite negativity should not be possible according to Wittgenstein: one can not enunciate a statement without context, use a totally ‘private language’ uncommitted to social meaning, etc. Language ‘is’, in a certain sense, nothing but the rules that constitute it: dependent for its status as meaningful on a system of social rules. Or, one can say with the conviction of the Saussurean school of linguistics, language is predicated on a differential system of meanings: meaning arises from differences, comparatives, relatives, and specific arrangements, not from positive terms.

From this perspective the idea of producing entirely uncommitted speech behind which stands no substantial interest is bogus: there is a process of selection — enchainment, arrangement, both syntagmatic and paradigmatic — to achieve a desired effect in terms of reception: meaning. Thus to speak is to incur responsibility for the articulation , the choosing and stringing together, that produces meaning, even if it is not ‘meant’, is ambiguous, open to interpretation, or was merely ‘banter’. The speaker, tweeter, memer or troll are not simply the producer of locutions with illocutionary sense overlaid by a readership; on the contrary these groups encode perlocutionary force in what they produce, indeed depend upon it as the primary motivating factor. Just as WWE wrestling baits the audience, producing ‘heat’ by various mechanisms such as repeated ‘heel’ beatdowns on ‘faces’, in a predictable and controllable formula that does not fail to elicit the mass emotional response sought after, so is trolling a purposeful elicitation of contextual response. The troll is akin to a wrestling script-writer, a provocateur, except in one point: here the kayfabe is not an open secret to be ‘suspended’ (i.e. as ‘disbelief’) for the purpose of entertainment, but functions as a screen or excuse to be insisted upon, in order to pretend that the action isn’t socially real, and doesn’t generate real effects. Besides ritual beatdowns to characterise various wrestling actors as heels and faces (or to perform ‘turns’ from one to other), WWE sports entertainment utilises a panoply of stock characters, redolent of pantomime, as managers, coaches and trainers. In 2013, for example, the ‘Real American’ wrestler Jack Swagger was mentored by a character calling himself Zeb Colter (portrayed by Dutch Mantel), a racist and anti-immigration, Mexican-hating, welfare-bashing MAGA demagogue with a long luxurious Yosemite-Sam moustache and a Southern secessionist veneer (Swagger’s logo clearly echoing a confederate flag). At the time it was obvious the Tea Party was being parodied. The audience simultaneously recognised Colter as a simulacrum and also consistently refused his performative efficiency, through booing, heckling and jeering, all despite a not-too-dissimilar version of this persona being voted into the office of POTUS just three years later. To an uninformed viewer, it might appear as if social attitudes had somehow swung from a liberal majority to an alt-right majority in those three years, or that the WWE audience represented an unduly liberal crowd compared to outsiders. But on the contrary, the WWE network is tight with the republican party; the chairman is married to a republican senator, and the show had actually featured Donald Trump in its ‘Hall of Fame’ segment, immortalising a face off between the latter and Vince McMahon. In other words, kayfabe itself can function in a more complex way than a pre-critical understanding might allow: as the pretence of a pretence. Trump would, more than any romantic ironist, better characterise the modern troll, who hides behind the screen of an assumed political kayfabe – a redoubled pretence of pretence – since he just so happens to really mean the things he ‘jokes’ about. This strategy of also meaning it was identified, with great wit, by the comedian Stewart Lee in a performance criticising the show Top Gear (more precisely its presenters). Not coincidentally, when Jeremy Clarkson first began presenting a new version of Top Gear hosted not by the BBC but online, he boasted ‘no-one can fire me now… we’re on the internet, which means I could pleasure a horse’.

In other words, the alt-right (and the wider manosphere) is worlds apart from romantic irony. While it claims for itself the social disconnection, the infinite negativity, attributed to romantic irony by Kierkegaard and Hegel, alt-right sites such as Breitbart profit socially through the clicks and shares of their readerships. If the alt-right’s self-appointed ‘intellectuals’ would like to believe they merely play with signifiers as punks played with swastikas, they are clearly mistaken; perhaps the illusions of omnivalence and omnivocity granted by the adoption of internet anonymity are all too captivating. However, they do not escape the obvious: they are white men, politically economic-libertarian, and their substantial interests are clearly visible. Whatever theoretisation of irony the alt-right may try to deploy, it is extremely deficient.

A careful reading of romantic irony can act as a corrective to Kierkegaard’s and Hegel’s warning-off. Far from floating free of social investments, romantic irony always implicates everyone: narrator, author, reader. The Early German Romantic theory of irony allows for no Archimedean point, no privileged or anonymous position from which all may appear as a joke, and from which laughter may erupt in a ‘cult of kek’. Such an attitude indeed leaves one feeling that the alt-right must consider the interactive space of the internet to exist over and above social existence, rather than as an integrated part of the social world. Claire Colebrook clarifies:

Until Romanticism, the literary or rhetorical function of irony was seen as a special case within an otherwise simple and literal language of representation. Irony was deemed to be an ornament or trope within representational language. For the Romantics, however, it was only possible to have a seemingly simple and representational world through the forgetting and repression of the creativity and poetry of language. Irony – or the gap between words and world – was, for the Romantics, original. Speech and language originate or come into being only when ideas or concepts give form and imagination to the actual world; all language is essentially and originally figural, or different from the world it supposedly names. Literal language is the denial or forgetting of this gap. If we think of our language as a simple one-to-one label or picture of the world, then we forget the creative and disruptive birth of language. To see all language as ironic, the Romantics argued, would be to restore life to its once open, fluid and productive past. Life would no longer be frozen into the fixed forms of grammar and syntax, or reduced to what is sayable. Irony recognises a sense that is always other than what is said.

Once Romanticism established that the truth of life did not lie in adequate representation but in a questioning and imaginative play of representations – such as poetry – then it became possible to see literature as the privileged mode of human understanding. Literature would be the truth of life because literature was essentially ironic: adopting a permanently distanced and questioning attitude to all language and fixed positions.


Further, for the Romantics, this fall is one of ‘buffoonery.’ German Romantic irony was defined through a constellation of concepts, including, in addition to buffoonery, humour, wit and satire. The joke or Witz undoes the mastery of the subject, as laughter and nonsense disrupt logic and sense. Irony is related to buffoonery not just because subjective mastery is undermined; buffoonery falls, enjoys the humour of the fall, laughs from on high at the falling buffoon, and remains implicated in the fall. One can never master the ironic process, never recognise or stand above one’s finitude: ‘Irony is the clear consciousness of eternal agility, of an infinitely teeming chaos’ (Schlegel). The minute we see ourselves as other than what has fallen, as beings who can overlook and describe the fall, we fall further into smug self-recognition: ‘One can only become a philosopher, not be one. As soon as one thinks one is a philosopher, one stops becoming one’ (Schlegel). Irony must recognise that we can never overcome singular viewpoints and achieve a God-like point of view; we are always subject to a cosmic joke. For any idea we have of our selves or our world will be part of a process of creation and destruction that we can neither delimit nor control. If humour often relies on a feeling of superiority or elevation above life’s misfortunes, irony recognises – but never fully realises – the implication of all life in this chaos. The ironic attitude must not just take a delight in seeing the clown slip on a banana skin; it must not just laugh at this fall from human coordination into an animal or thing-like buffoonery. It must recognise that we are all part of this falling; we are always dupes and effects of a life with a power well beyond our control and recognition.


This brings us to the heart of irony and dialogue. To acknowledge poeisis is to acknowledge that the creativity of life can never be encompassed or reflected in an overarching point of view. Conscious activity is never at one with the forms it creates.

At the same time, Colebrook advises us that if language use is as primordially rhetorical (and thus catachrestic), as Paul de Mann claims, then it is also and by the same token unavoidably committed to some meaning. For Lacan this is also true; the demands of the gurgling infant are always already semanticised, always addressed to an Other, always already mediate and never immediate. Demand cannot be isolated from desire in practice. The encoding of perlocutionary force, the rhetorical gamble of language, is always there at the very beginning of language acquisition, not something super-added to it and from which one can then opt-out from as anonymous trolls seem to believe. All of this seems obvious to philosophers like Colebrook who, as part of their profession, practice thinking and address themselves to their thoughts, in what is a deeply social process. Reasoning is often said to rely on the weighing of arguments, searching for the most persuasive. Thought is, in this sense, never disinterested. Nor is the troll.

In Hegelian parlance, ‘substantial’ interests and the term ‘substance’ itself refers to the intersubjective (or ‘ethical’) domain of socially-shared morality, normativity, etc. It is the forerunner of the later idea of the ‘socially objective’ domain, as reified and misused by Stalinism. Today we tend to understand the socially objective domain simply as the domain of all our various forms and relations of social co-operation — it is the largely agreed-upon, although always culturally mediated, world of standards of taste and decency. It is precisely this realm, the realm of the rule (be it formal or informal) that the troll time and time transgresses or attempts to get others to transgress. In order to transgress it, however, one must first acknowledge its existence. We can discuss various forms of relation to the Big Other in psychoanalytic terms. We can approach it in terms of discourse analysis. We can discuss socialisation as a process. We can approach the hypocrisy (conscious or not) of the alt-right troll in many ways. We do not lack the tools to deal with the advent of the internet.

However, I believe that a direct comparison between the concept of romantisch ironie in Frühromantik and the absolutely modern phenomena of anonymous trolling on alt-right websites and sections of reddit is misled. Many theorists in the past have contended that romantic irony and post-modernism, particularly Derridean deconstruction, are related if not genetically connected. This argument always revolves on a secondary interpretation of deconstruction which inflates the ‘play of the signifier’ to the degree that the theoretical underpinnings of deconstruction, and its insistence on textual commitment are lost: Derrida expressly refuted the possibility that an uncommitted speech act could take place, and this is systematically forgotten whenever the ‘free-play of signifiers’ argument is invoked as a defence of offensive speech or language. A similar elision occurs when romantic irony is compared with trolling. Schlegelian irony is defined as an act of ‘self-creation and self-destruction’ not in a phenomenological or psychological register, but in a social one: the theory of irony is advanced in a particular historical juncture in which the productive capacity of art, and particularly poetry, freed from patronage systems and available to reason (contemporaneously leading the French Revolution) and its self-reflective possibilities, are becoming far more visible.

‘The French Revolution, Fichte’s philosophy of science, and Goethe’s Meister are the greatest tendencies [Tendenzen] of the age. No revolution that is not loud and material will appear important to the person who objects to this compilation. That kind of person had not yet climbed to the high, broad point of view of human history’

– Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeumfragment 216

The situation of the Early German Romantics such as Schlegel is is a unique historical conjuncture, in which enlightenment reason, in the wake of Kant, and the arts (particularly the literary arts) encounter and affect each other. The comparison with the age of digital media and the sudden ability to self-author through providing ‘content’ for social networks is tempting, but ultimately misled. Today’s digital aestheticism of the self is a world away from the intent of the Früromantik movement to make art announce itself as art. The misunderstanding can, in fact, be traced to how Fichte is read.

From reading de Man’s summarisation of Fichte’s dialectic of the self in the Wissenshaftslehre (‘On the Concept of Irony’, Aesthetic Ideology p.172) it becomes apparent that the frequent mischaracterisation of Fichte’s system as a form of Subjective Idealism a la Berkeley, or as solipsism, stems from attempts to read Fichte’s ‘self’ from a phenomenological, or even a vulgar psychological vantage. For de Man, the Fichtean self is purely linguistic, and its act of self-positing occurs not in experience or in the inner mental life of any individual but purely within language. The enunciation or marking of the I, the act by which language marks and posits itself as self-generating, is a linguistic act and not a subjective one. Fichte’s non-I which is generated out of the linguistic I is the linguistic I’s reference to the outside of the language it commands – a reference which can be seen, true to Fichte’s system, to occur only within language itself; thus the non-I is generated from the I. It is only on the basis of this primordial linguistic act by which language refers to its own taking place (see the significance of grammatical shifters and deixis in Benveniste and in Agamben) that something like subjectivity in the usual, phenomenological sense, can follow. Here then we have something like a Lacanianism avant la lettre: the signifier precedes; the subject is constituted, or receives its being, from the Other (that is, from language). We must consider then the Fichtean ‘self’ as a presubjective or nonsubjective I, a purely ‘formal’ self-inscription or self-registration of language, a virtual point which through its singular self-indicative status, enables reference (and thus both subjectivisation and worldliness). The (Hegelian) criticism that the Fichtean ‘I’ is desubstantialised would thereby miss the point; it would be substantive – its materiality would be that of a language pliable and sensitive enough to register its own capacities. Nor would the (de Mannian) Fichtean ‘I’ pose for us some figure of inmost inwardness, or point of absolute subjectivism; indeed it would be radically desubjective and impersonal, but thoroughly social. Its detachment from any individual phenomenological field would be that of the narrative voice of an author writing a novel in the first person: the ‘I’ of the narrative need bear no relation to the psychological self of the author, it merely enables the unary trait of a linguistic voice through which some kind of minimal narrative consistency might be established, a feature that is a wholly separate matter to that of how ‘unreliable’ the narrator and the narrative may prove to be. The relation of Fichte’s self to the ‘self’ envisaged in folk psychology would be strictly arbitrary. What we need to question, like Derrida, is how and when signification – the deferral of a signifier to another in some kind of enchainment whereby metaphysical presence is never finally achievable – can be said to occur. In other words, it is far from being the positivity of an extradiscursive realm which is in question, and much more akin to being the metaphysical basis of the positivisation process itself which is under fire here. What does positivity even mean? The posited, the positioned, and so on. Positivity, as Foucault surely saw in using the term, can only indicate the operation of language, just as the status of ‘facts’ can only indicate the operation of some factum, some fundamental act of making. Nothing permits us to summarise these Fichtean realisations (as Schopenhauer’s vulgarisation did) as a form of subjective idealism in which a spider-like ego weaves the world purely out of its own mentation. At stake is not the physicality of the world nor the materiality of matter: indeed, far from this, at stake is a bewildering understanding that language itself exists materially as part of the world and not as a neutral medium that simply overlays and describes a world that pre-exists it.

The point of this discursus was simply this: a recognition of the social materiality of language. To speak, write, declaim in any way, is to enter a social space. One of Derrida’s influential mentors, the literary theorist Maurice Blanchot, mused that he was never less alone than when writing. One is directly exposed to the the material sociality of language, one is indeed always already ‘buried’ within the social. Part of the structural affinity of the Früromantik movement’s loose literary theory with these more recent observations lies in the ability of language to reflect and evince its own material status, which is to say, its historicality.

At this point it is necessary to state my own commitments and interests. I am currently studying Art History at postgraduate level and intend to focus my dissertation on forms of irony in visual culture. Given that irony has been defined right from the beginning as a phenomenon rooted in orality and literacy rather than in plastic and visual cultures, my problem will be to contextualise irony in artwork from an art historical rather than a literary theoretical perspective. Thankfully some of this work has already been done, although there is much to do.

Until Schlegel’s famous expansion of the term, irony had been regarded in only two modes: the rhetorical-oratorial and the philosophical. Schlegel’s redefinition and expansion of irony, leading to literary scholarship’s embrace of the concept of ‘romantic irony’, made it possible for Strohshneider-Kohr’s assertion that ‘ironie ist Mittel der Selbstrepräsentation von Kunst’ (“[Romantic] Irony is the means whereby art represents itself”, Strohschneider-Kohrs, I., Die Romantisch Ironie in Theorie und Gestalltung, Tübingen: Niemeyer 1977 [1960], p.70) It is precisely this capacity of art to subjectify and identify itself qua art through the social mechanisms of romantic irony which, hopefully, will form the subject of my dissertation.

With this definition of romantisch ironie in mind, it seems to be wholly incompatible to compare the internet-based culture of the political alt-right anonymous trolling with anything happening in Jena in the 1790s-1800. On the one hand we find a developing theory of art’s social reflexivity and an enlarged capacity for the expressive and experimental capacity of art (more specifically life as a productive, open poesis centred not on a transcendental self but on a larger, historical view of language); on the other hand we find a network of white supremacists posing as deconstruction-literate ‘free-players’ who don’t ‘get’ Derrida at all, understand irony even less, and who all-too-conveniently happen to be politically aligned with some of the ridiculous and extreme transgressions they post online. All this while desperately fearing their anonymity will be broken and they will be outed to their employers and family. Banter, in other words, is deeply committed, deeply politically egregious, and a long way from being in any way self-reflective.

The Politics of Form

(This is an edited version of some work I did at undergraduate level some years ago)

The Politics of Form in Giacomo Balla’s Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) and Hans Haacke’s A Breed Apart (1978)

Figure 1. Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed by Giacomo Balla, 1913

Figure 1: Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed by Giacomo Balla, 1913

Figure 2. <em>A Breed Apart</em>, 2nd Image, by Hans Haacke 1978

Figure 2. A Breed Apart, 2nd Image, by Hans Haacke 1978 From Perry, G. and Wood, P. (eds.) 2004, Themes in Contemporary Art, Yale University Press: New Haven and London in association with The Open University: Milton Keynes, plate 1.1, p.22

Figure 3. <em>A Breed Apart</em> (all seven images as conventionally exhibited) by Hans Haacke 1978

Figure 3. A Breed Apart (all seven images as conventionally exhibited) by Hans Haacke 1978

Figure 4. <em>Abstract Speed</em> Triptych (speculative reconstruction by David J Smith), by Giacomo Balla 1913

Figure 4. Abstract Speed Triptych (speculative reconstruction by David J Smith), by Giacomo Balla 1913


This essay proposes that certain formal attributes of a work of art can project a political dimension upon the screen of its reception, offering a politicised position to the viewer. More precisely, the two very different works of art Abstract Speed: The Car Has Passed (by Giacomo Balla, 1913, see fig.1) and A Breed Apart (by Hans Haacke, 1978, see fig. 2) will be compared in terms of how they put to use formal techniques for quite different political purposes. The degree to which political themes are present in these works will be assessed. The political context of both artists will be considered as well as a brief commentary on the development of their artistic techniques. A formal and visual analysis of each work will attempt to draw out the ways in which their artwork amplifies or contests the politics of their age, and situates the viewer.

The critic and media theorist Franco Berardi characterises the twentieth century in Europe as the “century that trusted in the future”, in its early years presided over by a utopian Futurist vision (Berardi 2011 p.17). By 1977 this faith had imploded into the dystopian nihilism of Punk, proclaiming ‘No Future’ (Berardi 2011 p.17). Berardi’s periodisation dates are highly significant with respect to the two artworks examined here. Balla’s Abstract Speed series of paintings from 1913 mark the artist’s ‘fully-fledged’ entrance into the Futurist circle (Humphreys 1999 p.36), while Haacke’s A Breed Apart, produced in 1978, marks a definitive moment in anti-establishment institutional critique.

Balla in Context

As Robert Hughes notes, the speed with which culture reinvented itself in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th seemed ‘almost praeternatural’ (Hughes 1980, p.15). More than one writer has noted that the inauguration of Futurism coincided with the arrival of the first moving assembly lines (Meikle in Schnapps 2009, p.62; Berardi 2011, p.19). However, Fordist production processes and Taylorist ‘scientific management’ of labour time had not yet reached Italy. During this period, the cultural memory of the Risorgimento was still recent, and the economy was still largely agricultural (Berardi 2011, p.21). The infamous racing car of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto, with its ‘explosive breath’ and seeming to run ‘on machine gun fire’ (Marinetti 1909 in Harrison & Wood, p.147), would not have been produced with the ‘beauty of speed’ but hand-assembled ‘using traditional craft techniques’ (Meikle in Schnapps 2009, p.62). Italian Futurism looked, initially at least, beyond national borders and saw urban life in the industrialised nations changing radically and rapidly.

For the poet Marinetti, the inventor of Futurism and later a Fascist demagogue, the velocity of machines represented freedom from history, the power to redraw the map of Europe, and to replace ‘the old sickly cooing sensitivity of the earth’ with ‘iron bridges’, piercing ‘surgical trains’ and enormous turbines – the ‘new muscles of the earth’. For Marinetti war was ‘hygiene’, and speed was ‘beauty’ (Hughes, 1980, p.43). Marinetti’s lyrical bombast may seem extreme but it can be considered to have both expressed and contributed towards a particular ‘structure of feeling’ in which its artistic statements were ‘all the time lived’ (Williams 1977, p.128-29) in everyday early twentieth century Italian life. Futurist painting was an attempt to translate or embody this structure of feeling in a visual medium (Hughes 1980, p.43).

It is important to note while Balla had signed Marinetti’s Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting of 1910, there was political distance between them which only widened in later years. Balla is described as subscribing to a form of ‘humanitarian socialism’ (Humphreys 1999, p.22). Nonetheless, his 1913 Abstract Speed paintings can be said to express something of the cultural ‘structure of feeling’ of 1913 Italian society, and of Futurism’s love affair with acceleration, economic accumulation, state expansion, nationalism, novelty, violence, and machismo.

By the time that Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed was created, Giacomo Balla—with experience of composing music and of his father’s professional photography—had already spent considerable time producing work which responded to the advent of cinema and to the innovative chronophotography of Marey and Muybridge (Humphreys 1999, p.34; Martin & Grosenick 2006, p.15 & p.42). Balla extended the points of paint (of the divisionist technique) into lines, and multiplied the representations of a subject. His 1912 works, for example, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash and Rhythm of the Violinist are ‘mechanically analytical’ attempts to capture and represent motion in a painted medium (Humphreys 1999, p.36).

In the English language the word ‘form’ adumbrates a number of ideas which, for example, in ancient Greek, were different (e.g. morphé, eidos, schema, rythmos). Thus, morphé and schema denote form as something fixed and unchanging, whereas rythmos specifically refers to a form ‘acquired through motion’ (Benveniste 1966, pp.327-335). According to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Marey and Muybridge had attempted to capture rythmos in their photographic innovations; likewise this thesis can be extended to Balla’s analytic works, such as the Girl Crossing a Balcony (1912-13) and Speed of a Motorcycle (1913). However it is important to keep in mind an important distinction between the nineteenth century chronophotographers and Balla’s painted motion, which is the specifically Futurist context of the latter. Balla put his techniques in service to the commodification and politicisation of speed and motion.

Balla’s spiritual interests in Symbolism and Theosophy may also have guided his experiments with inter-penetrating complementary colours and with a kind of visual synaesthesia of musical and sonic effects. The latter, concerned as it is with the dynamic propagation of sonic waves through time and space, was in likelihood strongly related to the use of ‘force-lines’ proposed by the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting (Humphreys 1999, p.36). The combination of the influences detailed above prompted Balla to give visual artistic form to such concepts as machinery, motion, force and speed, dramatising in paint a sense of the accelerating rhythm and tempo of urban European life.

Haacke in Context

Pierre Bourdieu, a theorist that has collaborated with Hans Haacke (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994), characterised the latter’s work as similar in effect to Karl Krauss’ incitements, which ‘provoked his adversaries to make mistakes, or show themselves up’ and which ‘turned the forces of his adversaries against them’. (Speller 2011 p.144). More specifically, in A Breed Apart, Haacke uses ‘discursive montage’ (Speller 2011 p.144), a way of combining different registers of language with visual elements, as institutional critique.

The combination of photographic visual elements and text, according to Linda Hutcheon (1989, p.126) creates a multi-registered semiotic system in which the meanings produced by the Piercean indexicality and iconicity of the photograph form an ‘interference fringe’ with the meanings produced by the symbolic nature of the accompanying text. This ‘interference’ challenges the reader/observer on several levels; firstly it demands that text and photograph not be considered as independent sign systems, and secondly it demands some kind of synthesis in a new overall meaning. The emergence of this new meaning in the reader/observer can be said to constitute the ‘conceptual art’ of the work.

Haacke’s technique in A Breed Apart can be identified as taking one of two forms: in parts two, four and six (see fig. 3) he presents a familiar photograph (such as might be used in advertising) and unsettles their conventional meanings through the content conveyed by accompanying text, whereas in parts one, three, five and seven (see fig. 3) he accompanies an disquieting photograph of armed policing or political arrest with a paragraph of text designed to read like a cheerful press release. Thus within the work as a whole a duality of both forms of mediation emerge: text critiquing commercial photography, and photographs critiquing commercial literature. What is constant in both of these technical movements is that the familiar and the unfamiliar collide, re-framing a hitherto innocuous-seeming commercialism in terms of its connection with the political tensions of Apartheid.

A Breed Apart both says and shows what is in everyday advertising necessarily omitted. It effectively suggests that the commodification of a vehicle is above all a process of eliding the process of its production and the associated social and political structures which enabled this process. Advertisement then appears disingenuous, presenting products as if they had magically appeared via the goodwill of the brand alone, alienating consumers from the real material processes. Pierre Bourdieu cites Brecht’s estrangement effect as an influence on his ideas of ‘une politique de la forme’ (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994 p.84) and on Haacke’s critique of ‘symbolic capital’ (p.89). Brechtian verfremdungseffekt was itself partly inspired by the literary criticism of the Russian Formalist school, particularly Shklovsky’s identification of priem ostranenie—the ‘estranging device/technique’ in Art as Technique (Shklovsky 1917 in Lemon & Reis 2012, pp.). It is not immediately obvious that devices sometimes called ‘alienation effects’ can be used by a viewer to disalienate himself or herself ‘in and through the consciousness of alienation’, but this is indeed an effect of defamiliarisation (Lefebvre 2014, p.45; Shepherd & Wallis 2004, p.185; Gordon 2006, p.389 n25)

As can be witnessed from the above, the context in which Haacke produced his work is one heavily influenced by literary factors, theory and theorists—particularly Bourdieu—and so his use of the creative interface between text and images is hardly surprising. What makes A Breed Apart stand out from more ‘playful’ works of conceptual art is its explicit political targeting. Haacke challenges the formalist, aestheticist idea (such as that expressed by Clement Greenberg in his 1965 article Modernist Painting) that specific political messages and historical references ‘contaminate’ art. Instead, the formal qualities of Haacke’s artwork are a political message, while political message would be impossible without form (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994 p.90).

Haacke’s use of the tagline ‘A Breed Apart’ reveals how his raw materials (here, the stuff of advertising, its phrases and imagery) is always already ‘contaminated’ politically. In some regions of its transnational enterprise Jaguar used this phrase to generate distinction for itself as a brand, since as part of a vocabulary of separating birthrights or pedigrees in bred sporting animals it carried the suggestion of virility and heightened potency. However, the same language when applied to human beings immediately deflates any symbolic capital, as it can easily indicate racist segregation, which is precisely what Haacke wanted to bring into focus in this work. When the phrase is conjoined with photographs of Apartheid politics, its ‘official’ meaning slides uncontrollably towards a condemnation of advertising’s complicity in and proximity to institutionalised racism.

As alluded to in the introduction, the fact that A Breed Apart was produced in the year 1978 is important. If 1977 saw the rise of the Punk movement and the appropriation of Lettrist and Situationist techniques of détournement (Debord 1981 in Harrison & Wood 1992, pp.701-710) then Haacke’s art of the following year also follows this wider social pattern of anti-establishment critique. However, since 1978 techniques of re-appropriating establishment material have themselves been re-appropriated and today there exist ‘cool-hunting expeditions’—marketing practices whereby advertisers scour ghettoes for ‘edgy’ new style ideas for commercial product placement. This highlights the historical specificity of Haacke’s A Breed Apart.

In terms of situating the viewer, Haacke combats what Bourdieu calls the ‘symbolic domination’ of both corporate and state patrons and sponsors whose strategic goal has been to seduce and manipulate artists into neutralising criticism of their policies and products (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994, p.16-20). While this may seem like a return to a modernist argument, concerning the autonomy (versus heteronomy) of the artist, it deeply concerns what the viewer is able to view since it bears on the economic and social conditions of possibility for the production and exhibition of artwork.

Visual Analysis of the Seen Artwork

As currently exhibited at the Tate Liverpool gallery, The Car Has Passed hangs in a corner of the DLA Piper series ‘Constellations’, in which artworks are arranged not chronologically but according to how they were ‘triggered’ by other works. According to this arrangement, the ‘constellation’ Balla’s work belongs to is dominated by Henri Matisse, through a series of ‘correspondences’ including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jean Metzinger (Tate 2014a). In terms of physical location, Balla’s painting hangs between Natalya Goncharova’s Gardening and an exterior window, appearing almost peripheral to the exhibition.

While Balla’s delineation appears sharp and fresh in photographs of the work, this is misleading, as closer inspection of the work (which is smaller than might be imagined, at 502mm by 654mm [Tate 2014b]) reveals a roughness to the lines and particularly to the shading that follows them. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the pink of the bottom left force-line, where the shading appears granular and smudged in the areas where it is crossed transversally by other force-lines.

The back and top of the pictorial space is marked out somewhat conventionally by a deep blue sky, backgrounding a row of three intersecting geometrical hills, functioning both as a distant landscape and, through shallow modelling following arched and ogival shapes, abstractly foliate forms. A stylised off-white road dominates the lower half of the painting, appearing to issue from a traditionally perspectival and foreshortened vanishing point, albeit a vanishing point plainly inconsistent with the other elements of the painting. The illusionistic depth of the picture is complicated by the unusual, non-realist placement of the road, the abstractness of the landscape, and by the force-lines which criss-cross the surface. The perspective and sweep of the road suggests depth but remains un-modelled. The effect of these complications and dualities is to both invite and to bar the viewer from entry into illusionistic space. The force-lines, which abstractly represent the sonic aftermath and exhaust trail of the titular passed car, oscillate between two modes. Firstly, they appear as an inviting veil or curtain superimposed on a scene with depth; secondly, as a radical partitioning of that scene into more ‘painterly’ and flattened sections. A hint of ‘analytic’ Cubism’s influence is discernible here.

If understood as the third image in a triptych (see fig. 4) the background in Balla’s Abstract Speed series develops narratively from being darkened and obscured by the noise, speed and lines of force of the ‘car’ in the leftmost and central paintings, yet survives intact and bright in the final image (in which ‘the car has passed’). This demonstrates political differences between Balla and Marinetti’s regarding Nature; whereas Marinetti has written bitterly of ‘the old cooing sensitivity of the earth’ and of destroying the Earth for the sake of the machine (Hughes 1980, p.43), Balla’s painted landscape still remains intact despite the energetic advent of the motor car.

In contrast to the heavier, darker and angrier lines of the two other paintings that purportedly make up the Abstract Speed triptych (Tate 2014c; Guggenheim 2014), particularly the second (Abstract Speed: Speed and Sound, see fig. 4) with its smaller, scatter-gun force-lines, The Car Has Passed is dominated by the generous and open curvature of its force-lines, which seem almost serene in comparison. Seen as the denouement of a three-painting narrative, ‘the car’ has indeed ‘passed’, and what remains in its wake is only the cursive flourish or signature of its speed, as gently descending fumes and waves of air pressure that look set only to disperse further. The palette of blues, greens and pinks is cooler and more harmonious than that of the other paintings, but it is important to note that tensions are still present.

The conventionally-ordered, simplistic and even naïve composition of The Car Has Passed in terms of colour (a receding blue sky, a row of dark green hills, an illuminated foreground) appears very much to be a deliberate concession to classical bucolic or picturesque ideals of rurality and Nature’s beauty. It is important not to overstate this, because when presented abstractly, these ideals are indeed analytically flattened, revealing the stasis and schematism of the ideals of pastoral hills and idyllic blue skies. Balla no doubt painted with a full awareness of this contradiction: on the one hand ‘musically’ appreciative of harmony and cyclic returns to cadence, but on the other hand recognising that forces of excitation and disturbance are required to prevent stagnation and inaction.

The overall effect on the viewer, bearing in mind the social context, is to galvanise a belief in the necessity of progress, without undue sacrifice of certain ideals regarding national territory. The emotional atmosphere—or, using Williams’ term, ‘structure of feeling’—generated and conveyed by the painting is complex and contradictory if considered logically, but in terms of emotion it is powerfully motivated. At the centre of the issue, although absent from the painting, is the driver and his driven nature—as Marinetti’s masculinist chauvinism made clear, Italian Futurism required men do the driving—so that any winged Victory for the motorcar and the machine age only masks a paean to the will and might of man over nature. It is hard to filter out Marinetti’s populist rallying cry to unite in mastery of the aggressive energies unleashed by new technologies elsewhere in Europe, to contend for a superior place there. Yet the message suggested by Balla’s abstractions stands slightly apart from that Futurism, in that Balla’s vehicle seems in the end just a vehicle, to be dispensed with: a technical means of interrupting and rousing people from inactivity, while the true object of national desire was a kind of spiritual evanescence that only the vehicle’s speed could facilitate.


Today we can speak easily of a fetishism of speed, in which the actual production and technical mechanics of a vehicle and its engine have been obscured and mystified by the commercial imagery of open roads, responsive controls and breathtaking experiences which pique modern desire. In retrospect, Balla’s Abstract Speed appears as a proto-advertisement, linking a luxury item—too fast to see—with the anticipation of collectively fulfilling these kinds of desires as a nation. Balla’s work prefigures those modern advertisements from which the product is often absent but nonetheless virtualised through its traces and effects: that is, in its ‘lines of force’. Through the imagery and ideologies used in advertising the collective desires of an audience are commodified and sold back to the audience in the form of a product or brand. As such, the painting not only proved prescient but situated the contemporary viewer as part of a much larger collective desirous of a certain future, which is to say, as being on an emotional level politically complicit with international competition, an increasingly corporatist state and its means of economic accumulation.

An interesting visual parallel emerges when comparing the second of the seven images in A Breed Apart (fig. 2) to A Car Has Passed. Ignoring the text, the photograph of the car interior establishes the seating as high-quality, fashioned and modern, capturing its curved lines as ‘symbolic capital’, indicating ownership of such a vehicle denotes ‘distinction’, ‘taste’, and a modern ‘life in the fast lane’. The same curves mark Balla’s painting, appearing there as lingering traces of exhaust traces and force-lines. These curves (which in the masculinist and sexist mindset can no doubt evoke a yielding femininity supportive of, but absent from, the fast lane) echo in Balla’s work the abstract voluptuousness of his landscape; there too they are part of the attempt to generate value or symbolic capital. However, in Haacke’s work, the pointedness of the accompanying text destroys whatever imagined comforts the curved caresses of the interior upholstery might have conjured; the point is to deflate the generation of symbolic capital.

Both artworks examined attempt to engage the viewer / reader actively in the production of meaning, conveying a political dynamic or tension in which the viewer / reader will take up a position. There is in both works an implicit appeal to the popular, that is, to the people. In Balla’s work the overall movement is towards mythologisation, commodification, and the generation of symbolic capital or value, which involves the exercise of the imagination in projecting a sense of the future. This future is not explicitly nationalised, as in a later work (Long Live Italy, 1915—a highly patriotic, literally ‘flag-waving’ painting utilising the Italian colours), although the abstract rolling green hills hint at some nationalistic attachment to the soil. In Hans Haacke’s work the overall movement is towards de-mythologisation, which undoes the imagery and glamour of the advertised vehicles to reveal the political implications of advertising and the selectivity of what is shown by it.

Balla and Haacke certainly share a destructive urge, although clearly there are clear differences in its expression. A Breed Apart sets out to destroy the mythologising, fetishising use of images by advertisers and to wound the tradition of advertising by turning it on itself. Balla’s Abstract Speed: The Car Has Passed stages the destruction of history through the phenomena of escape and passage towards the future (although preserving nationhood, and perhaps to some extent, an idealised countryside).

With Futurism, it is as if the machine merely by its novelty will accomplish marvels—there is in Marxian terms a ‘commodity fetishism’ at work; Haacke shows on the contrary that sordid human political machinations and their deliberate obscuration hold together the media edifice which broadcasts the marvels and modernity of machines to its consumers.

Although working in different directions and very different contexts, both Haacke and Balla make use of formal devices as means of politicising their artwork. This is not to say that such devices are politically neutral, like technical instruments that remain innocent and uncontaminated by whatever specific uses they are put to. On the contrary, they are in Bourdieu and Haacke’s view always indissociable from the political context of their use, but their political meaning changes according to that context.


Benveniste, E., 1966: Problèmes de linguistique générale, Gallimard: Paris.
Berardi, F., 2011: After the Future, AK Press: Edinburgh
Bourdieu & Haacke 1994: Free Exchange, Polity Press: Cambridge
Debord, G., Knabb, K. [ed., trans.] 1981: ‘Writings from the Situationist International’ from Situationist International Anthology in Harrison & Wood (1992) Art in Theory, Blackwell, London, pp.701-710
Gordon, R., 2006: The Purpose of Playing: Modern Acting Theories in Perspective, The University of Michigan Press: London
Guggenheim 2014: [webpage] Giacomo Balla,
Harrison, C. & Wood, P. [eds.] 2003: Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, New Edition, Blackwell: London.
Hughes, R. 1980: The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change, Updated and Enlarged Edition, Thames & Hudson by arrangement with BBC publications, a division of BBC Enterprises Ltd: London, 1991
Humphreys, R., 1999: Futurism (Movements in Modern Art), Tate Gallery Publishing: London
Hutcheon, L., 1989: The Politics of Postmodernism, Routledge:Abingdon, 2nd ed. (2002)
Lemon & Reis [eds.] (2012) Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, University of Nebraska Press
Knab, K. [ed., trans.] 1981: Situationist International Anthology, Revised and expanded ed. 2007, Bureau of Public Secrets (no copyright): Berkeley
Marinetti, F. T., 1909: ‘The Futurist Manifesto‘ in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (1992) Art and Theory, Blackwell, London, pp.146-149
Martin, S. & Grosenick, U. (ed.) 2006: Futurism, Taschen: London
Meikle, J. L., 2009: ‘Materials’ in Schnapp (2009) Speed Limits, The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, The Canadian Centre for Architecture and Skira: London, pp.58-73
Perry, G. and Wood, P. (eds.) 2004, Themes in Contemporary Art, Yale University Press: New Haven and London in association with The Open University: Milton Keynes, plate 1.1, p.22
Schnapp, J. T., 2009: Speed Limits, The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, The Canadian Centre for Architecture and Skira: London
Speller, J.R.W., 2011: Bourdieu and Literature, OpenBook Publishers: Cambridge
Shklovsky, V., 1917: ‘Art as Technique’ in Lemon & Reis [eds.] (2012) Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, University of Nebraska Press
Tate 2014a: [webpage] Constellations, retreived etc
Tate 2014b: [webpage] Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed,
Tate 2014c: [webpage] Catalogue entry,

Whose determinism?

In early and mid-twentieth century debate, the problem [of the relationship between the economic ‘base’ and the ‘ideological superstructure’] was understood to be that this model was crude and reductive: superstructural phenomena, such as art, were supposed to be read off as a ‘reflection’ of economic circumstances. In the face of this some Marxists (…notably Gramsci) produced versions of the theory of ideology which loosened in certain ways the ties between base and superstructure. Thus for Gramsci ideology was a matter of ‘hegemony’ – the way in which a particular group and its ideas might come to be dominant in a complex and shifting field of class conflict – rather than being merely a simple reflection of the economic base. While this had the advantage of making the Marxist theory less crude, the disadvantage (or so it may seem) is that the theory becomes much less precise. Indeed, if there is a kind of autonomous struggle taking place in the ideological realm then it is no longer very clear what the Marxists’ insistence on the primacy of economics amounts to – perhaps not very much more than a commitment to a certain political position and set of social values.


While some artists may be conservative, others… are… consciously revolutionary, while still others, it seems, have no obvious political position one way or the other. Can the Marxist theory accommodate all three possibilities? And, if the answer is yes, does not an even more profound problem present itself: if Marxism can find a place for every phenomenon, does that not make it unfalsifiable and (as Sir Karl Popper famously alleged) something that has more of the character of religion than of science?

— Hatt, M. and Klonk, C., 2006, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods, Manchester University Press (emphasis added)

While reading this chapter of Hatt and Klonk for MA Art History, I took particular exception to this piece of argumentation.

As Marxist Anthropologist Maurice Godelier has pointed out, ‘superstructure’ is a spectacularly bad translation of the term ‘Uberbau’ (Godelier, M. 2012 The Mental and the Material, Verso, p.6). This is all the more apparent when considered in the context of the metaphorical usage Marx put it to. The relationship between Grundlage and Uberbau (often translated as ‘base’ or ‘infrastructure’ and ‘superstructure’) in the German language is that between the foundation of a building, below ground, and the building itself. There are no ‘super’ structures here, only the necessarily sunken foundation and the perfectly normal, quotidian, structure it supports. Furthermore, it is in the Uberbau, as a ground floor everyday building that we live our lives, not ‘in the basement’ (ibid.). To point this out is to attempt to demolish those deep-seated prejudicial twins of misreading which would either render ‘superstructures’ as some kind of airy-fairy imaginary order which floats above society miraculously ordering it (which would constitute a return to idealism), or to an entirely servile, if material, ‘cultural appendage’ to society wholly determined by economic forces; rather the Uberbau is the ‘built environment’ of society itself, constituted and reproduced by the material practices of everyday life. This level of material practice is, in the sense elaborated by Althusser, ideological, meaning not ‘informed or constrained by erroneous thinking’, but comprising of varying institutional structures or practical regularities, which furthermore are generated, disseminated, ideologically reproduced and to some degree policed by what Althusser calls ‘apparatuses’. Foucault will also refer to apparatuses (dispositifs) when he maintains, like Althusser, that a certain subjectivity is produced by a particular kind of apparatus. The point to stress here, in both Foucault and Althusser, is the relative autonomy, even the historical contingency, of institutional structures. Far from being entirely determined by an economic base, the everyday Uberbau is a place of contestation, the site of ideological struggle and social antagonism, not merely its reflection or expression.

Marx was not the economic determinist some might portray him as, nor are most Marxists. The direction of causality is certainly not fixed by the metaphor of a building supported by its foundation; Marx is no more saying that economics ’causes’ the culture of society, any more than a foundation ’causes’ the shape of a house. Nor is he restricted to the argument that the metaphor might itself suggest as its meaningful limit, in which the form of a foundation conditions the kind of building it can support in a unilateral manner. Indeed Marx himself has furnished us with examples of how political acts occurring at the level of the Uberbau may impact and affect the development of productive forces at the level of the Grundlage (economic base) [Singer, P., 1980, p.56]. Were Marx a thoroughgoing economic determinist, this would not be possible within the confines of his work.

It is true that Marx does at times adhere to a teleological model of history in which a sense of purposiveness remains and sometimes speaks of the Uberbau as expressing ‘the unconscious’ of history. However, to subsume all moments of Marx within a kind of over-arching economic eliminativism (in which nothing happens but for ultimately economic reasons) is a misunderstanding. It could even be said to be an anachronism borne of current neoliberalism’s own disavowals. Indeed, it is only within the last few years that a minister of education could write in a white paper that the purpose of higher education is ultimately to ‘generate value’ and is to be set in view most aptly in terms of such an investment. It is interesting that the more a purportedly ‘Marxist’ economic determinism is fervently rejected on a cultural level, the more it is embraced – in inverted, reactionary forms such as ‘austerity’– as actual policy at the level of governance; in this way a generalised criticism of a deterministic Marx seems to mask the very deployment of a reactionary economic determinism. Do government departments such as the ‘nudge unit’, which attempts to remould subjectivities and society in general by attempting to push people’s economic behaviour in certain directions, not bespeak a deterministic outlook, do they not presuppose a certain commitment to the direction in which an economy ought to be going? Is it not teleological, if not outright anthropomorphic, today, to allow financial markets to ‘decide’ best policy (right up until the point when bankrupting all major financial institutions in the western hemisphere is no longer justifiable as ‘best’ practice, and politicians must decide that things simply ought to be going differently)? Would this moralised economic teleology be any more acceptable, any less ‘religious’, than orthodox Marxism, on Hatt and Klonk’s account?

It is inaccurate to reduce orthodox Marxism to economic reductionism in the way that Hatt and Klonk seem to want to; their argument that, were ideology autonomous and therefore economic determinism inarguably disproved, would not in the least entail a refutation of Marxism. Rather it only entails the refutation of a supposed Marxism that was contained entirely within economic determinism, which is something that would remain to be shown.

Understood in this way, it is possible to argue that Hatt and Klonk’s understanding of the base/superstructure model of earlier Marxist art historians may either comprise of genuine criticism aimed at a vulgar, although perhaps widespread, mistranslation of Marx which those art historians adhered to, or consist of a ‘straw man’ argument in which a crude understanding of traditional Marxism has been retro-fitted onto those art historians by Hatt and Klonk. Either way, the base/superstructure model of a society determined by an economic base, which seems to dog Marxism more from non-Marxist critics who do not read Marx in the original and receive their understanding third-hand, than from Marxists who translate the original for themselves, must be at all cost jettisoned. That Hatt and Klonk read this as actually jettisoning Marxism itself only compounds errors made along the way.

Overcoding and Iconology in Transcultural Contexts

Some comparison between the semiotic notions of coding, overcoding, and undercoding (Eco, U., 1976/1979, A Theory of Semiotics) and Erwin Panofsky’s phases of iconological insight (Panofsky, E., 1939, Studies in Iconology) seems possible. In particular, the two movements accomplished in Umberto Eco’s given coding-overcoding sequence (p.134) would seem to correspond to the first two stages, i.e. the pre-iconographic and iconographic phases, in Panofsky’s three staged iconology. In the first stage we have a purportedly ‘innocent eye’ that merely inventories the more conventional signs (‘here is a woman bearing a pair of eyes in a golden saucer’), and then at some indeterminate point, the possession of iconographical knowledge (one could also say ‘cultural knowledge’ or ‘cultural familiarity’) would determine the onset of a second stage. In that second stage the rules of the first code still operate to identify the elements, but become the basis of a further rule that determines their applicability, in effect telling us how to apply them (‘here is a conventional image of St. Lucy’). In some respects one may even say that the meta-rules or overcodings provided in the iconographic phase serve to suspend the usual operation of the first, ‘innocent-eyed’ layer of codings.

If we read Panofsky alongside Eco, we can say that according to Eco’s definition of overcoding:

While iconology recognises a specific arrangement or organisation of items to refer to a particular icon or theme, it is only through the ‘innocent-eye’ coding of these individual elements or items that they first become recognisable. Iconology thus practices an overcoding on the basis of this coding, a further rule to its rules; first it recognises (de/codes) the items but then, on top of that, it recognises (de/codes) their specific arrangement, their co-occurrence or constellation, as having further specificity on the plane of cultural meaning.

Thus, in the case of the image of a woman carrying her eyes in a saucer, which Eco gives (and here is an example) the first level of coding is composed of the conventional elements {woman, saucer, eyes, carrying}, but a further recognition of a more specific, rarer coding or convention is needed in order to see that, in the arrangement of these elements in the context of a certain kind of image within a certain cultural history, we find ourselves before a very specific though conventional figure or symbolic representation of St. Lucy. Suddenly, the woman is no longer a woman, the eyes are no longer (just) eyes. Through the constellation with the eyes she holds and the golden saucer that bears them, against a background of cultural knowledge, a further, symbolic figure appears. If not exactly nullifying the conventional coding on which it was initially dependent, this new image certainly pushes it to the back burner. This is so because a new and different register or context has opened — the iconological — and the ‘innocent’ register, a necessary step but lacking overcoding, has been superseded. At least, this would be the standard reading of the iconological hermeneutic translated into Eco’s semiotic terms.

Overcoding and Iconology in Transcultural Contexts

However, as with the standard criticism of Panofsky’s stages — the ‘innocent eye’ is retroactively constructed as a virtual position we were never really in (i.e. free of cultural associations) — it is also possible to hold a critique of Eco’s overcoding. Are we not always already looking for a referential context when we first approach an image, approaching its elements only as features within a synoptic whole, rather than already having broken it down into recognisable atoms of reference to be reassembled? It can be argued that on first approach there is not an empirical stock-taking of discrete elements, but that the initial approach beholds first their ensemble.

In other words, on the first approach we are already operating in the realm of overcoding, rather than coding. This is perhaps tantamount to stating that we are already acculturated, socialised, and thus iconologically operative, when we first encounter the image. If so, then is this encounter nothing other than the site where cultural differences, rather than monocultural confirmations of ‘competence’, might appear?

The problem with the transcultural (or multicultural) audience regarding the monocultural icon is that according to Eco such an audience ‘undercodes’, that is to say, ‘in the absence of reliable pre-established rules’ (p.135), such an audience guesses at a general cultural meaning, constructing a ‘rough’ coding. Thus according to Eco, ‘images produced by an alien civilization… are understood by way of undercoding’ (p.136). Clearly this statement is insufficient when read in the light of an always-acculturated audience, which is to say, an audience for which ‘reliable pre-established rules’ always exist: it is not that these rules of decoding are unreliable, nor under-established; it is simply that they are culturally different to those of the artist and of his or her attendant iconologists of the same culture. The criterion of ‘reliability’ in determining the subject of an image would then come down to this rather dismal question: as a foreigner, are you culturally competent enough to understand what the artist is representing? Here it is appropriate to ask why this sharing of cultural context with a posited presence or intention is considered the ‘reliable’ overcoding, whereas an equally acculturated audience from a different ethnic or social background, bringing a variant overcoding, is not reliable. Why are these other kinds of overcoding to be regarded as deficient, as ‘undercodings’? Clearly one reason is that they would not necessarily fall into line with, i.e. reproduce, the existing discourses of existing powers. And here we are mired with the problem of a monoculturally-embedded authorial intentionality, which only a panel of cultural hierophants are sufficiently equipped to divine for an ‘ignorant’ laity. This audience, it would seem, remains constitutionally uninformed by its divergent cultures, and can only graduate from its alien undercoding to ‘proper’ overcoding by a passive process of learning from those experts who write the official cultural history, and produce the proper knowledge. Certainly there are problems of cultural imperialism here.

I thus propose to replace Eco’s problematic conception of undercoding — specifically in this transcultural instance — with what we might choose to name contestant overcoding. And in principle, all overcoding — including those instances in which the authors of artworks themselves accompany their work with cultural explanations — can be shown to be contestant overcoding.

In this way it would be possible to bring together a conception of contestant overcoding with that of hegemony (in the case of Gramsci) and of enchainment (in the case of Laclau) to provide a theory of meaning in which differences of interpretation can co-exist, if often antagonistically.