Beyond Utopia?: Some ruptures and reconfigurations of the possible.
Guest Writer: Fernando Herrero-Matoses

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Still from Ken Jacobs's film Capitalism: Child Labor (2007)
[On April 26 and 27, 2012, the Unit for Criticism partnered with the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities for a conference, Beyond Utopia? Art, Theory, and the Coming of "Spring." Below, Fernando Herrero-Matoses, a Unit graduate affiliate from the Department of Art History, writes about the first day of the conference.]

"Some ruptures and reconfigurations of the possible."

Written by Fernando Herrero-Matoses, (Art History)

Are contemporary aesthetics capable of enabling instances of radical social and political transformation? The question may seem too broad and even ultimately irresolvable, yet it still facilitates interdisciplinary approaches and critical discussions that can offer productive theoretical juxtapositions for imagining new social geographies under concrete political circumstances. The Unit for Criticism's co-organized two-day event explored this question in order to examine and to imagine social reconfigurations of particular "heres and nows" that can provide new modes of critical engagement and aesthetic participation. Topics ranged from modern political readings of Antigone’s refusal of the city law to the aesthetic spectacle of "Occupy the Street" movements. The first day’s sessions actively engaged with some of these theoretical correspondences regarding avant-garde cinema, historical legacies and radical pedagogy.

Photo of Bonnie Honig speaking on film Germany in Autumn (1978)
The opening keynote lecture by Bonnie Honig (Northwestern) discussed the ethical implications of avant-garde filmmaking and radical politics in the film Germany in Autumn. Filmed in 1978 by nine German filmmakers in the aftermath of the tragic events on October of 1977, the death and public burial of Hanns-Martin Schelyer and the three leading members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), this collaborative project dealt with these traumatic historical events by exploring the intricate relationship between radical politics and the ethical boundaries of the modern democratic state. As Anke Pinkert (German) remarked in her introduction to excerpts from the film, Germany in Autumn juxtaposed the crisis of Western German avant-garde filmmaking and the conflict of intergenerational attempts to wrestle with the legacy of Nazism in post-war Western German society. The film, Pinkert argued, leaves the tension between a postmodern, never-ending mourning and the aesthetic emancipation of historical consciousness unresolved. It thus moves from a crisis of progressive aesthetics into ethics. The film opens with images from Schleyer’s burial (Schleyer, president of the chamber of commerce and a member of the board of trustees for Mercedes-Benz, was kidnapped and murdered by members of the RAF because of his past as an SS officer) while a voiceover reads Schleyer’s letter to his son. It closes with images of the burial of the three members of the RAF in the public cemetery of Stuttgart after the controversial decision of major Manfred Rommel, of the famous WWII Nazi General, to bury them as civilians. This footage of contested public burials evokes Sophocles’s Antigone, questioning the legal and ethical boundaries between modern democratic States and radical social movements.

Honig's lecture, “After Utopia: Genre, Tragedy, and Melodrama in Germany in Autumn," explored the film’s ethical implications by contrasting the rhetorical narratives of two of the directors involved in the multi-part film: Alexander Kluge’s tragedy and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s melodrama. She argued for genre reversal as a potential strategy for theoretical politics. According to Honing, Kluge’s tragic interpretation of the events is framed by the historical legacy between fathers and sons. Consequently it reinstates the classicizing dimension of the myth as inherently present in Germany’s modern identity. In contrast to Kluge’s contribution, Fassbinder’s melodramatic narrative, in which he also starred in, was more persuasive in its rendering of the historical events by locating the trauma at the personal level: affectively in his relationship with his male partner and dialectically in his heated conversation with his mother. According to Honig, Fassbinder’s physical embodiment of social despair rejected the tragic heroism of Kluge’s circular framing of trauma and in so doing awakened the historical narrative while undoing the classical understanding of the political events as tragedy. The questions following her lecture debated the implications of the film's often male-dominated narrative. An interesting conversation emerged in regard to the final image in which, after assisting the public burial of the RAF members, a mother walks into the distance holding her daughter’s hand. This final image complicates the gendered interpretation of the film as a modern male tragedy and functions as a form of counter reading that questions the dominating interpretation of Antigone’s ethical tragedy as a totalizing political metaphor.

In "Embodied History and the Post-Cinema Trace,” Jeffrey Skoller (UC Berkeley), examined avant-garde cinematic forms as a medium for radical social aspirations. Skoller considered the interrelations between digital avant-garde film and the ethics of labor in the works of filmmaker Ken Jacobs. Jacobs’s use of digital image explores the visual potential of early engravings and stereoscopic images, using cinematic codes to reflect on labor and its contemporary representations. Jacobs’s images create what Skoller called a “temporal composite”: a visual diachrony of merged pictures in which images of the past anticipate the needs of the present. Questions from the audience discussed the possibilities of digital technology as a meta-visual code. Some of the questions regarded the distance effect of digital images as non-indexical signs and their self-reflexive quality as a critical opportunity to explore the present production of images by reflecting on the images of the past.

Helio Oiticica, Bolide 3 Caixa 3 Africana, 1963
Irene Small (Art History) followed Skoller with, "Ped*a*go*gia: How To Do Things With Words," a paper that explored the potential for contemporary aesthetics to create popular platforms for social and political participation. Small discussed the political possibilities of social participation in the radical pedagogies of Brazilian educational reformer Paulo Freire and the artworks of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica. She described their strategies as complementary efforts to reconfigure social relationships and cultural hierarchies--class, education, gender, race--by displacing the gravitational center of aesthetic interest from a vertical transmission of knowledge to a horizontal understanding of social interaction. Both Freire’s and Oiticica’s work focuses on language as a popular space that is inherently participatory, an always-collective performance that cannot be individually mastered. Unexpectedly, this social participation was actually demonstrated in her talk when two graduate student collaborators began to actively reconfigure and modify the spatial disposition of the room by relocating the audience and attaching combinations of large print graphemes on the brown walls. This act was not only a refreshing gesture against the fixed conventions of academic conferences but also created a rousing multidisciplinary event that challenged the hierarchies of sources for knowledge: the talk, the images, the movement of people around the room were all present simultaneously. This act of spatial rearrangement performed what the talk was exploring, reconfiguring the social space of the monochromatic and passive conference room into a spatial and linguistic instance of rupture that opened up productive juxtapositions and unpredictable social configurations.

In the afternoon’s second panel, Melissa Orlie (Political Science) spoke in the second afternoon panel. Her paper, “An Aesthetic Turn in Utopian Thinking,” discussed the theoretical implications of ethical and political judgments in the conceptualization of the beautiful and affection in the texts of Friedrich Nietzsche and Donald Winnicott. Orlie’s talk focused on the intimate and affective aspect of Nietzsche’s heuristic description of the beautiful, and the implications between the individual and its surrounding world. Orlie concluded by arguing for the utopian potential of effective political action not in a realm of the social imaginary but in the personal real of affection: in what we as individual can love in the here and now.

In the last presentation of the day, Phillip E. Wegner (Florida) also focused on the individual aspect of utopian thinking and the critical potential of the here and now for social transformation. His paper, "W.E.B. Du Bois’s Universal History," discussed the political possibilities of global activism and individual rupture in Du Bois’s biography of John Brown. According to Wegner, Du Bois’s political radicalism is visible in his ability to read Brown against the frame of slavery. Like Orlie's discussion of Nietzsche, Wegner's look at Du Bois located the turning point of a here and now that takes place in the realm of the intimate as a source for political transformation.

The panel sparked interesting debate about the utopian potential of current international social movements, including the Occupy protests. The first day of this conferences proved that no matter how inconclusive our efforts to explore the possibility for radical social transformation, such discussions still open possibilities for critical, theoretical, and aesthetic rupture in which we can imagine new possibilities.


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Lauren said...

Thanks for this great recap, Fernando!

martalepuz said...

great post!

Zsuzsa Gille said...

Dear Fernando,
I am so glad you brought up the gendered aspect of Germany in Autumn. In fact I wonder if the answer to the question we posed for this conference (and seminar series), about the emancipatory potential of art, will depend on what we presume about contemporary subjectivities and personhood. Aesthetics, ethics and caring, have all been gendered in particular ways, and hopefully we can take this issue up in more nuanced ways in our Unit seminar series on inequalities in two years…
Thanks for the summary.