Publiceret 21.08.2013

Entering the Flow

Boris Groys

Traditionally, the main occupation of human culture was the search for totality. This search was dictated by the desire of the human subjects to overcome their own particularity, to get rid of their specific “points of view” that were defined by their “life forms” and to find access to a general, universal world view that would be valid everywhere and at every time. This desire to transcend one’s own particularity does not necessarily have its origin in the ontological constitution of the subject itself. We know that the particular is always subsumed, subjected to the whole. So the desire for totality is simply the desire for freedom. And this desire again does not need to be interpreted as being somehow inherent to the human nature. We know the historical examples of self-liberation in the name of totality. So we are able to imitate these examples – as we may imitate any other form of life. 

Thus, we hear and read the myths that describe the emergence of the world, its functioning and its unavoidable end. In these myths we meet gods, and half-gods, prophets and heroes. But we also read the philosophical and scientific treatises that describe the world according to the principles of reason. In these texts we meet the transcendental subject, the unconscious, the absolute spirit and many other similar things. Now, all these narratives and discourses presuppose an ability of the human mind to arise above the level of its material existence and find an access to God or universal reason – to overcome its own finiteness, its mortality. The access to the totality is here the same as access to immortality. 

However, during the period of modernity we got accustomed to the view according to which the human beings are incurably mortal, finite and therefore irreparably determined by specific material conditions of their existence. The humans cannot escape these conditions even by the flight of imagination because every such flight always takes the reality of their existence as a starting point. In other words, the materialist understanding of the world seems to deny to the human beings the access to the totality of the world that was secured to them by religious and philosophical tradition. According to this view we are merely able to improve the material conditions of our existence – but we cannot overcome them. We can find a better position inside the whole of the world – but not the central position that would allow is to overview the totality of the world. This understanding of the materialism has certain cultural, economic and political implications that I don’t want at the moment to go into. Rather, I would like to ask the following question: Is this understanding correct, e.g. truly materialist?

Now I would suggest that it is not. The materialist discourse, as it was initially developed by Marx and Nietzsche, describes the world in permanent movement, in the flow – be it dynamics of the productive forces or Dionysian impulse. According to this materialist tradition all the things are finite – but all of them are involved in the infinite material flow. So there is the materialist totality –the totality of the flow. However, the question is: Is it possible for a human being to enter the flow, to get an access to its totality? On a certain very banal level the answer is, of course, yes: the human beings are things among other things in the world and, thus, subjected to the same universal flow. They become ill, they are aging and die. So the human bodies are always already in the flow. The old-fashioned, metaphysical universality could be achieved only through very special and complicated efforts. The materialist universality seems to be always already there – achievable without any effort and without any price. Indeed, we should not make any effort to be born and die and, generally, to go with the flow. Here the materialist totality, the totality of the flow is understood as a purely negative totality: to reach this totality means simply to reject all the attempts to escape into the fictive, metaphysical, spiritual space beyond the material world and to abandon all the dreams of immortality, eternal truth, moral perfection, ideal beauty etc. 

However, even if the human bodies are subjected to aging, death and dissolution in the flow of material processes it does not mean that the human persons are also in flow. One can be born, live and die under the same name, having the same citizenship, same CV and same website, e.g. remaining the same person. Our bodies are not the only material supports of our persons. From the moment of our birth we are inscribed into certain social orders – without our consent and even knowledge of that fact. The material supports of our personality are the state archives, medical records, passwords to certain Internet sites etc. Of course, these archives will be also destroyed by the material flow at some point in time. But this destruction takes time that is non-commensurable with our lifetime. Our personality survives our body – preventing our immediate access to the totality of the flow. To destroy or, at least, transform the archives that materially support our persons during our lifetime we need to initiate a revolution. The revolution is an artificial acceleration of the world flow. It is an effect of the impatience, unwillingness to wait until the existing order collapses by itself and liberates one of his or her personality. That is why the revolutionary practice is the only way by which the post-metaphysical, materialist man can find an access to the totality of the flow. However, such a revolutionary practice presupposes serious efforts on the side of the subject – and requires intelligence and discipline comparable to ones that were needed to achieve the spiritual totality. 

These revolutionary efforts of self-fluidization, understood as dissolution of one’s own person, of one’s own public image are documented by modern and contemporary art – as the efforts of self-eternalization were documented by the traditional art. The artworks as specific material objects, as art bodies, so to say, are perishable. But that cannot be said about them as publicly accessible, visible forms. When its material support decays and dissolves the form of a particular artwork can be copied and placed on a different material support – for example, as a digitalized image accessible in the Internet. The history of art demonstrates these substitutions of the old supports by the new supports – including all the efforts of restoration and reconstruction. Thus, an individual form of an artwork as far as it is inscribed in the archives of the art history remains intact –not or only marginally affected by the material flux. That means that to get the access to the flow the form itself must be made fluid – it cannot become fluid by itself. And that is the reason for the modern artistic revolutions. The fluidization of the artistic form is the means by which modern and contemporary art tries to achieve an access to the totality of the world. However, such fluidization does not come by itself – again it requires an additional effort. Now I would like to discuss some examples of the artistic practices of fluidization and self-fluidization – and to indicate some conditions and limitations of these practices.
Let us begin by short consideration of Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Wagner introduced this notion in his programmatic treatise “The Artwork of the Future” (1849-1950). This text has been written by Wagner in exile, in Zurich, after the end of the revolutionary uprisings in Germany during the year 1848. In it Wagner develops a project of an artwork (of the future) that is heavily influenced the materialist philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. Right at the beginning of his treatise Wagner states that the typical artist of his time is an egoist who is completely isolated from the life of the people and practices his art for the luxury of the rich; in so doing he exclusively follows the dictates of fashion. The artist of the future must become radically different: “He now can only will the universal, true, and unconditional; he yields himself not to a love for this or that particular object, but to wide Love itself. This does the egoist become a communist, the unit all, the man God, the art-variety Art” (Wagner, p.94) 

Thus, becoming Communist is possible only through self-renunciation, self-dissolution in the collective. Wagner writes: “The last, completest renunciation (Entäusserung) of his personal egoism, the demonstration of his full ascent into universalism, a man can only show us by his Death; and that not by his accidental, but by his necessary death, the logical sequel to his actions, the last fulfillment of his being. The celebration of such a death is the noblest thing that men can enter on.” (Wagner, p.199) The individual must die in order to establish the communist society. Admittedly, there remains a difference between the hero who sacrifices himself and the performer who makes this sacrifice onstage – the Gesamtkunstwerk being understood by Wagner as a music drama. Nonetheless, Wagner insists that this difference is suspended for the performer “not merely represents in the art-work the action of the fêted hero, but repeats its moral lesson; insomuch as he proves by this surrender of his personality that he also, in his artistic action, is obeying a dictate of Necessity which consumes the whole individuality of his being.” (Wagner, p.201) This repetition of the hero’s gesture by the performer is effectuated by the dissolution of his or her particular artistic contribution to the whole of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Wagner characterizes the Gesamtkunstwerk in a following way: “The Great United Art-work, which must gather up each branch of art to use it as a mean, and in some sense to undo it for the common aim of all.” Here not only individual dissolves itself in the social whole but the individual artistic positions and particular mediums loose their identities and dissolve themselves in the materiality of the whole.

Nevertheless, according to Wagner, the performer of the role of the main hero controls the whole staging of his self-demise, his descent into the material world – descent that is represented by the symbolic death of the hero on the stage. All other performers and co-workers achieve their own artistic significance solely through participation in this ritual of self-sacrifice performed by the hero. Wagner speaks of the hero performer as a dictator who mobilizes the collective of collaborators exclusively with the goal to stage his own sacrifice in the name of this collective. After the end of the sacrificial scene the hero performer is substituted by the next dictator. In other words, the self-sacrifice of the hero is controlled by him (and, accordingly, by his performer) from the beginning to the end. Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk shows us the descent of the hero into the material flow – but not the flow itself. The Communism remains a remote ideal. Here the event of descent into the formless materiality of the world becomes a form – a form that can be repeated, restaged, reenacted. 

In Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk the individual voice of a singer remains identifiable – even if it is integrated in the whole of a music drama. Later Hugo Ball dissolves the individual voice in the sound flow. Ball conceived the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich (where Wagner earlier wrote the “Artwork of the Future”) as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk– being inspired by Wassili Kandinsky and his “abstract” drama “Der gelbe Klang” (The Yellow Sound). Ball wrote about Kandinsky: “He was concerned with the regeneration of society through the union of all artistic mediums and forces…It was inevitable that we should meet each other…” (Ball, p.8) In his diary Flight out of Time , Ball writes (in the Spring of 1916): “The human organ represents the soul, the individuality in its wanderings with its demonic companions. The noises represent the background – the inarticulate, the disastrous, the decisive… In a typically compressed way the poem shows the conflict of the vox humana with a world that threatens, ensnares, and destroys it, a world whose rhythm and noise are ineluctable.” About three months later (23 June 1916), Ball writes that he has invented “a new genre of poems – namely, Lautgedichte [sound poetry]”. Sound poetry, as described by Ball, can be interpreted as the self-destruction of the traditional poem; as the exposure of the downfall and disappearance of the individual voice, as the descent of the human form into the totality of material flow. Ball describes the effect of the public reading of his first sound poem at the Cabaret Voltaire in a following way: “Then the lights went out, as I had ordered, and bathed in sweat, I was carried out off the stage like a magical bishop”. The reading of his sound poetry was experienced and described by Ball as an exhausting exposure of the human voice to the demonic forces of noise. Ball wins this battle (becoming the magical bishop), but only by radical exposure to these demonic forces, by allowing them to reduce his own voice to pure noise, to senseless, purely material process.

The descent into material chaos is not presented here as a preliminary stage that announces an impending return to the order – analogous to the periods of revolutionary chaos, social tumult or carnival as they were described for example by Roger Caillois or Mikhail Bachtin. To use the terminology from Walter Benjamin’s “Essay on the Violence” the violence of the material flow is divine and not mythical violence insofar as the destruction of the old order does not lead here to the emergence of a new order. But this divine violence is practiced here by an artist and not by God. The Lautgedicht remains therefore merely a poem – having beginning and end, being able to be copied and repeated. We have here a documentation of a descent into the flow – but not the access to the flow itself. The same can be said about the later attempts of radical descent into the material chaos – fluidization of the artistic form and corresponding self-fluidization. I mean here Guy Debord’s dérive, the artistic practice of Fluxus or texts and films - as for example films by Christoph Schlingensief - in which the personality of the hero (or heroin) becomes decentered, deconstructed, fluidicized. All these texts and images show the limit which the artist necessarily reaches as he stages the descent of an artistic form into the flow. At the end only the documentation of the descent into the chaos and flow is produced – but the image of flow itself remains elusive. This limitation of a possible artistic access to the material flow was reflected on by many artists.  But I would like to use here as an example the art practice and writings of Kazimir Malevich.

The Suprematist period of Malevich’s art has its origin in the opera “Victory over the Sun” (1913). It was staged through the collaboration of the most radical figures of Russian avant-garde of that time – poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh, composer and artist Mikhail Matyshin. Malevich was the author of the stage design. One can say that the opera was a Gesamtkunstwerk in Wagnerian sense of the word. It presented and celebrated the demise of the Sun – and with it of the whole old cosmic order. The famous black square by Malevich emerges for the first time in the context of this opera – as a part of its scenography – and symbolizes the coming cosmic night, the hidden origin of all the material forces. In his writings Malevich often speaks about the materialism as the ultimate horizon of his thinking and art. Time and again Malevich contends that art has to manifest the general fate of all things - their common reality being disfiguration, dissolution and disappearance in the flow of material forces and uncontrollable material processes. According to this view Malevich tells time and again the history of the new art from Cezanne, Cubism, Futurism up to his own Suprematism as a history of progressing disfiguration and destruction of the traditional image as it was born in the antique Greece and developed through Christian medieval art and the Renaissance. Thus, the question arises: what can survive this work of permanent destruction? 

Malevich’s answer to this question is immediately plausible: the image of destruction of the image. The destruction cannot destroy its own image. Of course, God can destroy the world without leaving a trace because God created the world out of nothingness. But if God is dead then an act of destruction without a visible trace, without an image of destruction becomes impossible. The death of God means that no image can be infinitely stabilized – but it also means that no image can be totally destroyed. For the first wave of the avant-garde and, especially for Malevich, the operation of reduction of the old artistic forms served precisely the demonstration of the indestructibility of material world. Every act of destruction leaves material traces. There is no fire without ashes – in other words, there is no divine fire of total annihilation.
A good example of this attitude is offered by Malevich in his short but important text ”On the Museum,” from 1919.  At that time the new Soviet government feared that the old Russian museums and art collections would be destroyed by civil war and the general collapse of state institutions and the economy, and the Communist Party responded by trying to secure and save these collections.  In his text, Malevich protested against this pro-museum policy of Soviet power by calling on the state to not intervene on behalf of the old art collections because their destruction could open the path to true, living art.  In particular, he wrote:

Life knows what it is doing, and if it is striving to destroy one must not interfere, since by hindering we are blocking the path to a new conception of life that is born within us.  In burning a corpse we obtain one gram of powder: accordingly thousands of graveyards could be accommodated on a single chemist's shelf.  We can make a concession to conservatives by offering that they burn all past epochs, since they are dead, and set up one pharmacy.  

Later, Malevich gives a concrete example of what he means:

The aim (of this pharmacy) will be the same, even if people will examine the powder from Rubens and all his art—a mass of ideas will arise in people, and will be often more alive than actual representation (and take up less room).

Thus, Malevich proposes not to keep, not to save things that have to go but to let them go without sentimentality and remorse. This radical acceptance of the destructive work of time seems to be nihilistic at the first gaze. But, in fact, at the core of this unsentimental attitude toward art of the past lies the faith into the indestructible character of art as such. The avant-garde of the fist wave let the things – including things of art – go away because it believed that something always remains - beyond any human attempt of conservation. In this case the ashes remain – and can be also treated as the artworks and put into the pharmacy that becomes here anew museum.
The Black Square can be interpreted as the image of ashes, as the most perfect image of destruction. But now the following question arises: Is the black square the most perfect image of the dark material chaos? If it is really so then the back Square is a final point of any possible descent into the totality of the world flow – the perfect image of this totality. However, then the black square becomes a kind of ‘true icon’ and the radical avant-garde becomes a new Church. The perfect chaos begins to look as a perfect cosmos. Malevich becomes early enough aware of the dangers of such a claim of supreme, even surpematist perfection – and of striving toward perfection, in general. He was especially alarmed by the use of his Suprematistic images – and particularly of the Black Square – by the artists of the Russian post-revolutionary Constructivism as a foundation for the construction of a new order, of the new Communist world of technical perfection and material production. And so Malevich begins to compare the constructivist school who transformed his Black Square from the image of material chaos into an origin of the new world with the Christian Church.

This comparison was famously drawn by Malevich in his treatise “God is Not Cast Down” (1919). In this treatise Malevich states that the belief in the continuous perfectioning of the human condition through the industrial progress is of the same order as the Christian belief in the continuous perfectioning of the human soul. Both Christianity and Communism believe in a possibility of reaching the ultimate perfection, be it Kingdom of God or Communist Utopia. Now, in this and following texts Malevich begins to develop a certain line of argumentation that can be characterized as dialectics of imperfection. As I have already said, Malevich defines both religion and modern technique (factory, as he says) as striving for perfection: perfection of the individual soul in the case of religion and perfection of the material world in the case of factory. According to Malevich both projects cannot be realized because their realization would require from an individual human being and the mankind as a whole an investment of infinite time, energy and effort. But humans are mortal. Their time and energy are finite. And this finitude of the human existence prevents humanity from achieving any kind of perfection - be it spiritual or technical. As a mortal being man is doomed to remain forever imperfect. But why this imperfection is also a dialectical one? Because it is precisely this lack of time - the lack of time to achieve the perfection - that opens to the humanity an infinite time perspective. Less than perfect means here more than perfect because if we would have enough time to become perfect then the moment of achievement of the perfection would be the last moment of our existence - we would have no goal any more to exist further. Thus, it is our failure to achieve perfection that opens an infinite horizon of human and trans-human material existence. Priests and engineers, according to Malevich, are not capable to open this horizon because they cannot abandon their pursuit of perfection - cannot relax, cannot accept imperfection and failure as their true fate. However, the artists can do that. They know that their bodies, their vision and their art are not and cannot be truly perfect and healthy. Rather, they know themselves as being infected by the bacilli of change, illness and death (as Malevich describes it in his later text on the additional element in painting) - and it is precisely these bacilli that at the same time are bacilli of art. The artists, according to Malevich, should not immunize themselves against these bacilli but on the contrary to accept them, to let them to destroy the old, traditional art patterns. For Malevich art is a virus - it lives ever further changing its hosts and transforming itself thorough time but still keeping its identity. That is why Malevich actually believes in the trans-historical character of art. Art is material and materialist. And that means that art can always survive the end of purely idealist, metaphysical, immaterial projects – be it Kingdom of God or Communism. The movement of material forces is non-teleological. As such it cannot reach its telos and come to an end. 

In his later Notes on the Notion of History (1940) in which he tried to develop his own version of Historical Materialism Benjamin famously evokes Klee’s image of the Angelus Novus who is carried by wind of history but has turned his back to the future and looks only towards the past. Benjamin describes Angelus Novus as seized by terror – as he sees that all the promises of the future becomes destroyed by the forces of history and turned to ruins. But why Angelus Novus is surprised and terrorized by this view to such an extent? Probably, because before he turned his back to the future he believed in the possibility of future realization of all the social, technical and artistic projects. However, Malevich is not an Angelus Novus – he is not shocked by what he sees in the rear window of his car. He does expect from the future only destruction – and so he is not surprised to see only ruins as this future comes. For Malevich there is no difference between future and past – it sees ruins in every direction. Thus, he remains relaxed and self – assured – never shocked, seized by terror or even surprised. Malevich's theory of art - as it was formulated in his polemics against the constructivists – can be read as an answer to the theory of divine violence as it is described by Benjamin. The artist accepts this infinite violence and appropriates it, let himself be infected by it. And let this violence to infect, to destroy, to make ill his own art. Malevich presents history of art as a history of illness - of being infected by bacilli of divine violence that infiltrate and permanently destroy all human orders. In our time Malevich is often accused of allowing his art to be infected by the bacilli of figuration and even Socialist Realism during the Soviet period of his artistic practice. The writings of the same time explain the ambiguous attitude of Malevich towards the social, political and artistic developments of his time: he has not invested into them any hope, any expectation of progress  (that is also characteristic of his reaction to film etc.) but at the same time he accepted them as a necessary illnesses of time - and was ready to become infected, imperfect, transitory. In fact, already his Suprematist images are imperfect, flowing, non-constructive – especially, if we compare them to, let say, Mondrian’s paintings.

Now it becomes clear that the descent into the material flow shares the fate of the ascent to the contemplation of God or eternal ideas. The religious and philosophical tradition demonstrates the repeated attempts to reach this contemplation – but it never presents their results in a convincing form. All religious illuminations and scientific evidences can be interpreted as products of our own imagination that is determined by the material conditions of our existence. But to the same degree and due to the same reason we cannot assert any evidence of reaching the flow. In this sense the material flow is as unreachable as eternal ideas. But at the same time we have a collection of the attempts to enter the flow. The documents of these attempts build in their totality a kind of anti-archive – similar to the pharmacy of ashes as it was imagined by Malevich. However, the anti-archive is also an archive. It demonstrates that the material flow was never really entered, that the form never became really fluid. Now, today, we are the heirs of these attempts to enter the flow, of these artistic revolutions – and administrators of the archive of their traces that document their partial successes and their ultimate failure.  What has happened here is a certain return to the order. That does not mean the return to the “normal”, traditional image – as some post-modern theoreticians and artists wanted it. Rather, the avant-garde revolutionary images were inscribed into the archive – as finite, solid, material documentations.

Today, the main place of the archives of any kind is, of course, the Internet. The Internet is often described in terms of a flow – of information, data etc. In fact, the opposite is the case: The Internet is reversal of the flow, the anti-flow, it is a means to freeze, to stop the flow. In the times of modernity the notion of the flow – at least in the context of image and text production- was applied mainly to the flow of mass reproduction and distribution of these texts and images. There is a famous description of this flow by Walter Benjamin: the mechanical copies of certain historically inherited originals or the copies that originally emerged as copies (like photos, films etc.) are siteless, deterritorialized, have no particular inscription in the historical time and, therefore, uncontrollably multiply themselves in the topologically indefinite media space. Now, the contemporary, digital reproduction is by no means siteless, its circulation is not topologically undetermined and it does not present itself in the form of multiplicity. In the Internet every data has its address – and, accordingly, its place. This place is determined by the invisible genius loci – the Internet address. The same data with a different address is a different data. Here the famous aura of originality does not get lost in the process of circulation but, rather, becomes permanently substituted by other auras – by means of new Internet inscriptions. Thus, on the Internet the circulation of the digital data produces not the copies but new originals. And this circulation is perfectly traceable. Every movement from one address to another address can be recorded – and is recorded. The individual data never gets deterritorialized. Moreover, every Internet image or text has not only its specific unique place but also unique time of appearance – and this moment of an individual appearance is again traceable. It is not so much the digital image or text itself as the image or text file, the digital data which remains identical through the process of its reproduction and distribution. But the image file is not an image—the image file is invisible. The digital image is an effect of the visualization of the invisible image file, of the invisible digital data. Accordingly, a digital image cannot be merely copied (as an analogue, mechanically reproducible image can) but always only newly staged or performed. Here, the image begins to function like a piece of music, whose score, as it is generally known, is not identical to the piece—the score being not audible, but silent. One can argue that the digitalization turns visual arts into performing arts. And every new performance of the digital data can be and is – as in the case of the musical performance – recorded and archived in the Internet.

So the Internet presents us with a new material support for the artistic form – and also for a human personality. Here is really important to remember the fact that the Internet is a material thing and not an immaterial something. The Internet is a sum of computers and other equipment, cables and WiFi’s. Its material support is electricity – and it does not work without supply of electricity and power stations that produce this supply. So the Internet is again a material archive that functions in the middle between the material (in this case electric) flow – and the Platonic realm of the pure forms. Accordingly, the Internet provokes the attempts to bring it to flow. We know the strategies of anonymity and pseudonymity that try to make the Internet fluid – to hide, dissimulate the personality of the user or so-called content provider behind the produced data. But we know also the attempts (like for example the Singularity project) to use the digitalization as a way to a new concept of immortality (consisting in to re-writing the subject as a form (a soul) on a new medium). Now, the problem with the material flow is again this: it is infinite and cannot be grasped by the finite means. And the Internet is maybe big but it is still finite. However, the collection of attempts to reach the flow, even if these attempts were unsuccessful, has a privilege to be truly material and finite because it consists of material documents. And: This collection offers the examples of overcoming one’s own material identity that can be followed by everyone. The search for the material infinity can be always continued and join by the others. We have here to do with what can be called the universalist tradition. And it is always possible to join this universalist tradition by bringing it into the flow, by attempting to dissolve it. It is not necessary to really enter the flow – it is enough to descend to it and to document this descent.


Boris Groys er filosof, kunstkritiker, essayist, medieteoretiker, kurator og internationalt anerkendt ekspert indenfor russisk avantgarde, sen-sovjetisk modernisme, postmoderne kunst og litteratur, moderne medier såvel som moderne russisk folosofi og fransk poststrukturalisme. Han er professor ved Russian and Slavic Studies, New York University. Derudover er Groys professor i Filosofi og Medieteori ved Hochschule für Gestaltung i Karlsruhe siden 1994. Groys' seneste publikationer omfatter: Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media (2012); Introduction to Antiphilosophy (2012); The Communist Postscripts (2010); Going Public (2010); Art Power (2008); Ilya Kabakov. The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment (2006); Dream Factory Communism: The Visual Culture of the Stalin Period (2004) og The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond (1992).