NAME YOUR DESIRE (FOR BETWEEN TWO DEATHS CATALOG)
In the early Romantic, British version of Dante’s and Milton’s visions of the Inferno and Paradise Lost, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake anticipated assumptions about the division of the subject that more than a century later would find their way into Freudian psychoanalysis. In contrast to his predecessors, Blake conceives hell as a place of liberated desire undetermined by moral conventions and institutionalized- religion. He refers to themes of romanticism, whose rediscovery in contemporary political, social, and cultural discussions presents an important starting point for the theme of this exhibition, and thus provides the epigraph for this introductory- essay. In order to make the starting point of the exhibition project between- two deaths clear, and to make our confrontation with contemporary art fruitful, I want to discuss what plays such a central role in contemporary subjectivity: desire, or in more Lacanian terms, the real of desire, and its adversary melancholy, which fights off this real.
The exhibition can be placed in a thematic and discursive context if we compare it with a selection of others that have dealt with similar themes in the last few years. This will also make clear the small but decisive difference that separates between two deaths from previous discussions concerning the constitution of the contemporary subject.
I first became consciously interested in the themes of between two deaths after seeing a small group show in the Deutsche Bank gallery in Salzburg in the summer of 2004. The exhibition’s title, Heavenly Creatures, referred to Peter Jackson’s Hollywood film of the same name. As a point of departure, the exhibition’s curatorial statement mentions “teen angst, romanticism, longing for death, the demand for intimacy and security”; the outlines evoke “abyssal counter-worlds, the realms of the unconscious, uncanny and repressed.” The talk is always of “yearnings,” “losses,” and “unfulfilled
desire.”2 This project, then, was perhaps the first to describe a phenomenon that has increasingly penetrated into public consciousness ever since, and with whose consequences we are now concerned in between two deaths. The quoted phrases make clear, however, that Heavenly Creatures remained content with describing the phenomenon and offering some vague conjectures about its causes, without wanting to deal with it more thoroughly.
One year later, the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt mounted the first big exhibition project to understand itself as an overview of the return to romanticism in the summer of 2005: Wunschwelten — New Romanticism in Contemporary Art. This return was connected to a rediscovery of “traditional works” and figurativeness “after the deconstructive, discourse-analytical investigations of the ’80s and ’90s.”3 The exhibition’s introductory text claims that the “feeling of shame with regard to serious paintings and visual pleasure” has been overcome in the show and that “a whole series of young
painters ... are decisively tied to the romantic spirit, to the longing for the paradisiacal, beautiful and fantastic.”4
The introductory paragraph should be cited here in full, first of all, because it reproduces a chain of argument with which we have been confronted in the public sphere ever since; and secondly, because it celebrates in an exemplary fashion — and with an unquestioning attitude only to be otherwise found in conservative newspapers — the absolutely unrefracted nostalgic fantasy of retreat: “In Western society, characterized by increasing mobility and the disappearance of social bonds and networks, intimacy and security have become the objects of a new longing. It is not only the restructuring of social and political systems that produces growing insecurity. Oversaturated by bad news, war reports and devastating pictures of terror, we begin the search for places of security and refuge. The demand for ways out, ideals and rescuing perspectives becomes ever more urgent. Ultimately there is the longing for an eternally ideal world.”5 The exhibition refers to the romantic motifs of loneliness and the return to nature, and remains affirmative both visually and in terms of its content.
Another year later came the exhibition of this kind that has certainly attracted the most attention, the 4th berlin biennial, which at the beginning of 2006 occupied a whole street in the city center. In the introductory text, the curators let us know that “it is time to retreat and hide inside. This doesn’t mean, however, giving up one’s own position in the world, or renouncing one’s own responsibilities and rights. Even isolation and retreat can communicate a political statement; these artists betray an awareness of the rather apocalyptic state of our present affairs, the feeling that we are living out a prolonged — endless — tragic ending.”6 Retreat plays a role here, too, then, but with a political message. It is not entirely clear, however, to whom the message is really directed.
Elsewhere in the catalogue we read: “Almost all artists in the show, or at least their works, seem enveloped in a radical darkness, which could be read as a persistence of the irrational and the obscure in the face of rationality and fundamentalism.”7 Retreat and passivity are reactions, then, to fundamentalism and the dominance of rationality. But if the world in its current form asks too much of the individual, the curators describe this destabilizing relationship in an unclear way: “the blurred perception of reality as a sinister manifestation of one’s own darkest fantasies.”8 As we have seen, after several years this theme has been present, we seem to have reached the point at which we could expect the following question: “What do we do with all this? How do we deal with this situation?” But instead, there is only silence. If, following Freud, we understand depression as the uncompleted mourning for the loss of a loved object, we can describe the position of all these exhibitions as depressive. They do not mourn the loss of security and accept (at some level, and perhaps as the premise for something new) the fundamental insecurity to which the contemporary subject is committed, but instead take flight into nostalgia.
The exhibition between two deaths shares the diagnosis of the earlier exhibitions described above, but it explicitly asks the question about the “after” or “beyond” of melancholy, depression, and nostalgia. This is why we have chosen for the title the concept of “between two deaths.” This concept comes from Jacques Lacan’s discussion of Sophocles’s Antigone and its protagonist’s fight against the laws of the city. Today, within the theoretical psychoanalytic discourse spearheaded by Slavoj Žižek, the metaphor is used to describe two phenomena: first, more in keeping with Lacan’s original usage, the state of people who have been robbed of their symbolic legitimacy, such as refugees, prisoners in extra-legal camps, or “sans papiers.” Here this discourse has a marked
relation to the concept of “bare life” as it has been develop-ed by Giorgio Agamben and his followers. However, the metaphor -”between two deaths” has also been extended to describe the “undead” situation of the contemporary subject of western-style, consumerist, liberal societies and to analyze ubiquitous cultural phenomena, including Goth culture, vampire motifs, and horror films and their adaptations. It is this second meaning which provides the foundation of this exhibition and which is also developed further by some writers in this catalogue. In this way, the metaphor opens up to describe the current “undead” situation of the subject, which is imprisoned between responsibility for itself and the simultaneous lack of self-determining capacity for action. To this extent, we use -“between two deaths” both as a metaphor for passivity and total “subjective” breakdown, and, identical with this breakdown, as a point of departure for possible new meanings and actions. The place “between two deaths” can be understood as an empty place around which the exhibition circles, and which it tries to allow us to experience. The concepts of the real of desire and melancholy are of decisive significance here because they can be placed in a reciprocal relationship to one another that helps us to understand the problematic of contemporary subjectivity. The real of desire appears only after the “breakdown” described above, while melancholy is the sign of fighting off this breakdown in a never-ending cycle of imaginary games.
In what follows, desire will be understood as a power that literally drives us to regain activity, an activity that could loosely be described as self-determination as long as it is understood that what is meant by it is not the “self” of individualist society, of the need to “be somebody,” or the self whose loss the melancholic fails to mourn. It will thus be placed in relation to the requirements that contemporary social norms of behavior, based as they are on imaginary demands of selfhood, oppose to it. As the text progresses, I will work out the relationship between desire, melancholy, and
depression that is paradigmatic both of the demands placed on the contemporary individual, which produce his or her excessive and exhausting attempts to “live up” to these, and his or her longing for a retreat into the private, which results from this exhaustion. A return to the topos of romanticism — under whose sign this thematic has entered into both public discussion and the context of art — will prove fruitful here. I will argue that in order to escape the need for retreat, we need to pass through melancholy and leave it behind. I will also explain why artists are destined to exemplarily show how
we can get out of this dead end.
The Metaphor: The Current Debates to which between two deaths Both Relates and Opposes Itself
At the exhibition’s heart, then, lies this question: “How can we live without becoming either over-adapted or depressive when we are dominated by a social norm which requires individualism, self-motivated activity, and autonomy and which, at the same time, can no longer offer the individual any secure place or stable identity from which to address these demands?” Or to put it differently: “How do we rediscover our own desire in the face of the overpowering conventions that remote-control us? How do we get back to the real of our desire?”
We want to oppose to previous public debates concerning the trend to nostalgic recollection — a trend that has been observable in political, social, and cultural contexts for a few years now — another approach to the object. Although there is an extensive agreement in the search for causes — the fundamental destabilization of the individual and the legitimation crisis of institutions are both blamed on “turbo-capitalism” and the failure of political and social utopias in the last few decades — the suggestions about how to deal with these developments differ considerably.
Conservative conceptions seek, in the first place, a return to traditional values and social and economic responsibility, while at the same time their neo-liberal allies demand “flexibility” and “modernization.” The fantasies of retreat that are publicly discussed everywhere cannot, however, undo the insecurity, loss of trust, and over-taxing of the individual in contemporary western society. The flight into the private, the return to the bosom of church and religion, and the blocking out of different ideological concepts are all defense mechanisms. But these phantasmatic safe havens cannot truly give back to the subject a sense of security or safety, because the institutions capable of disciplining the market forces of permanent social revolution are equally affected and put into crisis by this structural transformation. As Tony Negri has said, there is truly “no outside.”
The rise of depression to a widespread illness (the contemporary form of melancholy) is a sign both that the effects of these processes affect more than a few and that it is not easy to handle. What between two deaths nonetheless offers as a beginning is easier to describe than to put into action. According to Lacan, the subject today finds himself in a state of permanent “symbolic” death. Put simply, this means that the individual lives in a world that is not structured by any functioning symbolic power (other than capital), a world from which he no longer receives any legitimation beyond exerting him or herself in imaginary endeavors. If — as was the case a few decades ago, for example — the individual can identify with a firm or business for which he or she habitually works a whole lifetime, then its value also legitimates his or hers; that is, if the individual does the work that he or she is given, he or she can count on being recognized within the symbolic order in return.
It is clear that this system no longer functions. Today, the person who does his or her symbolic duty receives no acknowledgment for it, because recognition only follows from self-initiative in the search for power, fame, or money. In this sense, the individual- is left entirely to his own devices. The subjection — simultaneously necessary for survival in a society — to the requirements that the norm of individuality and autonomy today imposes upon the subject certainly occurs within the framework of convention, and is thus recognized by society. Symbolic representation is not, however, restored in this way, because there is no longer anybody there who could secure for us this lasting legitimation. Only when we “die” in the eyes of the world, one could deduce from Lacan, can we preserve our own subjectivity and thus create our own symbolizations in a world without any functioning symbolic order; that is, we can only possibly discover our own drive, or rely on the productivity of our drive, by recognizing and traversing — rather than repressing — our own anxieties and insecurities, namely, by overcoming the “law.” This is the area “between the two deaths On the Difficulty of Naming Desire In trying to understand what this “overcoming” consists of and exactly what it might look like, the concept of desire is very helpful. According to Lacan’s thought on desire, it emerges from a fundamental lack in the subject. This lack emerges because the subject
is alienated into language. We need to speak and we always say both more and less than we “mean”— or want — to say. Thus, the lack appears in the interstices between what language supposedly communicates and what it also transports. Through separation — usually, but not necessarily, in a real sense from the mother — the subject inhabits, as it were, this lack and enters the symbolic world of language as a symbolic signifier itself. It is this splitting — which divides the subject into a social ego that constructs the world according to its own unity, experienced in the mirror image, and makes up the ego’s imaginary self-perception — that desire attempts to overcome and fill up with objects. Because this splitting is constitutive of the subject, however, it is always already there; desire is structurally infinite, or rather-, insatiable. Desire itself, then, cannot be named; only the contingent object that is desired each time, and which thus becomes the object of desire, can be. This object of desire never manages to “be it” — it never is the lost object itself, but rather something that replaces it. Due to the failure to fill the gap of the lost object, which never was there to begin with, desire never stops.
Anxiety covers up desire. Anxiety emerges when the desire that was directed towards an object — an object that, having been constituted through the imaginary ego, resembles what the subject lacks and is supposed to fill this gap or lack — is unexpectedly thrown back onto this very subject. “Anxiety is what does not deceive,” Lacan says, it is a sure indicator that we need to uncover the self-deception that is based on “misrecognizing” the part of myself that I have desired in others as a separate part, or as a remainder of myself. The situation is, then, paradoxical: I desire some-thing because it is similar to me, yet if I am confronted by this similarity, it alienates me; being similar, I
shift from being a subject to being an object and back again. Anxiety blocks this shifting back and forth, and my desire threatens to disappear.
This proper, inner desire is opposed to the social norm, the “law”; the former is a necessary condition for the very possibility of overcoming the latter. The cause of the complex and seemingly hopeless situation today lies in the fact that the “law” has come dangerously close to the imaginary objects of desire. The norm has appointed selfrealization as its declared aim and thereby institutionalized an essentially interminable and narcissistic process. Even convention — which originally served to stabilize social structures — can no longer provide any satisfying place in which to dwell, for it is founded on the same instability that constitutively belongs to subjectivity. The consequence is that, in the attempt to negotiate social norms of behavior with the inherent- needs that do not correspond to them, the only possible result — on both sides — is activity, or acting
Behavior that thirty years ago would have come into conflict with rules and regulations perfectly fulfills the social expectations of today. It is normal to realize oneself and ignore the division between work and family, between public and private; to be driven by ambition at all times; to tie up passion with a reflective consciousness in all spheres; and to be controlled not by outside forces, but by means of one’s own self regulating image. Everything has become one: work functions according to family structures and is simultaneously free time, and self-control renders every external intervention superfluous.
It is possible to react to this situation by longing, in any imaginable way, to rid ourselves of this over-exertion — to retreat into the private (on the social level) and the inner (on the level of subjectivity). To do so, however, is to close the circle, because even here one will again be confronted by the anxiety that is an index of blocked desire. Within this circle, there is no escape from instability, and depression — melancholy in its contemporary form — is the symptom that both makes these excessive demands visible and, at the same time, reveals their dead end. For it is only possible to get out of depression by accepting the lack that causes it. Lacan described depression as “moral cowardice,”10 which, although it sounds harsh, addresses the core of the issue. To look at the exhibition between two deaths from the viewpoint of desire means, then, to understand it as a place in which one can encounter anxiety — and the fundamental insecurity that it produces — with the possibility of making it productive.
Melancholy and What It Has to Do with Art
In the artistic context, the confrontation with these themes has been summarized in the slogan of a “return to romanticism.” Even if the concept of romanticism need not be placed exclusively within conservative parameters (as André Rottmann, for example, shows in his contribution to this book) and is not exclusively evoked in conservative fantasies (for the concept itself is, in fact, present everywhere) the subject matter of contemporary artworks nonetheless suggests a retreat into the private and a tendency to nostalgia that express themselves in explicit defense against everything political.11 Art is not spared, then, that conservative element of romanticism which is manifested in
Biedermeier and Victorianism. Between two deaths wants to encourage a rewarding confrontation with romanticism by approaching, through melancholy, a theme that still possesses a decidedly progressive aspect. Melancholy is linked to the psychological state of the individual subject and thus establishes for this project the connection between an analysis of the contemporary subject and a diagnosis of society as a whole. In order to make clear the difference between contemporary and romantic melancholy of romanticism, we can follow the short summary of the sociologist Alain
Ehrenberg. Ehrenberg explains the transformation in melancholy’s meaning in the context of its historical development and, as a consequence of the similarity of their symptoms, equates it with depression: “In the 16th century, it was considered as the elective sickness of the exceptional man — from geniuses to noblemen. ‘My joy is melancholy-,’ said Leonardo da Vinci. In the 19th century, during the romantic era, melancholy was at the crossroads of creation or genius and unreason. It is now the situation of everyone, because contemporary individualism consists of having democratized the idea that anybody could be exceptional.”12
In this recent summary of the themes of this discussion — social convention, individual nature, and melancholy — the look back at romanticism reveals the decisive connection to our current problematic. If everybody today is by definition individual, that is, exceptional, and if the romantic, nineteenth-century paradigm of the artist as a melancholy genius is today valid for all, then every individual is theoretically in the same situation as the artist. Melancholy as the productive force of the creative individual has turned into its opposite; it has become a sign of the exhaustion resulting from the duty to be creative. The choice of being an artist no longer places the subject outside the
norm of behavior, but instead right in the middle of it.
This perhaps explains why conservative trends are traceable in art, because fantasies of retreat and the need for security concern the artist just as much as everyone else. However, just as romanticism did not only stand for retreat, but also for self-- reflective processes concerning the relationship between individual and society, the artist today holds in his hand the key to an understanding of the contemporary situation. By working through experiences that he as a contemporary subject shares with everyone, the artist can develop alternative ways of dealing with exhaustion and depression.
There remains, however, as a consequence of the structure of artistic labor, a difference between it and every other (capitalist) occupation. Whereas in a capitalist system all work exists to produce surplus-value and is thus paid for with money, art — in the sense that interests us here13— is indeed a part of the system, but produces no surplus-value and thus more or less leads a double life. The capitalist worker is empty and symbolically dead —“between two deaths”— and his work does produce surplus-value.
The artist lives in his shadow and is not symbolically dead, but his work produces no surplus-value.14 Art is, then, a place for the negotiation of the theme of between two deaths.
Artists must therefore accept that they have to “die in the eyes of the world” (or, as Arribas and Rouse put it in their text in this volume, commit “symbolic suicide”) as a precondition for their productivity. As a subject that consequently has already died, perhaps the artist is thus in a position to thematize the space “between two deaths” by broaching the conditions, forms, and signs of “symbolic death.” By doing so, their work holds open the potentiality of difference or of action that is located in the same place from which the phenomena of depression or melancholy issue, the forces which cover up this potentiality. Thus, through their work, artists enable the observer to encounter not only the possible forms of the real of desire, but also what it might mean to name that desire.
Art and the Passage of Desire through Melancholy
In this final section, I want to show how an art exhibition can productively contribute to these debates by grouping together different artistic positions. Following Georg Bertram, we can understand the encounter with art as an “occurrence of self-understanding.”15 According to this conception, art allows us to destabilize our own position through confrontation with an artwork, to get so involved in an occurrence of understanding with the work that, possibly, a change of perception occurs.
Although artworks form part of our world, they have their own language. This language is expressed through sensuous and material experience to which anyone can refer by using his or her own specific knowledge. The process of understanding that develops from the confrontation with artworks can correspondingly be understood in such a way “that it endeavors to grasp the specific language of an artwork in its structures.”16
However, because aesthetic experience, and the process of understanding of the individual confronted by an artwork, can only be translated into language to a certain degree — whether they are voiced or whether they remain present only in thought — something always remains leftover that cannot be expressed, or for which there is no linguistic form.
Expressed psychoanalytically in Lacan’s terms, this means that “the meaning creates the impression that signifiers and signified belong together. There remains, however, a leftover that withdraws from meaning. This lack of a complete relation makes possible the sliding of the signified under the signifiers, and this leads to the conclusion that the meaning is never exhausted, never absolute. This is why a speech, a writing is never finished for good. Each reveals a fundamental lack.”17
Art itself moves, then, in the field of this indissoluble remainder. In the confrontation with art, this core — which art, in turn, contains — is made perceptible. In the understanding and expressing of aesthetic experience, we always run up against a limit that withdraws from understanding and language and does not fit into the whole, but that returns in perception, as if it were of fundamental non-comprehension, which, in turn, is productive and potentially produces movement, desire, and repetition. It is this essential particularity of aesthetic experience that between two deaths wants to put to use. In the encounter with art in the specific form of aesthetic experience, the observer can confront his own lack of integration and break through the narratives that frame his experience in order to open up the space of subjectivity-. There always remains a “rest,” and this “rest” also frames subjectivity as such.
We can see what this might look like more concretely by turning our attention to one of the exhibition’s artists, Erik van Lieshout. Van Lieshout’s videos — like the work of John Bock or Jonathan Meese, to name only two prominent figures — put at their center the presence and performative activity of the artist in interaction with other protagonists or objects. Van Lieshout differs from Bock and Meese, however, because in addition to being physically present, he also psychically gives himself over to what happens. That is, rather than staging a rehearsed theatrical event in which every “co-performer” takes up a determined role, he instead partially gives up control over what will happen in front of a running camera. The main actors are not, or only insufficiently, informed of what is going on and the artist has to react to what unpredictably unfolds. The situations to which he abandons himself deal in the vast majority of cases with themes that are obviously strongly loaded with personal anxiety: his relationships with his mother, siblings, and friends, as well as his confrontation with addiction, violence, populism, and the “other.” Far from conducting a mere selftherapy — with the aim of losing control over a hyperactive and overstrained personality structure — van Lieshout’s artistic strategies exhibit and make visible the productive presuppositions of his art.
The gaze of the viewer can also not be reduced to that of a voyeur who watches the exhibitionistic artist through a keyhole. Van Lieshout certainly reveals himself, but he does this by making a decision about what will happen and in what edited form. He thus creates an ineradicable ambivalence that comprises in its core the indissolubleremainder referred to above. Rather than allowing for an unambiguous reading, van Lieshout’s works require the observer to enter into them. I claimed above that one has to “die in the eyes of the world” in order to discover one’s own symbolizations. This is
exactly what van Lieshout does in his work and what he bequeaths to his viewers. In the “Between the Two Deaths” chapter of his book The Ticklish Subject, Slavoj Žižek summarily describes this process as the letting go of all stabilizing and normalizing qualities and modes of behavior: “you become ‘something’ (you are counted as a subject) only after going through the zero-point, after being deprived of all the ‘pathological’ (in the Kantian sense of empirical, contingent) features that support your identity, and thus reduced to ‘nothing’—‘a Nothingness counted as Something’ is the
most concise formula of the Lacanian ‘barred’ subject (S/).”18
To “die” in this way means to allow one’s self to disintegrate into its individual fragments, without permanently losing the relationship to reality, that is, without going permanently mad. It is not for nothing that Lacan describes the moment “between the two deaths” as psychotic; subsequently, of course, one must put oneself back together again. This confrontation can occur in extreme experiences: amongst other things, through the loss of one’s own language, through the actual encounter with others who have lost contact with reality, and through the confrontation with the -individual and collective (cultural) past and the social fantasies within which we live and to which we
are subjected. However, it can also occur in normal everyday life by being confronted with the “ticks” of another, or with love or any other experience for which my self-image and knowledge have no answers and for which I have no framework.
The exhibition between two deaths places the focus on artistic work that — in different ways, in different media, and with different thematic emphases — also lives up to the challenge of thinking about its own conditions of production and the place from which it speaks. To this extent, I could say about every other artist in the project what has here been written about van Lieshout.
1 William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell,” in his The Early Illuminated Books, Volume 3, ed. D. Bindman (London, 1994),
2 Exhibition text Heavenly Creatures, in db artmag (June 2004), published on the internet, http://www.deutsche-bankkunst.
3 M. Hollein and M. Weinhart, eds., Wunschwelten. Neue Romantik in der Kunst der Gegenwart (Ostfildern, 2005),
6 Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick, “Von Mäusen und Menschen,” in Von Mäusen und
Menschen / Of Mice and Men, exh. cat. 4th berlin biennial for Contemporary Art (Berlin, 2006), p. 85.
9 Jacques Lacan, The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (London, 1977), p. 41. 10
Joan Copjec, ed., Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment (New York, 1990), p. 54.
11 “Von Mäusen und Menschen,” pp. 82–86.
12 Alain Ehrenberg, “Depression: Dis-con-tent in the Civilization or New Style of Social-ity,” in this volume, p. 60.
13 Compare this with the category of the “mourners” in Doreet LeVitte Harten, “What the Matriarchs Did Not Tell You,”
in this volume, pp. 46 – 59.
14 See Sonia Arribas and Howard Rouse, “Art in the Shadow of the Two Deaths: Marx, Lacan, Flaubert, Broodthaers,”
in this volume, pp. 70.
15 See Georg W. Bertram, Kunst: Eine Philosophische Einführung (Ditzingen, 2005).
16 Ibid., p. 296.
17 Peter Widmer, Subversion des Begehrens (Frankfurt / Main, 1990), p. 47.
18 Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject (London, 1999), p. 156.