CREATIVE JOURNAL—Lab—Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y. and Debord

The Lab session today extended our discussions about postmodernism with a showing of Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y. (2004) by Johan Grimonprez and Réfutation de tous les jugements, tant élogieux qu’hostiles, qui ont été jusqu’ici portés sur le film « La Société du spectacle » (1975) by Guy Debord.

Both films have a somewhat similar formal quality – they present a collection of seemingly disparate film clips with a voice-over. The Debord film (of which we only saw 5 minutes) uses commercials and sequences of a military character, overlaid with Debord himself (I believe) speaking about the critical reception of his earlier film La Société du spectacle (1973). His voice seems to be coming over a bad telephone connection, it’s very harsh and distorted. Grimonprez’ film also uses footage and voice-over, but there is a connecting narrative to the whole of a record of a number of airplane hijackings.

In my mind, both films present a number of critiques. To summarise two such critiques, you could take them as indictments of the media’s manipulation of events and their audiences, or as comments on the viewers blasé reactions to such events (or both at the same time, of course).

Looking at it from the point of view of the texts we’ve just been reading regarding allegory and postmodernity’s love of the layered text, I can see how these each take their collections of film clips to create a whole (the overall film) which sets up a negotiation with the viewer resulting in a set of possible readings. The films in themselves are more or less opaque to this process, creating their own readings at the same time as creating an alternative space for the viewers’. There is always a context which dictates certain of the possibilities of the reception, but this is just one of a potentially infinite number of readings, each one dependent on a particular viewer and conditions in which they come to the film.

Trying to pick out some relevant quotes from our recent texts about postmodernism. Andreas Huyssen in Mapping the Postmodern says:

The point is not to eliminate the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art. The point is to heighten that tension, even to rediscover it and to bring it back into focus in the arts as well as in criticism. (Huyssen, p. 337)

Thinking about allegory, from the Craig Owens’ text, adds many dimensions to the two films. I don’t really know how Debord would view such a reading, but I doubt if he would have been happy.

Or perhaps that was one of his points – any statement is always already usurped into some other order, the order of the system or the audiences self-created orders of reception. By saying ‘always already’ I am of course implying that any reading is always implicit in any statement, which would be a very Derridean point of view?

  • Huyssen, A. (1984). Mapping the Postmodern. In Preziosi, D. ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 329–337.


. . . the allegorical supplement is not only an addition, but also replacement. It takes the place of an earlier meaning, which is thereby effaced or obscured. Because allegory usurps its object it comports within itself a danger, the possibility of perversion . . . (p. 327)

Well, that’s always been the problem and possibility of allegory, and in particular postmodernism’s use of allegory.

At our last Lab session we watched the film Heidi (1937), with Shirley Temple, juxtaposed with Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s film Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone (1992) which appropriates the Heidi mythos, subverting it with violent and sexual references.

The discussion afterwards gave us the opportunity to rehash the old arguments about a work being the sum of itself and it’s history, context and whatever else we know about it. No longer do we have the luxury (?) of divorcing the piece from the situation in which it was created, shown or received. As much as I think this was only ever an intellectual exercise in the past, it’s become more or less unacceptable to even consider this now. So we have TJ Clark’s social art historical interpretations, the postmodern view of the artwork as text, with its ‘true’ or final meaning forever deferred, etc. all of which encourages us to see the work not just as an ideal object, but as the catalyst for our further creation of meanings for it.

So really this changes the nature of ‘the meaning’ of the work from a potential fixed point of reference, to a transformative space, adjusting itself to our knowledge and understanding and biases. This is not a bad thing, necessarily, as long as these are recognised and drawn out at the same time.

COLLEGE—Creative Journal

This is something that I should have done a long time ago, but have eternally procrastinated about.

For the Core Course we are expected to write a “Creative Journal” every week, discussing some aspect of the course and our response to it. I’ve found this incredibly hard to do, it’s become almost some kind of mental block with me now. However, it counts for 50% of the mark for this part of the course, so I have decided to buckle down and start really working on it.

Technically, I should have been writing c.200 words a week since the beginning of the course, so by the end I would have around 4,400 words in total. I have so far written 800 words, and most of that was at the beginning of last term. So essentially I have a lot of catching up to do.

I thought I would turn this con into a pro (as I always try to do . . . ) by creating a journal which makes a virtue out of this stalled process. My thought was that the journal itself would reflect the lapses between writings in it’s structure in some way. I think this will manifest itself as some kind of timeline running through the book with massive gaps at the beginning, with (hopefully) a more consistent set of writings from now on.

I feel this would be an interesting exposition of my process and failings. The question however is, how relevant is this to the subject-matter of the journal (and of course, does it need to be)? Perhaps one can be too open and honest about some things and perhaps there are things that are best left unsaid?

READING—Postmodern Critiques of Modernity and Modernism


  • Kant, I. (1784). What is Enlightenment? In Preziosi, D. ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 70–75.
  • Lyotard, J-F. (1984). “Introduction.” In The Postmodern Condition. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. XXIII–XXV and 78–82.
  • Foucault, M. (1986). “Preface” and “Classifying”. In The Order of Things. London: Routledge. pp. XV–XXIV and 125–165.
  • Borges, J. L. (1964). The Library of Babel. In Labyrinths. London. pp. 78–86.
  • Foster, H. (1983). Postmodernism: A Preface. In Foster, H. ed. The Anti-Aesthetic. Port Townsend. pp. IX–XVI.
  • Owens, C. (1980). The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism. In Preziosi, D. ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 315–328.
  • Huyssen, A. (1984). Mapping the Postmodern. In Preziosi, D. ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 329–337.
  • Bourriaud, N. (2002). “Foreword” and “Relational Form”. In Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Les Presses du Réel. pp. 7–10, 11–24.


Over the past few weeks we’ve been considering various strands of postmodernism and their challenges to modernity (most of the following, up to the subtitle ‘This Week,’ comes from my notes from Astrid Schmetterling’s lecture).

Beginning with Kant’s promotion of the responsibility of every person for their own acts and development, the establishment of the modern world and Modernity’s meta-narratives is initiated:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.. . . For this enlightenment . . . nothing is required but freedom . . . the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point. (Kant, p.70, 71)

Moving on to Modernism itself and discussing Enlightenment problematics – gender, colonialism, class oppression – a series of exclusionary practices dealt with by Foucault in his writings. Foucault represents the historicist turn of Post-Structuralism, away from Structuralism’s flawed critique of Modernism – it was seen not to have broken with Modernism’s notions of truth, universality and timelessness. Borges, I think, fictionalises the potential consequences of Post-Structuralism, especially through the works of Jacques Derrida.

According to Lyotard, Postmodernity displays an “incredulity towards metanarratives”, and:

Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. (Lyotard, p.XXV)

For Lyotard, Post-Modernism works against consensus, resulting in no privileged discourse and no general theory of justice. There can only ever be a provisional judgement in cases – the heterogeneous over homogeneous and universal.

Two styles of Post-Modernism are proposed by Hal Foster, one of reaction and another of resistance. “Reaction” is conservative, and entails going back to a pre-modern period for influences, with a resultant decontextualisation of styles. “Resistance” questions rather than exploits cultural codes.

This week

This week we’re completing this series of texts by looking at Owens, Huyssen and Bourriaud. The following are some very short notes from my own readings of each text.


For Owens, an “allegorical impulse” has reemerged in contemporary culture after its suppression in modern theory. He provisionally defines allegory as occurring “whenever one text is doubled by another” (Owens, p. 316):

. . . allegory becomes the model of all commentary, all critique, insofar as these are involved in rewriting a primary text in terms of its figural meaning. (Owens, p. 317)

In the visual arts allegory is characterised as “appropriation, site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization”. The allegorical impulse “challenges the security of the foundations upon which aesthetics is erected.”


Huyssen suggests that the available theories of postmodernism (as equated with poststructuralism or the writings of Lyotard) have only been critiques of modernism rather any significant breaks with it. To go beyond these, one must look at aspects of contemporary culture and see that they “raise the question of cultural tradition and conservation in the most fundamental way as an aesthetic and a political issue” (Huyssen, p. 332), this exemplifies the postmodern sensibility of our time and is different from “both modernism and avantgardism”.

As with Foster, Huyssen promotes a postmodernism of resistance, not simply in terms of “negativity or non-identity à la Adorno” (Huyssen, p. 336), but bringing together politics and aesthetics in heightened creative tension.


The space of social interactions represents for Bourriaud the arena of contestation for contemporary art. He asks:

… is it still possible to generate relationships with the world, in a practical field art-history traditionally earmarked for their “representation”? (Bourriaud, p. 9)

Bourriaud represents a fairly recent development in the critique of contemporary art, the recognition of the “inter-human” (Bourriaud, p. 22) or “trans-individual” (Bourriaud, p. 18) aspects of works. He states that:

Relational Aesthetics does not represent a theory of art, this would imply the statement of an origin and destination, but a theory of form.

He contrasts Thierry de Duve’s “authoritarian” view of art, “for whom any work is nothing more than a ‘sum of judgements’” by the artist, to a concept of the artistic form “only assuming its texture (and only acquires a real existence) when it introduces human interactions” (Bourriaud, p. 22).

Grant Kester takes a similar (if less philosophical and more historiographical) view, in his book Conversation Pieces1. In the Introduction he narrows his concern to “works that define dialogue itself as fundamentally aesthetic (as opposed to works centered on collaboratively producing paintings, sculptures, murals, etc.)” (p. 13).

In the process he highlights the way modern art, with its avant-garde tendency to stall communication, has been theorised and how these theories have since thwarted an effective consideration of dialogue-based artworks:

… the antidiscursive orientation of the avant-garde artwork, its inscrutability and resistance to interpretation, is staged in opposition to a cultural form that relies on reductive or clichéd imagery to manipulate the viewer (advertising, political propaganda, kitsch, and so on). … This paradigm … has made it difficult to recognize the potential aesthetic significance of collaborative and dialogical art practices that are accessible without necessarily being simplistic.

  1. Kester, G. (2004). Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. California: University of California Press.