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Helmut Draxler

Where do you stand, colleague?

Jörg Immendorff, „Wo stehst du mit deiner Kunst, Kollege?", 1973 Jörg Immendorff, „Wo stehst du mit deiner Kunst, Kollege?", 1973

The overall title of this conference, “Where do you stand, colleague?”, appears in a painting Jörg Immendorff made in 1973. It shows a man, presumably the painter himself, entering the studio of another male artist, calling him “to arms” in order to join the battle the workers are waging in the streets. It points out a clear opposition between an inside and an outside, a private and a public sphere, the individual and the collective, the studio and the street, art and politics. And all the current art trends of that time – from New Realism to Concept and Land art – are located on the inside, associated with the private and art side of things. So the act of opening the door between the two worlds is clearly an anti-aesthetic gesture, calling for a transformation of artworks into banners or posters in the service of class struggle. So far so good. But on closer inspection there are two irritating features: 1. What we see is without a doubt a painting and not a banner. It was not carried around in the streets but exhibited in a gallery space, and so it was first of all exposed to some sort of aesthetic experience: how does the pictorial relate to the textual, the style to the content? What the work offers is not purely an anti-aesthetic call to arms; it instead articulates a performative contradiction between the anti-aesthetic on the level of content and the aesthetic experience on the formal or media level. And this contradiction is precisely what is interesting about the piece. 2. The second point of irritation is that individual artistic practice is clearly situated on the inside, on the private and art side of things. So the question arises: what kind of subjectivity does Immendorff himself perform by entering from the outside, pointing to the street and the struggle of the working class? This must obviously be a different sort of subjectivity, a political or militant subjectivity, one that speaks not for itself, not on behalf of an individual or of art, but on behalf of the people. It subjectifies itself in speaking in the name of the people.

Precisely this kind of “grand subjectivity” has come under heavy criticism from feminist and postcolonial critics, led by Gayatri Spivak in her legendary 1985 essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. Spivak reflects on the fact that radical critique has two sides, denouncing subjectivity while performing it, with the strange effect that it is precisely this act of speaking in the name of others (she refers to a conversation between Deleuze and Foucault on delinquents) which in the end lets those others remain in complete silence. I don’t want to generalize this critique to all forms of radical subjectivity, but it might throw a different light on what the title of this conference implies. In any case, what we see in this painting is not an immediate articulation of the people and their voice, but a master narrative presented by the artist Jörg Immendorff, who mainly instrumentalizes the “people’s voice” in his competitive struggle against his colleagues.

Is this the only depressive conclusion we can take home from Spivak’s diagnosis, will there always be an endless repetition of privileged speaking ambitions and silencing effects? No possibility for any kind of mutuality or recognition – which is to say, what I would call politics? In Hito Steyerl’s excellent introduction to the German translation of Spivak’s essay, I found a clear answer: there is no such possibility under the given conditions. But: “Constituting a political subject beyond the realm of state, culture and identity is precisely what appears to be structurally impossible today and is therefore all the more urgent.” [1] Immendorff, of course, will be no big help in this direction: he is deeply involved in identity, culture, and the state (he is making propaganda for the German Communist Party on the banners outside on the street). But then, when I read Steyerl’s sentence for the first time, it made me emphatically agree – the second time around, by contrast, I felt serious doubt: What if the impossibility Steyerl and Spivak are suggesting is not an impossibility grounded in today’s social relations, but a structural one?

Maybe there are intrinsic reasons why neither politics nor subjectivity are possible, or in any case no political subjectivity is possible, beyond any trace of identity, culture, and the communal (which not necessarily translates as the state). I would say that political subjectivity cannot be found strictly beyond those categories themselves but only within, or more precisely, between them, in the interstices or their overlapping social fields. That is to say, only in taking the risk of a subjective stance, of an authorial and intentional speech that aims at something communal, will a political subjectivity be possible. Political subjectivity is not a question of the purest and most radical position, but of engaging existing conditions, of getting your hands dirty and laying your actions open to the critique of others. That is why political subjectivity will always encompass competitive and silencing elements, though it seems important that we not try to erase them completely in the name of some phantasmatic reality beyond everything, instead reflecting on and negotiating their effects within whatever political struggle we’re engaged in.

Let us now examine that argument using a contemporary example. Who is today’s Immendorff? There surely are many candidates, but my clear favorite is Slavoj Žižek after his Leninist turn a couple of years ago. You might object that he is not an artist but a philosopher and some strange kind of psychoanalyst; but I would insist: yes, he is an artist as well. And so I would locate his trajectory within the anti-aesthetic tradition. I’m referring to several of his latest books, from “Revolution at the Gates. Žižek on Lenin: The 1917 Writings” to the essay “Enjoyment within the Limits of Reason Alone” he added as a new foreword to the second edition of “For They Know Not What They Do. Enjoyment as a Political Factor”. Most prominently, however, there is his article in a recent issue of Le Monde diplomatique [2] , where he brilliantly condenses his arguments. In these books and articles, Žižek displays a gesture that is indeed very similar to Immendorff’s. He is calling us to arms, in literary rather than painterly terms, and with even more intensity and directness: he argues that violence against capitalism is per se defensive violence, and because everything is poisoned and tainted by capitalism, more or less any violence would seem to be justified as a political means.

But not only is the call to arms more intense; the scenario, too, has changed: there is no outside, no street, no public, no people, no banners, and no struggle whatsoever any more. Not even a door. There is just a totalized interior – taken from Antonio Negri’s “total subsumption of life under capital” or, more recently, Peter Sloterdijk’s “World Inner Space of Capital” – which has become catastrophic and monstrous. The interior is not a safe and cozy resort anymore. It has become absolutely crucial to find a way out. Since there is no door Žižek could open for us, he is calling on us to “jump”, which means to act violently, to cast the first stone, or what have you, so that precisely in this leap, act, or cast the door will reveal itself. It is no longer the “Great Leap Forward” in the Maoist tradition (estimates of the number of victims run to many millions) but a leap into the unknown. Precisely because we have no idea what is “waiting outside”, to quote the most recent Berlin biennial, even if there will be an outside at all, we are supposed to “jump.” As there is radically no possibility for any political activity whatsoever within that monstrous interior space called symbolic order (Žižek is referring to our everyday lives), and everything is tainted or spoiled by capital, there is the urgent need to jump, to perform the pure act: to cast the stone in whatever direction, to fire at random, an act whose destructive energy will lay the foundations of a new symbolic order that, one hopes, will be better than the one we live in, though we don’t know that with precision and can only guess. This whole scenario has, of course, very little to do with politics – it’s clearly a religious argument Žižek has taken from the tradition of Saint Augustine, Pascal, Lacan. It functions in the way of “I believe because it is absurd”, or “There is no chance: you must take it”; but those religious arguments are transformed into pure aesthetics. It’s the aesthetics of anti-aesthetics that is at stake here – the “acte gratuit” or the “propaganda of the deed” of a Gidean or Nietzschean immoralist (with a strong anarchist component) – as it has influenced the anti-aesthetic/ avant-garde tradition, for example through the French Dadaist Jacques Vaché, who walked into a theater with a gun and threatened to fire blindly into the audience in the name of a pure “acte gratuit.” His followers range from the Surrealists – André Breton most popular among them – to Yves Klein with his “leap into the void”.

Again, as with Immendorff, this is pure nonsense politically speaking – but don’t forget that the French “gratuit” means not only that something does not cost anything, but also that something has no sense, no meaning at all. So literally it is this very nonsense that is expected to be capable of creating new sense and meaning. And for sure, it is, at the moment it is invoked rhetorically and thus mobilized politically, a highly competitive and silencing act as well, and that within the academic and political field and even beyond; I have no doubt about that. On the other hand, Žižek takes the risk of subjectivity, of an authorial position and intentional responsibility – even as he is completely irresponsible in relation to the possible effects such speech might bring about. So the decisive question will be: does what Žižek is performing in the literary register also imply, even engender a political subjectivity? On the one hand his linguistic gesture is clearly on the silencing side of things; on the other hand he envisions a situation beyond state, culture, and identity, at least for the moment of the act. But if we consider my argument that a political subjectivity will be possible only within the communal, culture, and identity, then what? I think that we have to face again the performative contradictions Žižek is articulating on several levels: between the ethical instigation to jump or to act and the deep immorality of this act as a highly aestheticized gesture; between the constitutive act of a (potentially) political subjectivity and the loss of all political content or objectives; between the speech act, or more precisely, the act of writing and the envisioned fundamental act, the “acte gratuit”; and finally, between the supposed complete meaninglessness of the symbolic order and the non-sense of the leap.

As with Immendorff, those contradictions cannot be resolved. But at the same time they actually represent what is really interesting about Žižek’s whole approach. Those contradictions are precisely what requires our mundane competencies in aesthetic experience in order to even understand them as contradictions. That is to say, at issue is not the ability to act or to jump or to fire, but to read and to understand Žižek’s manifesto in its multiple dimensions: between the textual and the performative, between content and medium, between subjective speech and collective silencing effect. And these contradictions also require our political experience to reflect on the consequences the aesthetic experience of our reading the manifesto offers us. And it is precisely from this point, from reading and reflection, from negotiating the different dimensions of the text and relating it to our own aesthetic and political experience, that a political subjectivity might also emerge. That means that the publication of such a manifesto already implies its failure on the level of pure content: because it presupposes the recognition of ourselves, the readers, not as dumb followers of his advice, but potentially as political subjects who draw their own conclusions. That means that the anti-aesthetic gesture remains fundamentally dependent on both aesthetic and political experience; and Žižek’s risky subjectivity definitely possesses the potential to become a political subjectivity, but radically only within and not beyond the given symbolic order.


[1]Hito Steyerl, “Die Gegenwart der Subalternen”, preface to the German edition of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Can the Subaltern Speak? Postkolonialität und subalterne Artikulation, trans. Alexander Joskowicz and Stefan Nowotny, Vienna: Turia + Kant 2007, 13; an English translation of Steyerl’s essay under the title “The Subalterns’ Present” is available at
[2]Slavoj Žižek, “Zeit der Monster. Ein Aufruf zur Radikalität”, in: Le Monde Diplomatique, November 12, 2010.