The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

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JUL-AUG 2010 Issue
Art In Conversation


Portrait of Robert Hullot-Kentor. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Robert Hullot-Kentor. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Fabio Akcelrud Durão and Robert Hullot-Kentor continue a conversation about education, the common good, and committed art that they began in the June 2010 Rail.


ROBERT HULLOT-KENTOR: The tape recorder’s on again, Fabio; we’re in Part II of our discussion. In front of us we have a stack of books and newspaper clippings in case we need them—Tocqueville, of course, several by Gordon Wood, and a recent book by Barry C. Lynne. You were just saying, while we were at lunch, that one can graduate from a Brazilian university with a Ph.D. and no debt.

FABIO AKCELRUD DURÃO (Rail): Higher education is a human right in Brazil. The state universities—the country’s best schools—are all strictly free. Just as in Europe, all degrees—medicine, architecture, and so on—are without tuition. In Brazil there is also free student housing—though not enough for all—and there are student restaurants where you can eat edible meals for two or three dollars.

HULLOT-KENTOR: Yes, same in Europe. When I studied in Germany you got dinner at the university Mensa with a glass of wine for less than three dollars, and had plenty of time to work on the ontological proof of purchase.

RAIL: The ontological proof of purchase?

HULLOT-KENTOR: St. Anselm wanted to prove the reality of the divinity; I wanted to prove that ownership necessarily precedes purchase. But let’s leave that for another time.

RAIL: Wine at the Mensa must have been cheap.

HULLOT-KENTOR: Muchas gracias, Fabio. But the point is that while both European and American college graduates are now massively unemployed, it’s one thing being unemployed and hugely in debt from college expenses—the situation of many American students—and being unemployed without that burden.

RAIL: It’s amazing how difficult the U.S. makes life for itself, given its resources. There are other ways of doing these things.

HULLOT-KENTOR: To say the least, and in all regards. The Harvard economist Juliet Schor some years ago, in The Overworked American, argued that if the existing output of the U.S. economy were differently organized, each of us could live a comfortable middle class life and have half of the year off. Much is conceivable here, but nothing alternative is conceived—not in a way that gets a hearing. What’s needed is as apparent as it is out of the question. Reviewing alternatives, whether it’s educational possibilities in Brazil, Schor’s research, or discovering Rwanda provides universal health care at $2 a person per year, we might as well be reading Ripley’s Believe It or Not; it’s important to know that things could be different, but it won’t touch the quick.

RAIL: What touches the quick?

HULLOT-KENTOR: Realizing that all that now stands between ourselves and catastrophe is comprehending the situation. The actual instruments gripped are “handheld devices,” but Nero would have recognized what we’re playing at.

RAIL: That half brings us around to what we were most wanting to discuss this morning—the question of representation. We had already started talking about education in the U.S. and its historical subordination to commercial interests, which, since education isn’t leading to jobs, has reduced higher education in the minds of many Americans to a disposable husk. If education doesn’t lead to jobs, people are thinking, what good is it anyway? And, if that’s the thought, you were by contrast urging readers of the Brooklyn Rail to make off with that remaindered husk of education, the books and the sapere aude as the better part of things, especially in the midst of unemployment, with some affinity for a long disappeared intelligentsia.

HULLOT-KENTOR: Right; that’s where we started.

RAIL: And that got us into the question of representation and specifically why the country cannot represent the common good to itself, either as individuals or as a nation. This could have led us to a discussion of what education as education for the common good would be.

HULLOT-KENTOR: I’m glad it didn’t. We don’t need an edifying 17th century dialogue on education and the common good. John Milton could credibly write about education as inculcating in the student the “love of humanity.” We would feel strange mouthing those words; they are unimaginably remote. The related idea of education for the “common good” is no less archaic. It comes from a long tradition of thought that presumed the individual could be reconciled ethically with society. Aristotle was able to meditate on virtue and the common good. But what education could we invent that would teach us to do right by a society that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How does the virtuous life fulfill the common good after that? Those explosions are, in a sense, still occurring; check the front page of the newspaper; we have not gotten control of it. That’s why any thought of the common good is so fragile and plainly vestigial. The idea isn’t available to us, while we can’t just surrender it. The concept needs to be developed, taking its own measure for what it now possibly means, without losing the sense of its palpable desuetude.

RAIL: The “common good” can only be conceived in a way that can’t be asserted?

HULLOT-KENTOR: Here I’m agreeing with you.

RAIL: But however fragile it is, this doesn’t explain why Americans can’t represent the common good to themselves. Working from a passage in Tocqueville this morning, you argued that the “American system of representational government prohibits the nation from representing to itself the common good.” You put this in terms of an opposition of “systematic” representation to the “mimetic” impulse, with which you identified the common good, and said that the individual is subject to the same dynamic as the nation.

HULLOT-KENTOR: That’s the issue.

RAIL: There wasn’t time this morning, but I wanted to object to the way you’re setting this up. In counterposing “system” and “mimesis,” you are asserting a romantic thesis of the opposition of some kind of natural spontaneity to reflection. Our spontaneity can hardly be summed up as all sweetness and light. Why identify the mimetic impulse with the common good?


RAIL: And the homology you draw between the individual and the social form of self-representation is the central idea of idealism.


RAIL: Hello...?

HULLOT-KENTOR: I’m here. I’m thinking; what do you think I’m doing? Yes. I agree with you in every regard; it seems that way. But the modern self is a system just as the governmental structure is. If that’s idealism, it’s the nation’s own, not mine. We could figure this out better if we consider a phrase from James Madison—one I picked up from Gordon Wood. Madison is recorded as having said that the true distinction of American government “lies in the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity, from any share” in the government. That’s the key. It couldn’t be more illuminating. It could be the description of an individual—it’s what Tocqueville saw in Americans and captured in the vignette we discussed this morning—and it is of course a description of the U.S. political social structure.

RAIL: Let’s stay with the statement, then, as a description of society and figure out what Madison meant. What does that mean that Americans are excluded from the government?

HULLOT-KENTOR: Madison didn’t say that Americans are “excluded from the government.” He said that Americans are excluded from government “in their collective capacity.” There must be much to say about what the “collective capacity” is. But on one level, none of this is a secret. The United States is a limited democracy; it is designed to restrain the power of the majority. It is a sliver of democracy that succeeds through the particular way it limits itself at imagining that it is democracy whole. The flag over the backyard barbecue picnic means: No government allowed! Nationalism in the U.S. is anti-state. Government is only legitimate if it can seem not to exist. The much-cited system of “checks and balances” is thought to secure this limit and protect the country from despotism, which it does—even if in the Bush years it did not keep the executive from appropriating the judiciary branch and corrupting it for all foreseeable decades. But the ingenuity of American democracy is that the “voice of the people” can only be heard as a demand that this voice be muted. That shapes our feeling of freedom, and it’s the rider effectively attached to every bill that passes congress.

RAIL: What’s a “rider” in American legislation? I don’t know the idiom.

HULLOT-KENTOR: It’s a particular interest attached as a condition to passing a bill.

RAIL: I see where you’re going. It’s what Tocqueville was saying about Americans as individuals, which we discussed this morning. Your point is that if the people in their “collective capacity” are excluded from government, then only particular interests can be governmentally represented?

HULLOT-KENTOR: Yes. The system of governmental representation secures the sovereignty of the people. They are cloaked in the purloined mantle of absolutism’s divine right of kings, whether they vote or not. But to inherit that mantle they must also consent to the fate of the king in which that sovereignty was once won for them. Because that blessing is only confirmed in legislation that can resolve the conflict of particular interests, colliding at loggerheads, if the solution, often detailed in closed caucus, can be used as a fulcrum for political equality to subserve the pursuit of economic inequality. Life takes shape exclusively as the satisfaction of particular interests, with the caveat that these interests happen not to be one’s own, however urgently they are felt and pursued. That’s the achievement in which the limited democracy instituted by the Constitution converges with capitalism—nowhere legislated by the Constitution—and when it does, government successfully seems in American eyes as if it does not exist.

RAIL: Contemporary crises are making it difficult to maintain this illusion, aren’t they?

HULLOT-KENTOR: That’s the situation. When government threatens to, or—in emergency, as now—must breach its precincts out of the need to provide medical care or respond to natural destruction, it endangers life and limb and every acknowledged ideal. It no longer serves equality in the pursuit of inequality, and all are threatened with the life and death hazard of the possible, inimical expression of the common good, in the collapse of what’s “too big to fail,” an entity that even in good times absorbs almost every ounce of strength. The peculiarity of our situation is that we have no alternative but to dread the expression of the common good as a threat to our lives.

RAIL: It really is perceived this way. In June a “Tea Party” Florida congressman fumed at Obama for negotiating a fund to cover the damage caused by the ruptured oil well in the Gulf. I saved the newspaper article here. He could not imagine, he said—I’m reading—“a greater tragedy than a private corporation [BP] being forced by the government to establish a 20 billion dollar fund.”

HULLOT-KENTOR: So much for the shape of modern tragedy. The congressman’s constituents along the shore must have wondered whose side he was on. But it isn’t hard to follow his distress at the precedent Obama set: what if the bill for devastation really were set on the table, and not just once; and what if the government itself started adding up the tab on industry and demanding it be paid, time after time? Who, finally, gets that bill?

RAIL: The frequently discussed American paranoiac style is structured objectively.

HULLOT-KENTOR: It is. And currently, much literally conspires to magnify this feeling. We elect a government to provide a limited democracy so we can pursue individual economic advantage. But people now feel challenged and undermined by majority forces they can hardly fathom or control, and what else can they conclude than that they’ve been betrayed by a pernicious government? In a sense, as we were just discussing, they’re correct. But what has most of all happened is that the old Leninist program—“Seize state power!”—has been achieved by private corporations of several kinds. The NRA, for instance, is a semi-autonomous state power. It has successfully pried away a sector of the state’s constitutive monopoly on violence; by sheer force, it terrorizes Congress and defines laws. It decides how we live. The finance industry, likewise, is able to work outside of state supervision at levels of organizational power that vie with the survival of the national economy. And a corporation, such as Wal-Mart, which has captured large segments of the nation’s commercial distribution system—as did finance, by means of computerized systems—from this vantage defines what is produced and consumed, the price of goods, the organization of entire sections of towns, traffic patterns and increasingly, again, how people live. Wal-Mart is, in the words of Barry C. Lynne, a “private planning state in the heart of America.”

RAIL: Wasn’t there an article here on the table about Wal-Mart recently deciding to offer computer-based college classes to its employees?

HULLOT-KENTOR: Yes, and probably just to prove to the world that college doesn’t lead to a decent job. What Tocqueville, in the 1830s, dreaded as the growing “despotic administrative powers” of the state have been developed as the rationalizing powers of corporations that—in Lynne’s words—have become the techniques for the “enclosure and exploitation of the American people.” This is the major transformation the country has undergone since 1990. Almost the whole of our experience is now defined by these structures of corporate enclosure. There really is nowhere to turn. Travel only continues because there is nowhere left to go; time in any airport proves that. But since the defining structures of this corporate enclosure are private entities, the country is as unable as it is unwilling to understand the nature of the political coerciveness that has descended on us. What is instead experienced is hostility, disappointment, that paranoia of government you mentioned earlier, and a general inability to get our bearings, while the real toll of what is transpiring remains outside of consciousness.

RAIL: That’s the crucial idea here, isn’t it: the toll remains exterior to consciousness. But why isn’t it experienced? Thinking back over our discussion so far, you’ve drawn three parallel ideas: the toll is exterior to consciousness, as is the collective capacity to representation, as is mimesis to the systematic structure of representation. Let’s sort out the last one and figure out how this fits together. You know, you still haven’t answered my criticism earlier of the way you set this up. Maybe we could start with what you mean by a “system”?

HULLOT-KENTOR: Lots could be said about what a system is. But for what we’re discussing, a development since the 17th century, a system is a self-antagonistic, coercive unity of functionally interdependent, qualitatively neutral elements that are in principle isolated from each other, whose isolation is at the same time maintained by the system. That would cover a system of health management, a system of glaciers or rivers as considered by environmentalists, an American city as a system of potential customers, or the mind as a system of consciousness as Locke thought of it. A system is external to the object that is immanent to it just in the sense that the American system of representational government is external to the politically equal, isolated elements it unifies, and to which it must remain external to be legitimate.

RAIL: You’ve said this before?

HULLOT-KENTOR: I gather it sounds that way.

RAIL: And you counterpose to the system of representation the “collective capacity” not only as what is excluded from the democratic voice but as a mimetic content. So, what’s the other side to it—what does mimesis mean here?

HULLOT-KENTOR: We started talking about mimesis this morning. It’s a necessarily puzzling concept because while all concepts have non-conceptual elements and are ultimately non-conceptual, mimesis seems to be an altogether anti-conceptual concept because it is the idea of what obviates the diremption of subject and object. It breaches subject and object, a boundary otherwise defined by concepts. Mimesis means imitation, participation and expression—though, characteristically, at our socio-historical latitude and longitude, it is as a copy function that it is most widely understood. Which is only its remainder. Mimesis is how you make a certain gesture across your forehead, or hear something in the inflection of your voice and think, “Oh, no, dreaded Uncle Sidney!” That involuntary karaoke of the self threatens to reveal all the rest of what we’re up to as the real put on. Mimesis is primordial to empathy. In some sense, we exist internally to one another, although we only have the most limited way of discussing these things. Freud’s concepts of cathexis and internal objects are exceptional and to the point. It is explicitly the terrain of the most important 20th century novelists—Joyce, Woolf, and especially Kawabata. To make it sound less strange—even though this is one of those things that everyone already knows but likes to go blank on—it is what “I’ll be thinking of you” really amounts to.

RAIL: And you set this mimetic content in opposition to the representational system?

HULLOT-KENTOR: I didn’t—it did and does; that is how it developed. The United States originated in a struggle over the nature of representation—the “Tea Party,” which is very much on our minds these days—but we may not recognize that the question of mimesis was, and remains, at the heart of the matter. That Tea Party—Gordon Wood is the authority here—revolved around a struggle between virtual and direct representation, which the revolution decided in favor of the latter. The British had presumed and argued, in opposition to the grievances of the colonists, that even in London, in the House of Lords, at a distance of some three thousand miles, the concerns of the colonies could be represented “disinterestedly.” I emphasize “disinterestedly” in part to touch back on our morning discussion of Tocqueville’s comment, but most of all because disinterestedness was once cognate with the idea of virtual representation.

RAIL: To get this straight, “virtual” representation was the doctrine the British asserted? It claimed a representationally binding legitimacy to that act of “I’ll be thinking of you”?

HULLOT-KENTOR: Yes; and that “thinking of you” had an ancient paternalistic aspect that was profoundly resented. The emergence of the United States was built on successfully debunking its legitimacy. The colonists denied “virtual representation” as an oppressive superstition. Their interests—they were sure—were not represented by the British House of Lords, however virtuously disinterested those representatives in London persisted to the contrary. The colonists demystified the claim to “virtual” representation as a mask of economic domination and insisted on the “direct” representation of their interests in their own legislative body. In an act of autogenesis, the country became a parentless parent to itself in the personified spirit of nationalism, put ethnographic descent in place of a vanished tradition as a population of immigrants scrambling for who came first, soon to engage in a vicious preoccupation with race, as they found themselves competitors face to face at a goldmine of natural resources and commercial possibility. An organization for the representation of particular interests was developed, as if only interests could and can rightly exist. In part, as Gordon Wood mentions, this was a throwback to a kind of medieval self-government, which the colonists were long familiar with. But, fully established, it was—as we already heard from Madison—something unprecedented: a government from which the “people in their collective capacity” had been excluded no less than had been “virtual representation,” that vestige of mimetic participation once lodged in a structure of antiquity.

RAIL: The physical distance between the countries must have been a critical factor in the rejection of the British claim to virtual representation.

HULLOT-KENTOR: Perhaps. But distance is one thing. What categorically undermined the legitimacy of “virtual” representation was the space, not the distance. We can travel considerable, even unthinkable distances and at those removes and still think of each other with overwhelming intensity, affection, obedience, suspicion, and so on. In space, however, these experiences become problematic; we require the whole of modern psychology—and now pharmacology—to make sense of them, usually with the intention of achieving enough freedom from these feelings to be able rationally to pursue self-interest. In modern representational terms, however odd the comparison sounds, the influence of the moon can no more be represented in us than the senator of the state of Oklahoma can stand up in Congress and presume to represent Rhode Island.

RAIL: You jumped ahead there in some way. But you’re saying that virtual representation does not occur in space, but direct representation is the only credible form of representation in space?

HULLOT-KENTOR: Yes, direct representation is a geographically stipulated franchise, spatialized on a mechanical model of voting in which representatives are to serve as vehicles of each region’s particular interests. But while the representation is geographical, the question of the relationship of mind to mind, mind to region, of mind to nature, became entirely aporetic other than insofar as the region serves the interests of the population located there. The quirk is that this form of representation effectively has nothing to do with where it is. Up until environmentalists got in their way, for instance, Americans were knowingly hunting the bald eagle—their own national symbol—into extinction. The demystification of virtual representation was followed by a new form of domination occurring in space, but by magnitudes more rapacious as an engine for the domination of nature.

RAIL: Do you remember that passage in Tocqueville on Americans and nature that we discussed the other day? It’s to the point, if I can find it. Here it is, “Europeans think a lot about the wild, open spaces of America, but the Americans themselves hardly give them a thought. The wonders of inanimate nature leave them cold, and, one may almost say, they do not see the marvelous forest surrounding them until the trees begin to fall beneath the ax. What they see is something different. The American people see themselves marching through wilderness.”

HULLOT-KENTOR: That hits the spot; there we go camping. Though I don’t see why Tocqueville limited his observation to what Americans make of “inanimate nature.” Because, now that everyone wants to look like an 8th grade gym teacher, if you watch people working out with weights and on treadmills in health clubs, Tocqueville’s “marching through wilderness” is how Americans approach their bodies as well. For Americans, nature is somewhere you bring your barbells, your skateboard; you ride your bike over it; you go there to exercise. It is where you pursue your interest, and where no one can tell you you can’t. That’s the special cloud of nationalism that hovers over this landscape and its inhabitants.

RAIL: Space, then, is no less the contrary of mimesis than it is the contrary of nature? And, if I’m following you, you’re implying that a system, in the modern sense, is the capacity to transform nature into space? I see. I was confused. I thought Madison’s statement about the exclusion of the “collective capacity” meant the exclusion of the numerical majority. But you’ve interpreted it in terms of the mimetic capacity.

HULLOT-KENTOR: That’s it. Where there is space, there are objects of systematic management, but, categorically, there is no nature, or more exactly, no natures. In American government we have a system of interests, but no nature. I’m repeating myself. But, as to Madison’s “collective capacity,” you weren’t exactly confused since the numerical majority was excluded by the representational system that developed, as we could hardly overlook now when one percent of the U.S. population has forty percent of the wealth and the top twenty five percent of the population altogether has more than eighty percent of the wealth.

RAIL: Is there a way in this to say what space is?

HULLOT-KENTOR: There is at least plenty to think about in the fact that in the same century that Pascal unforgettably perceived, as if for the first time, the shock of modern space in the often quoted words, “the silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” Hobbes wrote that “space is the phantasm of a thing existing without thought.”

RAIL: … …

HULLOT-KENTOR: But, hola, Fabio, this is getting to be a long discussion. We should close it up.

RAIL: Sure, but a couple of things. You still haven’t exactly said why you think the country can’t represent the common good to itself.

HULLOT-KENTOR: What we have for government only comprehends interests, but the common good is not an interest, not even the interest of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. What can’t be the object of an intention, cannot be the fulfillment of an interest—those perfect summer days, for instance, which are now disappearing into unprecedented heavy weather, blaring heat and tornadoes. Which is not to say that everything unintended expresses the common good or that intentions can’t go into the common good; but it itself does not fulfill an intention, not anymore than shaping the toll of what is transpiring, if it could be shaped, would fulfill an intention. In this sense, the common good could not be an object of assertion any more than truth could be.

RAIL: This has implications for aesthetics.

HULLOT-KENTOR: Art is the quintessential object of virtual representation. All of the problems of modern aesthetics revolve around the question of how to comprehend such an irrevocably mimetic object in a social structure that can only make sense of direct representation.

RAIL: That shapes the debate over committed art, on one hand, and high-modernism on the other.

HULLOT-KENTOR: It does, though we need to be condensed here. The idea of committed art derives from the unity of political structure and culture that took fixed shape with the modern system of nations in the Peace of Westphalia, which brought peace in the doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio. Culture had become an entirely new power as a nascent element of nationalism that offered every potential weapon for the intentions of counter-reformation and a politically betrayed reformation of which we and all of our advertisements, and now, political ‘advertisements’ are the progeny. It needs to be emphasized: This idea of the unity of culture and politics was completely distinct from medieval culture, when no one, least of all the aristocracy could have been interested in somehow fusing the two. – Committed art, then, in the sense of art with a political purpose, unconsciously follows in the spirit of that national transformation of culture, of culture as manipulation, that thinks it will fight its way out of the steel lined paper bag we’re in by proving that everything above and below the clouds is a function of interests and that what presents itself as ‘virtual’ representation is always covertly ‘direct’ representation. What you referred to as “high modernism”—a phrase that has done incalculable harm by doubling up with “high culture”—is art that, when it is art, is opposed to culture. From its perspective, it is “committed art” that is culture, the slightest variant on a culture that is increasingly a bare shadow of direct representation in the ideal of “consumer sovereignty,” a sovereign realm of manipulated fantasies of the unity of ruler and the ruled, of need and its spontaneously simulated gratification in a powerless claustrum. The excitements of the 3-D movie amount to a kind of self-inflicted reign of terror. Art, when it is art, is as opposed to nation as it is to culture, though not in the sense of claiming to be something on the order of world citizenry, but as memory of nature in the subject. It sounds exaggerated, and I’m sure it could be better said if I weren’t running out of steam, but the entire history of modern art has been nothing less than a desperate struggle and longing for reality as the only possible form in which we can shape what genuinely transpires, as the shaping of the toll, such as the common good now can only be shaped.


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