Still in Another World: conversation with Isabelle Graw

— Dylan Byron

Photograph of Annette Graw  by Winfrid Graw

Photograph of Annette Graw by Winfrid Graw

On Three Cases of Value Reflection (Sternberg Press, 2021) and In Another World: Notes, 2014–2017 (Sternberg Press, 2020)

Dylan Byron: In Three Cases of Value Reflection, you qualify Francis Ponge’s essay on Jean Fautrier’s Les Otages as “doubly materialist,” reflecting both the materiality of Fautrier’s paintings and Ponge’s material circumstances. In Another World: Notes, 2014–2017[1] evinces a similar double materiality, offering social analysis in the tradition of the Frankfurt School while also reflecting on your own material conditions. You doubtless know Lukács’s famous attack on Adorno, whom he accused of living in a “Grand Hotel Abgrund” in which privileged pessimism precluded political commitment. You do have political commitments, so I don’t mean to imply that somehow you are too privileged to perceive concrete implications to your critical thought, but nevertheless I wonder whether you concur with Lukács in perceiving “many turns in the road, many way stations” [viele Wendungen des Weges, viele Zwischenstationen] between bourgeois life and materialist criticism?

Isabelle Graw: As you said, Lukács follows Marx’s and Engel’s belief that culture is just an emanation from economic conditions. He thus criticizes bourgeois intellectuals like Adorno for cultivating an attitude of desperation while staying in this famous “Grand Hotel Abgrund.” Lukács also faults them for focusing exclusively on ideology to the neglect of what, according to him, had a much stronger impact, namely economic conditions. His ideal was an intellectual who would opt for something that he called a salto mortale, which is a rather dangerous and risky jump into class struggle, as he himself had done by joining the Communist Party. And of course, such a salto mortale is not really what I’m aiming for with In Another World, for two reasons. Firstly, I think that this Lukácsian identification with the proletariat has become rather more complicated in a contemporary context, especially considering that certain national working classes—and I am not referring to the diverse, nonwhite, global proletariat in this respect—often have right-wing tendencies. In his book Retour à Reims, for example, Didier Eribon has pointed to the deeply rooted racism endemic in his own working-class background. While his description seems totalizing at times—in reality not all members of the working class turn right wing of course—his reservations about a Rancièreian idealization of the workers are understandable. And secondly, nowadays it’s impossible to maintain, as Lukács tended to believe, that one’s ideological production would necessarily constitute an expression of one’s own position in the class struggle. This would amount to one’s work being entirely determined and limited by one’s assumed social position. It would mean that, when positioned as bourgeois—as you and I both are, I guess—one couldn’t write something supportive of class struggle or supportive of those who are discriminated against. And it would also imply that, due to your supposed class privilege, you would not experience discrimination yourself, which of course isn’t true either, as I try to demonstrate in In Another World.

DB: In bearing witness to the discrimination and harassment you’ve experienced on the basis of your gender identity, you mean?

IG: Yes, for example. Your question pointed to contradictions, and I think this is the key word here because, in In Another World, I also wanted to examine possible contradictions between what is assumed to be one’s social position and what is perceived as one’s cultural production. The passage on Françoise Sagan, for example, was a way for me to highlight another writer who insisted on being left wing while admitting quite freely that she enjoyed staying in luxury hotels, a predilection for which she was severely criticized. I think that such contradictions and tensions can be productive. Lukács had no patience for them, but I’m actually quite interested in them. While he deplores these “turns in the road,” these “way stations,” which bourgeois intellectuals have to pass through before making the salto mortale that would finally join them to the proletariat, I must say that, unlike Lukács, I don’t condemn detours, complex mediations, occasional mistakes, or wrong directions. I don’t believe in a seamless transition between bourgeois life and materialist criticism. On the contrary, I’m more interested in the tensions and contradictions between the two. Nevertheless, there is one point where I would agree with Lukács, in that it’s absolutely necessary in my mind to try to analyze one’s own material conditions. For me, this doesn’t mean that one cultivates a kind of purely formal and inconsequential exercise of self-reflection. It’s more a working through of the contradictions and compromises imposed on one by the conditions of capitalism. This working through of contradictions and compromises can be hard work and, as I’ve tried to show, can even be rather painful at times.

DB: Your point is well taken. I wonder whether we might also consider where this view places you in relation to certain orthodoxies of identity politics. Precisely the kind of productive contradictions you’re describing would seem to be precluded by the presupposition that one’s work must inevitably represent a fixed subject position which one is assigned in virtue of some kind of stable identity. On this view, one can only write as a person who is marked in some way by a fixed identity, and the writing itself is excluded from calling into question the construction of that identity, whether minoritarian or hegemonic. This attitude seems to entail a limitation that Lukács’s view perhaps also entailed, but yours seems very powerfully to escape, and thus to present an alternative to.

IG: I think it’s complicated. Especially in these times, I would never want to find myself on the side of those who phobically resist identity politics and the social changes that are implied by it. The rage against identity politics often expresses a fear of change, a fear of losing those advantages that benefit from an unmarked identity. As we know, identities are not only chosen, but also socially ascribed, often quite violently. One is marked as female, or Black, or queer, and these ascriptions have discriminatory consequences and are often difficult to escape. That also goes for the mark of working-class origins, which Eribon found he could escape but was also forced to revisit, because it caught up with him. We should also bear in mind that the more interesting theorizations of identity politics—and this is also true in art—have always worked with a plural notion of identity, avoiding essentialization. Where I agree with you is that, instead of allowing the market to reduce one’s work to a seemingly fixed subject position, it might be more interesting to opt for strategies of disidentification without neglecting the material consequences of these identity positions that are forced upon one. That’s something the artists I’m more interested in—say, SoiL Thornton—already try to do in their work. Surprisingly enough, there’s something interesting about the writer Francis Ponge in this respect, because when you encounter instances in his texts where he seems to render his own conditions of production transparent, it’s of course something that we should not take literally. Rather, these are highly literary passages—inventions possibly—and are thus to be taken with a grain of salt. Ponge does hint quite systematically at the importance of material conditions that have reached into his text and shaped it. That’s what interests me, more than the truth of what actually happened. I tried, for instance, to research whether Ponge had ever in fact been given a painting by Fautrier. I searched the catalogue raisonné to see whether an owner named Ponge ever appeared in the provenance, and I didn’t find it. So, it might have been an invented story, but in a way it doesn’t matter. I like the playfulness of it all, and especially Ponge’s audacity in mentioning that which is never mentioned in the art world—the underlying financial deals and informal agreements that are profoundly constitutive and, as we know, quite enabling for art-world transactions.

DB: Clearly the material conditions that the market assigns to art critics have changed significantly since Ponge’s time. In Three Cases of Value Reflection, you note that when Ponge was writing, the figure of the writer occupied a strikingly exalted position in the cultural hierarchy. Now that’s increasingly not the case. Nevertheless, in In Another World, you follow Ponge in making transparent many of the conditions of your own art-critical production. I wonder whether you found that the publication of this material was controversial. I can imagine people being annoyed with you for exposing such dealings.

IG: Apropos of your observation concerning the critic’s status in Ponge’s and Fautrier’s time, in reading the correspondence between Fautrier and [Jean] Paulhan, it was quite striking to realize that Fautrier literally begged Paulhan to choose one or two of his paintings in exchange for a manuscript, which he evidently considered to be much more valuable than his paintings. This is unimaginable nowadays, when critics are thought to be more like poor relatives whose contributions—while remaining important in that they produce symbolic meaning—are not as highly regarded as they were during Ponge’s lifetime.

DB: Critics as poor relatives—a striking image.

IG: As a critic-friend of mine recently said in a tongue-in-cheek way: we are the waiters. We cater to the artists and the art system, and we also get meagre salaries compared to the amounts of money that can potentially be earned by visual artists if they become economically successful. In fact, I was quite nervous about how In Another World would be received. It had felt natural, but also rather daring for me to say “I” in this way, also because I exposed aspects of myself and my life that had previously been in the shadows. It’s also a very personal book in that it’s a book about mourning, a book about the different horizons you encounter once you find yourself without parents. I suspect that the latter aspect of the book—the labor of mourning—might have saved me from harsh criticism, because people don’t attack you if you’re grieving the loss of your parents. Luckily, at least in German—for reasons we’ve both speculated about, there hasn’t been a reception in English yet—the reception was really quite positive. Frankly I was also worried that people would criticize me for daring to produce something like literature, or perhaps something halfway between literature and sociology. I sensed that some of my friends, especially artists, would have prefered me to stay in my place. They wanted me to stick to my function as a critic rather than to make the claim of producing something like “art” myself. So, there was a bit of reluctance about this book in my social circles, but it was very diffused and not really very pronounced. All in all, I felt lucky that I wasn’t crucified for this book, which was really what I had expected in my worst nightmares.

DB: I suppose this suggests another way in which your subject position is assigned by the market, namely professionally. You’re supposed to speak from the voice of the critic, or perhaps of the scholar. I remember that in the interview you gave to Deutschlandfunk, the radio journalist consistently referred to you as “the art historian Isabelle Graw.” As if to imply, you’re supposed to be producing objective, scholarly art history and now we have what is clearly a literary book. I also can’t resist asking whether you found that some of the genre-policing was gendered, in the sense that you had one place and it was considered too ambitious for a woman to occupy a second place, perhaps particularly a more exalted literary one. You mentioned having been inspired by the lectures Barthes gave after the death of his mother, later published as La Préparation du roman. My sense of the literary history is that, while some felt it was arrogant of a critic to aspire to novel writing, Barthes was to some extent given a free pass because he was a man at the apex of this cultural hierarchy, teaching at the Collège de France. So, I wonder whether you feel, in your case, that there was an element of gender-policing reinforcing the genre-policing, if we can make the French pun work in English .

IG: It’s hard to say. Looking at Barthes’s La Préparation du roman, there do appear to be some biographical parallels to my own approach. That might sound a bit presumptuous, but let’s go for it. Barthes also experienced the death of his mother as a deep shock, deciding—after writing Journal de deuil [Mourning Diary]—that he wanted to evolve a vita nova, a new life where he would stop writing academically and would instead write this novel which, as we know, was never realized. It’s actually his preparations which are, in a way, a stand-in for the novel. The difference with Barthes is twofold: On the one hand, I kept writing “scholarly” texts alongside In Another World. And unlike my earlier art-historical and art-critical studies, Barthes’s earlier books already had a kind of literary sound. So, I think, in my case, it was both less and more of a vita nova that I have tried to claim.

DB: More daringly, then.

IG: I don’t want to self-heroize, but when I tried to find a German publisher for this endeavor it wasn’t easy at first. What I was often told was, you are labeled in a certain way as an art critic, as an art theorist, and this is very interesting, but it won’t work commercially. I had already encountered a similar reluctance toward my attempt to wear another hat two years before when I curated an exhibition for the first time. It was called “The Vitalist Economy of Painting,” which was based on my book The Love of Painting, and took place in the Galerie Neu [in Berlin]. When this attempt at achieving an expanded competence profile—I had taken on the supplementary role of a curator—was followed by a book that makes some sort of literary claim as a woman, I think the perception becomes, she’s unstoppable. What more does she want? This is enough.

DB: A “greedy woman” trope or something?

IG: Yes, or rather the notion of this woman being insatiable. I wonder whether I am just imagining this, but while I do have a lot of support I sometimes feel that there could be more encouragement for my work. It’s possibly a peculiarity of the German cultural sphere, but there are moments when I get more of a sense that people would prefer that I stop and keep quiet instead of going on and on, claiming new territories. During the last lockdown, I wrote a book called On The Benefits of Friendships [Vom Nutzen der Freundschaft]. It’s about instrumental, or what Andrea Fraser has called “transactional,” friendships in the art world, their potential but also their shortcomings. It’s rather personal, but also thoroughly fictional. I fear that once this book comes out there will be another outcry, or at least that’s what I imagine now. The truth is: I never intend to be controversial. Like most authors, I actually just want to be loved and understood by my readers! Still, there’s something that seems to drive me to these more controversial projects outside the safe way. I guess it’s what challenges me and what keeps me going. I always used to write diaries. I even used to secretly write short stories. The coming out of my literary self had already been long delayed. I guess that it had to happen—there was no way of stopping it.

DB: Perhaps we might talk about where you see yourself in German literary tradition. The epigraph to Three Cases of Value Reflection evokes Ponge’s remark, in a 1943 letter to Camus, that writers at moments of historical crisis can only produce “confused notes, dazzling aperçus” [des notes confus, des aperçus fulgurants]. In Another World is structured as 159 numbered fragments, many analyzing remembered experiences. I’m interested in how you situate yourself in German literature, and maybe particularly in the literature of the fragment. I’ve heard you cite various contemporary writers, particularly French ones, again Eribon, Annie Ernaux, or English ones like Rachel Cusk and Deborah Levy. In German of course there’s the example of the Minima Moralia, and broadly speaking the fragment form seems to have a special place. Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe tie it to German Romanticism. Schlegel even remarks that memory itself is a system of fragments.

IG: My decision to write In Another World in fragments came rather spontaneously. I didn’t have Schlegel in mind. At a time of personal, social, and political crisis, it occured to me that I needed a new form for the observations and reflections that didn’t make it into my art-theoretical and art-historical writing. It was as if everything else that occurred demanded more attention and space in my work beyond the already-mentioned diaries. Practical reasons made me opt for the fragment. Since I was also writing The Love of Painting at the same time, I only had the morning to write these “warm-up” fragments every day before tackling my more art-theoretical writing and research. As you mentioned, the fragment form was particularly fitting given that memory itself is quite fragmentary, as Friedrich Schlegel but also Freud pointed out. Memory has a tendency to falsify, to leave out, to focus on a few instances that are then retroactively embellished or otherwise exaggerated, and that suited me well considering that In Another World is also an attempt to do the work of mourning [Trauerarbeit]. As a last point, I would add that the fragment is also useful when one is faced with the reality of a digital economy, with its constant distractions and the threat of a kind of generalized attention deficit syndrome. When this attention deficit syndrome threatens to overtake you, writing a fragment might be all that you’re able to do at that moment. But also, it’s really important for me that the fragment is different from how Schlegel conceived it. My fragments are not inwardly self-contained.

DB: They’re not hedgehogs.

IG: Quite the contrary. They’re really trying to push the outside to come inside. In the preface, I explained that I’m interested in how the universal flashes into the personal and how, conversely, the personal filters into the universal. It’s a project that is anything but self-contained. Rather, it was about exposing the writing to external conditions negotiated in a way that could be described as deeply personal. You mentioned Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Of course, I was also highly aware of the fact that by opting for aperçus, for miniatures [Miniaturen] so to speak, I tapped into an Adornian but also a Benjaminian tradition. This could obviously also be perceived as rather presumptuous.

DB: Did you feel that the relative exclusion of women—apart from obscure figures like Phia Rilke and Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach—from German-language traditions of fragmentary literature placed a constraint on your use of the fragment to reflect on sexism in the art world and on personal experiences of quite appalling sexual harassment?

IG: For me, one female writer in Germany was of particular importance, namely Marie Luise Kaschnitz, especially her book Wohin denn ich? [Where am I supposed to go?]. Funnily enough, it’s a title that Adorno proposed to her. It’s a highly fragmentary book that Kaschnitz wrote after her partner passed away. And then there’s The Hundreds, by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart. Another inspiration for me was Ingeborg Bachmann’s fragmented dream diary, Male Oscuro, which was also addressed in In Another World. So, there were women writers, at least Kaschnitz and Bachmann, within the German-language tradition who were important for this project. I also read [Max] Frisch, but that was after I had already finished In Another World. Specifically, I read Frisch’s diaries, which came to exert a considerable influence on my forthcoming friendship book, a novel framed as a pseudo-diary. Frisch is the German writer who elevated the diary to a literary form, opening it up to cultural criticism in an astonishing way. Even though he was a hopeless misogynist in the way he treated women, he achieved something formally in these diaries that remains unmatched. What’s interesting also is that Frisch has whole chapters about discretion, querying what it meant to include notes about his wife or intimate information about Ingeborg Bachmann. He’s a kind of pre-Knausgård figure, only more interesting from a linguistic point of view.

DB: I wonder whether you found that the fragment form was more open to you than the traditionally rather male German art-historical tradition, and therefore more useful in reflecting on the quite serious misogyny still rampant in the art world.

IG: Especially when it came to dealing with the ordinary forms of structural sexism that I’m still confronted with, what I liked about the fragment form was that it allowed me to show how experiencing a hurtful remark can be woven into the fabric of your day in a way that allows smooth transitions to other experiences. The painful experiences often seem naturalized because they simply constitute part of one’s life. It’s not that I wanted to make them sound less dramatic, but rather to show how these harmful events are part of a woman’s daily life in the art world. You can’t really prepare for them, because they always happen in a way that’s unexpected. On the other hand, there are other things, maybe equally painful or maybe quite enjoyable, that continue to happen afterwards. I think this is why I didn’t want to give sexist experiences too much space in my book: I wanted to show that my life consists of occasional humiliations on the one hand and quite pleasant experiences on the other. Considering that I’m certainly economically and socially more privileged than others, and I’m also older, I’m possibly experiencing less humiliation than I experienced when I was younger. On the other hand one encounters new forms of discrimination as an older woman: one can get overlooked, one can become invisible, or one’s life work gets denied. Nevertheless, I wanted to show constellations of the different elements that constitute my life. It can’t be reduced to just one narrative, and the fragment also shows how abrupt the transitions between different narratives can be. Some of my friends who read the book wondered how you can possibly jump from Trump to Balenciaga to #MeToo to a scene of mourning, for example. But these breaks and discontinuities were exactly the point: they were supposed to reflect life in capitalism where we find ourselves in a condition of permanent exposure to sudden shocks.

DB: To reinvoke your Benjaminian term, with respect to the constellations that run through your days, was writing about the often very violent remarks that are made to you a way of restoring agency or reasserting your own dignified and autonomous sphere of selfhood against such grotesque humiliations?

IG: I think in general that feelings of hurt and desperation can be transformed if they are written down. When you think of Barthes’s Journal de deuil in this respect, it feels like you can grab his despair at the loss of his mother with your hands, but we also get a sense of how writing about loss calms him down. Once the pain is materialized, it’s also put to rest and there’s a kind of distance between him and the pain. There’s this great text where [Elias] Canetti says that people would explode or otherwise fall apart if they didn’t have their diaries as outlets. Canetti describes how written sentences have the capacity to calm one down, and how writing has a soothing effect not unlike that of sedatives. It’s because the pain leaves one’s body and is materialized in the written word, held at a distance. In fact, as soon as you say “I,” this distance is already produced. Because it’s never me that is experiencing this, but my writerly self. This is someone else, but also someone I know quite well. Someone who is quite close to me but who’s not me, as Deborah Levy once said.

DB: How do you see the relationship between the incidental and the systematic here? In your art criticism, while you’re not a system-builder in the classic sense—I mean, you don’t have a system the way that nineteenth-century German philosophers would have a Logic, an Aesthetics, a Politics, and so on—you are systematic to the extent that you inquire into broad conditions, underlying structures, and social formations. The fragment, as you’ve just described it, involves daily life, particular incidents, and often abrupt transitions between them. I don’t know whether it’s permissible to pronounce the name of Heidegger in German anymore, but you know, in his lectures on Schelling, Heidegger interpreted the fragment as the Romantic riposte to Hegel, and to the system. Do you perceive a dialectic at work between the writing of the incidental and more systematic discourse?

IG: At first, writing In Another World was quite impulsive, as you describe it, but in a way that’s also rather similar to how I write my art-historical and art-critical texts. I jump into them, I don’t have a plan, I have an intuitive hypothesis, but it’s only once I’ve written a good beginning, at least a paragraph or so, and once I’ve found a pertinent title for the whole thing, that my writing gets kind of mimetic and pulls me in a certain direction. Then comes the difficulty—and here we are arriving at the system—of structuring the whole thing. I talk about this in the entry on writing in In Another World. I do try to organize my arguments, even in the fragments, so that they slowly build up, point by point. I try to make propositions while keeping their flipsides or limitations in mind. Indeed, I try to be systematic in my thinking. So, I guess my writing is both: impulsive and mimetic initially, but also planned, and I do rewrite my texts many times. The secret goal of these endless rewriting sessions is not only to shape the argument, but also to make the text sound as if it has been written effortlessly. Alongside systematic argument, sound is really important to me, because a text has to sound good. I want it to sound good when read aloud, but I also want it to sound good when sung, like lyrics. Of course, that never happens, but a text should be prepared for that.

DB: You have this wonderful essay, “Adorno ist unter uns,” where you describe Adorno’s particular concept of mimesis wherein the artistic subject, rather than simply imitating the object at hand, clings [anschmiegt] to his object so intensely that the subject-object distinction is blurred. In Méthodes, Ponge describes treating each word as a three-dimensional person [une personne à trois dimensions]. Could Adorno’s concept of mimesis be applied to Ponge’s poetics? When you write, in In Another World, that “writing is a matter of entering the text so deeply you become part of it,” do you understand your own writing as mimetic?

IG: I’ve always been fascinated by passive subject constructions in art. In that respect, I’ve been quite interested in écriture automatique and Surrealism for a long time and actually once intended to write a book called To Do and Let Happen [Tun und Lassen] that would have begun with Surrealism, but I never ended up writing it, I only gave talks.

DB: What a pity!

IG: With Ponge and Adorno, I think there are similarities between them, but I also think there’s a crucial difference. Adorno had this very peculiar notion of mimesis because he was interested in what he called “mimetic behavior.” This has nothing to do with imitating but is more like the behavior of the artist where one pursues a course that is traced out, as it were, by itself. Adorno was primarily interested in those artists who, as you say, conform or cling to their material and give themselves over to it. Artworks for Adorno were better subjects, but these artworks also needed the subject. They needed to pass through the subject to become better subjects, to become art. I think the central point in Adorno’s mimesis concept is that it allowed him to relativize the notion of the artist-subject. On the one hand, the subject is responsible for what Adorno called construction, but it also gets relativized by the artworks, which are better subjects and which draw the artist in a certain direction. What’s important here too is that the whole mimesis notion in Adorno is a way of relativizing intention. For Adorno, an artwork can never be reduced to the artist’s intention. Artworks have their own willfulness [Eigensinn], their own productive dynamic that can’t be reduced to what the artist intended. At first glance, Ponge’s approach to things and words might appear similar to Adorno’s because, like Adorno, Ponge paid close attention to material objects, and he also claimed a kind of agency for them. But we have to keep in mind that Ponge was interested in objects, not in artworks. Adorno was interested in a very special breed of objects, namely artworks. I think that Ponge, like Adorno, never lets us forget that objects can only be perceived as having life if there is someone to project life onto them. So in a way, both Adorno and Ponge seem to relativize the subject’s power through objects, or artworks, but I think Ponge on the one hand goes further than Adorno, and on the other hand not far enough. Ponge claims autonomy for objects, but Adorno is interested in artworks as being both autonomous and faits sociaux at the same time. And this fait social aspect gets completely lost in Ponge. He didn’t ever inquire into how social conditions transform objects. As for In Another World, I think that my own writing is mimetic up to a point, in Adorno’s sense, especially in the beginning, but that it also becomes highly constructive and planned. I want to have a certain mimetic flow, that’s important, but it has to be organized in a way that makes sense. I think this is even true for the fragments because I wanted them to have an argument, but it is also the sound that is so important for me. So, I think the mimesis part is the fun part, and then another ideal of systematicity comes in.

DB: I want to pick up on Ponge’s reluctance to consider objects as social facts. It seems to me that, in Three Cases of Value Reflection, you go some way toward correcting this omission. Following Kristin Ross’s Fast Cars, Clean Bodies, you situate Ponge’s objects within the context of the postwar French “turn to things.” On the one hand, you are critical of Sartre’s psychologizing interpretation of Ponge, rejecting speculation about the supposed psychological motivations behind Ponge’s interest in objects. If this interest went somewhat unexplained by Ponge himself, you nevertheless do not accept Sartre’s attempt to address that interest via speculative psychology, but instead prefer to contextualize Ponge in a concrete social and historical setting. I wanted to juxtapose that with the projections of subjects onto objects in In Another World, where you describe reading Proust in Ibiza and recalling a younger sense of self. It’s a very vivid passage, evincing a profound materiality. I can see the beach, one can almost feel your earlier self having somehow coalesced or congealed into the sandy streets, with the smell of the water and pine and so on. If senses of self can become embedded in things—in a seaside or a landscape or memento or perhaps even a work of art if one has a particularly intense relationship with it—is there a way that objects can allow us to read back psychological states a posteriori? Or is that always a kind of forbidden speculative psychology that should be replaced with more concrete social analysis?

IG: Maybe we don’t need to decide for one or the other, for social analysis versus acknowledging that there is something like a psychological disposition at work when one perceives, say—as I do in In Another World—Cézanne’s father portrait in a way that is very particular and rather emotional due to my own father reading a conservative newspaper for years and me trying desperately to stop him. I didn’t have the chance, like Cézanne, to simply paint a progressive newspaper into his hands, so there was also a certain sadness, but I think it’s important to try at least approximately to reconstruct the contextual conditions of an artwork in order to understand what was at stake artistically and also, in Cézanne’s case, biographically. To come back to this notion of the “turn to things” from Kristin Ross, who interpreted authors like [Georges] Perec and Alain Robbe-Grillet under this rubric, I find it productive to acknowledge this cult of things as a thing-tradition distinct from the Heidegerrian one. It also would make a very interesting primal scene for the more recent preoccupation with thingness, as in Fred Moten’s work. I think there are actually differences between Ponge and Proust in that respect because Ponge wrote about things, not objects. However, when looking more closely at these things, it seems they are often commodities as well, like say a cigarette or a closet. But this tension is often not really acknowledged in Ponge. It’s as if the thing were a kind of bulwark against commodity-status. But actually, I think the border between thing and commodity is often fluid. I would also agree with Sartre’s psychological speculation that Ponge invested objects with so much autonomy to compensate for a loss of autonomy that he experienced after the Second World War, charging these objects with an autonomy that no longer seemed attainable for human beings, especially in postwar France. Ponge’s way of regarding things as self-sufficient autonomous beings was an expression of his own revolutionary hopes and beliefs but displaced onto things. However Proust, of course, was not interested in claiming autonomy for objects in this way. There’s something else at stake there. With the famous madeleine, for example, it’s all about objects or things triggering memory. It’s about their memory-inducing capacity, and that capacity depends, I think, on the psychological disposition of the subject. If I hadn’t already been melancholic about my lost Ibiza paradise in the 1990s, then I wouldn’t have associated this particular smell of the pine trees and the streets leading to the beach as an open door to my former, happier, less-broken self with its positive body perception, with its unbroken joie de vivre. There was already a melancholic disposition that then allowed me to go into this former self via the smell of the pine trees, as if it was possible to be the one I had been, but no longer was.

Q: You seem to have overcome the opposition between psychologizing and social interpretations in a brilliantly dialectical fashion.

IG: Oh, that would be nice!

DB: It seems to me, in thinking about historical conditions of possibility, that it might be useful to reflect on how minoritarian subjects endure constraints that other creative subjects do not. In Three Cases of Value Reflection, you describe the “double exclusion” of Jack Whitten’s abstract painting by both Black (representational) painters and white art institutions. In Die bessere Hälfte (DuMont, 2003), you note that while Duchampian appropriation freed male artists from the burdensome criterion of “originality,” women artists did not experience a comparable liberation. Why do ostensibly avant-garde artistic practices often reinscribe historical misogyny and race prejudice?

IG: I think that one needs to be specific here. Think of the historical trajectory of appropriation, starting, say, with the Duchampian readymade. Due to structural reasons, namely the tendency to exclude women artists from avant-garde scenes—I mean they were only present in these scenes, as you know, as exceptions—the readymade procedure wasn’t as promising for women artists at the time and didn’t unburden them of the duty to produce putatively original artworks. This of course changed in the 1980s with so-called appropriation art, which as a historical artistic formation was dominated by women artists—and I talk about that as well in Die bessere Hälfte. The emphasis on appropriation in the ’80s actually allowed women artists in because they were able to make the claim—like Sherrie Levine did with Egon Schiele—that basically I am Schiele too while cultivating my difference from him, a claim of equal status that was enabled by appropriation as a procedure. The history of appropriation is very interesting because in the ’80s and up to the ’90s, appropriation was perceived as a per se critical procedure, which was of course questionable. Because when you look at these works, their relationship to the appropriated object was actually not only “critical” but also one of desire, one of longing, one of identification. Anyway, nowadays appropriation mostly appears as “cultural appropriation” and is completely rejected, often for very good reasons when we look at the whole spectrum of activity from a postcolonial perspective. Whereas appropriation was de rigueur in the 1980s, it’s supposed to be rather suspicious now because it could be cultural appropriation. And with internet appropriation it can indeed appear in the guise of “trolling” and become right wing. But of course there are other ways to appropriate and it’s hard for me to imagine an artistic practice without any appropriative procedures. I was also thinking, when you talked about these avant-garde procedures that are considered progressive at one point but contain a problematic flipside in that they are misogynist or in that they imply racial exclusions, this could be demonstrated for another post-Duchampian concept, which is the concept of deskilling. The whole emphasis on deskilling allowed the replacement of technical skills by conceptual procedures such as aleatory or chance-based operations, but these kinds of operations seemed mainly reserved to white male artists after 1945. Even more so, I would say that, when you look at the trajectory of deskilling in the ’80s, you realize that women painters who claimed to have made a deskilled painting were often simply regarded as bad painters. It’s important to look at these procedures as both: historical accomplishments, but also as containing something of an exclusionary downside that has to be examined simultaneously.

DB: Also in In Three Cases of Value Reflection, you locate Whitten’s practice of mourning in his paintings’ materiality and dedicatory titles. In Another World mourns the successive loss of your father and mother in texts recalling Barthes’s Journal de deuil. How can materialist criticism account for the hauntingly immaterial presence, in painting as in literature, of what Derrida describes, in Specters of Marx [Spectres de Marx], as the “non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one” [non-objet, ce présent non présent, cet être-là d’un absent ou d’un disparu]?

IG: Other people have told me that In Another World appears to be quite Catholic, because I seem to be constantly preoccupied with a kind of transcendent dimension, or with experiences that point to an elsewhere.

Q: You do go to mass at one point, I think.

IG: Exactly, and I make analogies between the rituals of the Catholic mass and the way that techno clubs have benefitted from this aesthetic in another context. But yes, I am also interested in that which can’t be explained away or grasped and that which seems to show up in a materialization maybe because of its absence. That’s another reason why I’m interested in Whitten: because there is this gift structure in his memorial paintings in that they are dedicated either to famous jazz musicians or to male visual artists. I think that this dedication device achieves two things—and here we are back to his exclusion from white museums and also from the scene of his Black colleagues who insisted on representationalism. I think that by opting for this dedication device, Whitten’s work insists on another canon in which important artists like Norman Lewis are celebrated. At the same time, his work insists on belonging to the established Western art canon, as when he dedicates his paintings to Expressionist heroes like Gorky or de Kooning. But I don’t see these works as acts of mourning. I really see them as celebrating and honoring the figures who are memorialized in them. Whitten seems to build shrines for these artists, but there’s no sign that he visibly suffers from their absence.

When I wrote the text on Whitten, I was interested in all of the artistic procedures, devices, and rhetorics that create vitalistic effects—from the title, to the relief-like character of his surfaces, to the way that color functions in his work. There’s a whole vocabulary of vitalism used in his work, so much so that I ended up asking myself whether this was something that philosophical critics of positive vitalism like Samo Tomšič might consider dubious. Then I thought that, since Whitten was for a long time excluded from the hegemonic art market, maybe you need to make a statement that is affirmatively vitalistic under these circumstances. On the other hand, the fact that most of the paintings’ dedicatees are dead gives rise to a certain negativity. It’s the spirit of the dead, the absent ones, that seems to be revived. Possibly due to my Catholic upbringing, I’m always also interested in that which is not evidently there. As much as I like to focus on material social and economic conditions, I also acknowledge that this is not all there is. My position is perhaps not unlike [Michael] Baxandall’s in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy. When Baxandall talks about Renaissance paintings, he makes it quite clear that they are “fossils of economic life,” but he also noted that they were fossils “among other things.” You can’t reduce them to representations of economic conditions in sedimented form; there’s something else at stake. This could sound mystifying, reminding us of the old idealistic topos of the je ne sais quoi, but I think that if I were able to reduce all paintings to their economic conditions, I wouldn’t be interested in them. So without wanting to argue for some mystical, religious elsewhere, I do find it interesting for instance to think about spectral presences. I’m also interested in the technical means by which paintings in particular are able to suggest the ghostlike presence of factually absent artists.

DB: I’d like to move quickly from the immaterial back to the material, although perhaps there is something here too that escapes the material. In The Love of Painting, you adopt Marx’s definition of value as labor “‘in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object [gegenständliche Form].’” In the case of Banksy’s Girl with Balloon—which, as you describe in Three Cases of Value Reflection, was destroyed by prior design at a Sotheby’s auction, inducing a spectacular market success—it would appear that the form and value of the artwork changed while the underlying labor did not. Does this present a problem case for Marxian theories of value?

IG: Let me just say I don’t think that no labor was added, but I also don’t think that the amount of labor determines value. What I like about Marx’s understanding of commodity value [Warenwert]—and there are different values of course—is that he relates this value to human labor while insisting that this value abstracts from human labor at the same time. It eclipses human labor while relating to it. This double character of commodity value is interesting when thinking about artworks and painting commodities in particular, and this is what I tried to show in The Love of Painting and what I’m going to try to show The Value of Art – the book I am currently writing. Painting commodities in particular have the potential, unlike ordinary commodities, to suggest that their labor is inherent to them. There are many reasons for this, but the main reasons are that they suggest their value as being basically substantial because they have this status as unique material objects deriving from a singular author. They are also associated historically with intellectual potential—again unlike ordinary commodities—and they are likewise associated with the specificity of artistic labor. Artistic labor increasingly has a lot in common with general labor, but still remains rather privileged in comparison. So these are three reasons why art objects are commodities of a special kind, uniquely able to nourish this fantasy that their value is inherent to them, which is different from the ordinary commodity. They allow for these vitalist fantasies that their creator or her labor has stuck in them.

This vitalistic fantasy is actually caused by paintings due to their status as material, unique products that result from a singular creator. Now, when I wrote on Bansky’s Girl with Balloon in terms of value, I referred first to the monetary value of his work, which as you said increased after the shredding event. Why did it increase after the shredding event? It increased due to this legendary auction event, which somewhat inscribed itself into the painting and even left visible traces, since it’s partially destroyed. The painting became enriched with this legendary, internationally known event. But I would also argue that the shredding action implies more labor. It’s a kind of surplus labor that entered the work once it was partially destroyed, because Bansky evidently had to organize the whole shredding event quite carefully and I would suppose that some of his—hopefully well paid!—collaborators were involved as well. But the auction record of this painting is not a consequence of this surplus labor. I tried to show that more labor doesn’t mean more value in art. On the contrary, if someone labors for years on a painting, it doesn’t necessarily lead to higher worth. In Banksy’s case, I would say it’s mainly the media buzz around this destructive—or seemingly destructive—shredding event that increased the symbolic value of his work. This is also necessary for Girl with Balloon because, without this, it’s art-historically and symbolically rather simplistic. It thus gained symbolic capital. You could say that, on top of the street-graffiti, underground frisson that seems to enrich this painting with symbolic value, now there is a globally known story of a legendary shredding event that has forever altered and increased the work’s symbolic value, and what follows is that its market value benefits as well.

DB: In his Note sur les Otages, Ponge imagines attracting the public to an opening without words, for example by distributing leaflets with reproductions, or advertising the gallery’s address. Ponge’s Gedankenexperiment appears to identify critical discourse with the creation of market value. Banksy’s Girl with Balloon appears to show, on the contrary, that immense media spectacle and astronomical market value can arise in the total absence of serious critical discourse. Three Cases of Value Reflection concludes by suggesting that, rather than following Banksy in attempting to enshrine the authority of the artist, artists should imagine themselves “as part of a context of different values.” What role can criticism play apart from its traditional function of generating value? In texts like In Another World, can imaginative literature contribute to articulating a “context of different values” in ways that criticism can’t?

IG: It’s of course not easy to answer this question in its general form in a short way, but I’ll try. First of all, I think we need to think about criticism contextually. We have to acknowledge that there are segments of the art world where criticism is absolutely needed to create symbolic value and thus prepare the conditions for market value to be created. There are other segments of the art world, such as the auction sphere, where criticism seems rather powerless, and where its value judgments seem not to really matter. It’s both very powerful in certain contexts, and rather powerless in others. I’d like to refer to a text I wrote several years ago in the issue of Texte zur Kunst on discrimination [Diskriminierung, Tzk #113]. The text was cowritten with Sabeth Buchmann, and we called it “Criticism of Art Criticism” [“Kritik der Kunstkritik”]. We started by acknowledging an inner contradiction of criticism, saying that criticism is by definition discriminatory. By its very nature it differentiates, it excludes, and it judges. But at the same time, it can function as a medium that reflects social discrimination. So we imagined a type of criticism that would be aware of the inner contradictions of criticism, and that would apply its critique of power structures to itself. A criticism that would be self-reflexive and insist on its occasional normative power when addressing social inequalities, for instance. In a way, we argued for a strong notion of criticism precisely at a time when its death or its misery had been declared by people like [Bruno] Latour and the so-called accelerationists and many others. But we also acknowledged, and this is maybe coming closer to your question, that criticism’s other registers—as Wendy Brown once called them—are on the defensive in a neoliberal economy. We thought it necessary to insist on these other registers while keeping in mind—and here we differ from Brown—that these other registers have ties to hegemonic market registers as well. This is particularly true of critical exhibitions, like manifestas or biennials, which of course have a marketing purpose for their respective cities as well.

Now what could literature’s potential be when it takes on the role of criticism? It might allow the critic to cultivate a voice that both exposes and hides herself in new ways. Perhaps a more literary type of criticism would make it possible to demonstrate how these different registers or different values actually remain attached to an existing value system. As Merlin Carpenter famously put it, the outside can’t go outside. Many theorists, from [Moishe] Postone to Fred Moten, have argued (albeit from different perspectives) for the possibility of a kind of exit from the sphere of value. For them, a departure from the value sphere is the only way forward. But considering that the notion of a Kantian “value judgment” emerged in industrial capitalism at precisely the time when the law of value first came to be theorized, I wonder what it would mean for criticism, in particular, if it turned its back on the value sphere. Criticism presupposes differentiation and contributes to the production of market value. I suppose that we would have to say goodbye to this notion of criticism when leaving the value sphere. And is this even desirable? How would we make a value judgment while exiting from the value sphere—what would this judgment look like, would it still be a judgment? I would be very interested in that discussion. As a final note, I think that every time we talk about value, it’s necessary that we specify what we mean. Do we mean moral value, financial value, symbolic value, market value, commodity value, or exhibition value? If we say that value is created, or if we evoke “other values,” we should clarify what we mean by value.

  1. [1] In German.