WE AND THE OTHERSIGOR ZABEL
1. Other's other
2. The Phantasmatic "Other"|
Certainly, it is not only in art that we speak about a divided world, a world built of closed, mutually unintelligible units. As a matter of fact, this view corresponds exactly to the new paradigm in the global politics, a model which is supposed to serve as the basis for establishing the "world order". These views are, for example, developed in "The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order", the much discussed book by Samuel P. Huntington(2); and this book is certainly not presenting just a private speculation, but offers concepts for political interpretations and strategies. It is a paradigm which has replaced the modernist universalistic model. Huntington describes the world as a kind of patchwork of civilizations (based on ethnical, religious, cultural and other similarities). These civilizations are supposed to be in a conflict relationship with other civilizations. This is essentially a post-cold-war, but also a post-colonial model. The symmetry of political and ideological oppositions and the classical relationship between the colonial capital and colonies have disappeared; instead of this, we now have Huntington's paradigm, which, in my opinion, tries to ensure the civilizational unity of the Western world and, at the same time, to define and ensure its position in a world which cannot be directly controlled any more in such a way that it is still possible for the West to secure its vital global interests.
Why do I think that one function of Huntington's paradigm is to secure Western identity? We are repeatedly speaking about the West as a single and coherent unity, but in fact it is very heterogeneous: it has its own centers and peripheries, its own antagonisms and fights for the dominant position and hegemony (let us think only of the polyvalent relationship between European and American culture.) The strong evocation of Western identity can be further understood as a symptom indicating the fact that this very identity cannot be taken for granted any more. Western world is, as a matter of fact, itself heterogeneous in the cultural and even civilizational sense, and therefore itself a potential (sometimes even actual) space of conflicts. The role of the multinational capital and development of the new "global cities", centres of the global economy networks introduce important new factors, too.
The modernist ideology of the Cold War and neo-colonial era was based on the idea that modern Western forms and values are the modern forms and values and therefore universally valid. Certainly, such an ideology can be understood as a tool for dominance and control. As such, modernist universalism was combined with a kind of ethnographic approach to the "other", basically pre-modern forms. The model of the "clash of civilizations", on the other hand, corresponds to a world where the West, with its will to power and control, is challenged by emerging new centers of power. According to this model, modern civilization is not necessarily Western and neither is Western civilization necessarily modern.(3) I believe that the intention of this theory is to ensure the essential interests of the West in the time when the West cannot aim at the universal dominance any more. But there may be another far-reaching aspect. Not only is power re-distributed territorially, it is becoming de-territorialized, global, fluid and abstract. The strong evocation of identity and differences can be, therefore, also understood as a reflex of the very crisis and disappearance of such an identity.
All this indicates that "the West" itself, together with its particular "Western identity", is perhaps just a phantasm; also "our" own phantasm, our own "other", the base on which "we" construct "our" own identity.
The paradigm of "the clash of civilizations", of the world all split in differences and conflicts, in "other" civilizations and cultures, is, in a certain sense, deeply occidocentric. Its function is to ensure the civilizational unity of the West and, at the same time, its political and cultural primacy. The logic which we can discover in Huntington's undertaking is, in fact, very similar to the logic of the title of the conference. In his approach, too, we first have a picture of the world as a patchwork of different civilizations; but, actually, his book is not only written from the position of a Western observer but also with the ambition to establish a system of explanation through which the West will be able to deal with "others".
The relationship of the Western world towards these strange "other" civilizations and cultures is exactly the one described by the title of the conference: "we and the others". As "our" position is not universal any more, it is necessary to "understand" and "explain" other cultures. Very often, these explanations follow the pattern, critically analyzed by Edward W. Said in his "Orientalism".(4) Just as "Orient" and "Islam" (concepts, discussed by Said), these "other" cultures appear as timeless phantasmatical entities, e.g. as "archaic", "irrational", "wild", "dangerous", etc.
From such a point of view, one would try to explain contemporary Russia and its contradictions not through an analysis of actual political and economical antagonisms, but through a phantasmatic "Russian essence". This eternal and unchangeable essence seems to be strange, dangerous and attractive at the same time, and it includes such issues as the Orthodox and mystic traditions, emotional, irrational and poetic Russian soul, etc.; it can, for example, also imply the idea that Russians "by their nature" prefer strong, authoritarian political figures to a fully developed democratic system.
3. Western Curators in Africa|
The world of "others", or better, the world of The Other (the West) and (its) others therefore demands "interpretation" and "explanation", and only these can be the basis for a possible "dialogue". This relationship implies a construction of a system of identities and representations; the "explanatory" relationship with "another" culture means that all the products of this culture have to be understood as "representing" it and its "identity". In this inter-cultural relations, artists are, regardless of their own intentions, forced to function as "representatives" of their strange world. When "we" deal with artists from "other" cultures, "we" search for this "other" in their work; for example: how does a certain Russian artist (re)present the phantasmatical "Russian essence" in his work? This very "explanation" of the "essence" and "identity" which are "represented" in a, e.g. work of art, however, re-confirms our own "essence" and "identity".
If I return to the above mentioned text by Dyogot, I can, perhaps, say that one of her main points is exactly the problem that a Russian artist cannot avoid being such a representative:
The Russian artist perpetually finds him/herself between the Scylla and Charibdys of two representational mechanisms which are switched on automatically and ruthlessly. In Russia, [...] being "contemporary artist" means to represent Western culture [...]. In the West, on the other hand, a Russian artist must inevitably represent Russia.
We could certainly point to a number of examples when reception (and sometimes also success) of Russian artists in the West were connected with the fact that they could be used as representatives of the Russian (and earlier also Soviet) essence. The position of Ilya Kabakov, for example, is very interesting in this respect, especially because he has, as a "re-located person", for a long time obsessively talked about his experiences in the Soviet Union, about reality, ideas, fantasies, etc.(5) In spite of this, he did not want to accept the role of somebody "typical", of a "representative"; but this was, to a great extent, exactly what was happening to him. His public toilette/apartment at the 1992 Documenta, for example, is certainly using elements taken from the Soviet reality, but it is actually a very personal, poetic and ironic construction, a network of meanings, of fragments of realities and, arguably, of references to personal experiences and obsessions. But of course, it could not avoid the understanding in the style: to live in the USSR is like living in a public toilette.
4. United Colors of Multiculturalism|
I believe that this parallelism between the position of the Second and Third Worlds in their relationship towards the First World is no coincidence. In both cases, basically the same strategy is active: "permitting" the "cultural differences" (on the background of the idea of primacy of Western cultural forms). In his criticism of the so-called multiculturalism, for example, Rasheed Araeen discovers exactly the same structure. The West, in his opinion, uses multiculturalism "as a cultural tool to ethnicise its non-white population in order to administer and control its aspirations for equality" as well as "a smokescreen to hide the contradictions of a white society unable or unwilling to relinquish its imperial legacies".(9) Araeen's description of the strategy of "cultural difference" corresponds almost literally to the problem the "representational" role of the Eastern (especially Russian) artists. As for the dominant discourse, it is so obsessed with cultural difference and identity to the extent of suffering from an intellectual blockage, that it is unable to maintain its focus on the works of art themselves. The obsession with cultural difference is now being institutionally legitimised through the construction of the "postcolonial other", who is allowed to express itself only so long as it speaks of its own otherness.(10) Araeen concludes his analysis with an alternative vision: the prevailing western notion of multiculturalism is the main hurdle we now face in our attempt to change the system and create an international paradigm in which what takes precedence is art work, with its own set of rules for production and legitimation in terms of aesthetics, historical formation, location and significance, rules not necessarily derived from any one or originary culture.(11)
Araeen's analysis introduces the very broad field of "multiculturalism", which, however, exactly corresponds to the system of representation/explanation I have tried to discuss above. But, since his criticism indicates also the question of the cultural imperialism, I will mention here a different document: The Letter of Support for Alexander Brener, written by Eda Cufer, Goran Eorevij and the IRWIN Group at the occasion of Brener's trial in Amsterdam.(12) Among others, the letter connects Brener's action, and his activity in general, with the criticism of the western strategy of "maintaining cultural, symbolical supremacy through the economical supremacy" by appropriations (in Brener's case, appropriation of the paintings Malevich left in Berlin after his exhibition in 1927); I believe that this "symbolical supremacy" is exactly the dimension which distinguishes the West from other "others". The letter then asks: "Is it true that the global capitalism is a new definition of the cultural colonization of the Western world of all the rest of the world?"
The systems of power and domination as seen by Araeen and by the Letter, however, are not completely the same. Araeen's criticism describes multiculturalism as a tool of imperial ambitions, which still exist, but are not universal and open any more. The question of the global capitalism, however, indicates a different system of domination.
Here, I will refer to Slavoj Zizek, who has developed an interesting issue about multiculturalism and global capitalism.(13) For him, multiculturalism is "the ideal ideological form of the global capitalism". As the power of this global capitalism is not located in the colonial metropolis any more, the difference between the colonial state and colonies has disappeared; capital now treats all states as regions which are to be colonized.|
The ideal ideological form of this global capitalism is, of course, multiculturalism, attitude which, from some kind of empty global position, treats every local culture the same way the colonizer treats the colonized nation - as "indigenous people" who need to be researched and "respected". With other words, the relationship between the traditional imperialistic colonialism and global capitalist self-colonizing is exactly the same as the relationship between Western cultural imperialism and multiculturalism: just as global capitalism includes the paradox of colonization without the colonizing state, so multiculturalism includes the Eurocentric distance and/or a paternalizing respect for local communities without being rooted in a particular culture.(14)
Very often we meet the idea that multiculturalism is not neutral, that this neutrality is nothing but a mask of an Eurocentric and Occidocentric position, continues Zizek; this idea is, in a sense, true, but he offers an interesting explanation. For him, this "Eurocentrism" is just a kind of blind spot which hides the obvious truth: that there is no local position any more, that the subject is abstract and universal: "The horror is not the (particular living) spirit inside the (dead universal) machine, but (dead universal) machine in the very heart of each (particular living) spirit."(15)
Here, we are confronted with two opposite assumptions: that the West, through global capitalism, culturally colonizes the rest of the world, and that global capitalism as a completely de-localised system colonizes the whole world, including the West.
In contemporary world, we do not meet a single system of power and domination, but different systems which can also be in conflict. This conflicts also take place on the symbolic level. The struggle against hegemony in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. indicates a fight between an older, patriarchal and colonial system in which these differences were functional, and a more recent one in which the differences are not useful any more and can even be an obstacle. We also can assume that this shift corresponds with the shift towards global, multinational capitalism. Through this shift, we can understand the difference between multiculturalism as described by Araeen (a tool to ethnicise and a "smokescreen") and the one referred to by Zizek - i.e., multiculturalism which indicates that all such differences are eventually inessential.
The famous Benetton's slogan, "United Colors of Benetton", and its advertising campaigns are a clear example of this process: regardless of their haircut or color of their skin or their sex (or culture they belong to, one might add), all the different people on Benetton's poster are basically identical, the same. It is interesting how Benetton's advertising closely follows contemporary critical art, i.e. art which questions systems of dominance based on territorial, racial, cultural or gender differences. I believe that this connection is not purely accidental and that Benetton only offers an especially clear example how new global structures of domination can even explore critical art in their struggle against those symbolic and ideological structures which are in their way.|
But even the global structures of power are not completely deterritorialized, completely "virtual". It is especially important that one effect of globalization is centralization of controlling and managing functions, and in this centralization, major cities in the highly developed countries (and their networks) gain a special importance.(16) Global power, thus, is not only connected to the West, but, through the importance of its major centres inside this global network, the West has re-defined its crucial role inside the global power system. The new centres are certainly not only abstract points; being "command points in the organization of the world economy" (Sassen), they are connected to the economical, political and also symbolical structures. (Here, we could mention a very recent example of how corporate economic power succeeded to construct an important centre of symbolic values using exactly the strategy of appropriation, as it was mentioned in the above quoted Letter of Support; I am thinking of the new Getty Center near Los Angeles.(17)
However, one could probably not say that the West is really the "subject" of the global capitalism. Through new global centres, the deterritorialized and abstract global power is somehow "anchored" into territory, although not necessarily completely integrated into it.(18) Around these points (and, perhaps, also in connection of locally existing power structures) new cores of domination are coming into existence.|
This vision of the impersonal global capital, colonizing the whole world and collecting in its "command points" symbolic values, sounds very pessimistic. Is it at all possible to approach the new "international paradigm" in art, indicated, e.g., by Araeen?
We all secretly assume that the multicultural world of otherness is just a surface and that there is the other which is different from others in the sense that we are all different from it. But, is there a chance to stop understanding ourselves as "other's others" and to take the idea of globalism literally? Especially Russia, with its position, its political power and its artistic and intellectual potentials has, perhaps, a very real possibility of establishing a different, alternative international cultural network. But such an endeavour would demand a concentration of energies, and, in the first place, the escape from the game of representations, from the position of being "other's other".
Born in Ljubljana (Slovenia). Critic and theoretician of contemporary art. Curator of the Modern Museum in Ljubljana. Lives in Ljubljana