Think Piece

MoMA from Modernity into the Post Modern

By guest contributor Edward Maza

In a 1953 letter, Alfred H. Barr Jr.—the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art—wrote: “in our civilization with what seems to be a general decline in religious, ethical, and moral convictions, art may well have increasing importance quite outside of aesthetic enjoyment” (204). Per Barr’s logic, MoMA’s founding marked more than an effort to build a new home for western art in Manhattan; it was an explicit attempt to reframe art as the moral and ethical source of knowledge in a secularizing world. It was, in other words, a stand-in for biblical religion.

In fact, nearly half a century before the founding of the museum, God had died in the minds of many thinkers. Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, proclaimed: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” (trans. Walter Kaufmann, 181). Nietzsche lamented the loss of God as the loss of societal and individual values. Life, the philosopher observed, had no significance, no “comfort,” in a world without a priori meaning. Furthermore, the Bible had long informed a shared human experience with “roots in a continuum of tradition”—and yet, in a godless world, there ceased to be a unifying cosmic entity (Nochlin 41).

The void that God’s death created had unique resonance in the United States. As Linda Nochlin notes, there was “a sense of alienation from history as a shared past—an alienation central to the Americans’ experiencing their own condition as a purely contemporary one, without roots in a continuum of tradition” (136). In 1929, when MoMA was founded, the United States had only a century and half of shared history. In the interwar years, the US was not yet the global superpower it would become after the Second World War. The modern era was marked by a need to create a shared narrative of history and values to inform the future of the nation (Nochlin 136). The Museum of Modern Art, I contend, was an institution born of modern necessity—designed to provide a structure of shared value and meaning to undo the newfound alienation in the godless future.

The question posed by Nietzsche’s observed deicide remained contested throughout the early twentieth century. Jean-Paul Sartre centered the human subject as the source of meaning. In the modern era, Sartre argues, the individual subject is thrown into a godless world and is forced to forge a meaningful relationship with the world for himself. Sartre explains that “before the projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be” (quoted in Kaufmann349). There is no divine mandate that inherently imbues life with meaning and structure. Man exists innately without purpose and must actively create meaning in the world for himself through relation with the world around him. At MoMA the individual is forced to forge a meaningful existence for themselves in relation to the works of art on display. Objects are spaced apart from one another highlighting their individual importance while allowing the viewer sufficient space to view a single work of art. The works are then hung on unadorned white walls so nothing distracts the viewer from the object on display. The artworks provide a guide for the individual to develop themselves as a locus of moral thought. In an attempt to fill the void left by God’s absence in the world MoMA centered the artist as the subject of worship, assembling a pantheon of artists arranged by the curator-priests of the museum in the hallowed halls of the building on 53rdStreet.

Figure 2. Photograph by Beaumont Newhall, Installation view of the exhibition, “Cubism and Abstract Art,”(including an African sculpture and works by Picasso, Rousseau, and Seurat), March 2, 1936–April 19, 1936. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN46.21.
One of the museum’s early exhibitions Cubism and Abstract Art serves as a clear example of the curatorial style established at MoMA. Paintings are hung on clean white walls, spaced apart from one another, and in a linear fashion drawing a clear teleology from Rousseau, and Seurat to Picasso. This image also demonstrates how Barr cast African art a “primitive” artform whose relevance is tied to its influence on Western painters.

When Barr asserted that MoMA would be the definitive arbiter of artistic quality in the modern age, he constructed an art historical future in which he hoped the museum would remain focal. As the museum’s director, Barr strove to be the omnipotent force determining that history.  In Barr’s 1933 “Report on the Permanent Collection,” he reveals his teleological understanding of art history in a description of the guiding principles of the museum’s acquisitions. “The permanent collection may be thought of graphically as a torpedo moving through time, its nose the ever advancing present, its tail the ever-receding past of fifty to a hundred years ago” (MoMA archives, Barr Papers II.C.17). Barr even included an image of his torpedo metaphor, anchoring the collection in the works of Ingres, Goya, Constable, Delacroix, and Turner, with supplemental influence from the general categories of “non-European prototypes and sources” and “European prototypes and sources” (Fig 1).

This diagram refers to one of the early instantiations of the theological ramifications of MoMA’s organization and collecting practices. In 1889, Henri Bergson penned his paradigm-shifting essay, “Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness,” which serves as an intellectual antecedent to the torpedo model developed by Barr. In his essay, Bergson outlined the implications of teleological readings of history for the present and for free will. In Barr’s sketch of the arc of art history, the “ever advancing present” is a direct result of the “ever receding past.” The present art scene is an inevitable fruition of the formalist innovations of the past vanguard. In his diagrammed comparison, Barr converts the passage of time into a material, spatial form: the torpedo. Bergson warned that “time, conceived under the form of a homogenous medium [space], is some spurious concept, due to the trespassing of the idea of space upon the field of pure consciousness” (98).

Barr’s Torpedo

The transformation of time into measurable space, as Barr suggests doing to organize modern art, limits the individual’s ability to make free choices, as it makes the past the basis for the future. In Barr’s organization, artistic innovation must flow linearly from the past into the present. Once an idea has been around long enough to be absorbed into the present, it is done away with as it passes through the tail of the torpedo. Bergson insists that “we could not introduce order among terms without first distinguishing them and then comparing the places they occupy; hence we must perceive them as multiple, simultaneous, and distinct; in a word, we must set order in what is successive, the reason is that order is converted into simultaneity and is projected onto space” (102). By claiming that converting time into space allows one to “project time onto space,” Bergson is arguing that this space-time can be projected onto the future, nullifying the possibility for free choice. Time, when measured in space, is predetermined.

By converting the temporal history of modern art into a spatial organization, Barr limits the possibilities of future production through the canonization of present artists. The only artists acceptable in the torpedo model are those that can find their roots in the tails of the torpedo. As time (and art history) progress, the artists who are presently the nose of the torpedo will eventually become the tail, and new artists must root their practice in the works of those sanctioned by Barr and MoMA more broadly. All future relevant “modern art” must find its roots in the works that Barr and MoMA have validated as foundational to future production. The Museum of Modern Art, led by Barr, then controls the future of modern art, predetermining what forms of art will be accepted into the canon and which will be rejected because they cannot find grounding in MoMA’s torpedo. This model is designed to outlive Barr. By rooting the development in a canon, the torpedo model insures that all future “quality” art must forever be rooted in the canon as conceived by MoMA institutionally.

In the post-modern world, the seemingly solid framework of the Museum of Modern Art begins to melt into air. Alfred Barr attempted to use the torpedo as a closed system to describe the entirety of modern artistic production. The torpedo held modern art together as a unified system to overcome the modern preoccupation with alienation in the face of the death of God. But as Derrida notes:

If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur.The engineer, whom Lévi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who supposedly would be the absolute origin of his own discourse and supposedly would construct it ”out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth,” would be the creator of the verb, the verb itself. The notion of the engineer who supposedly breaks with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur. As soon as we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse which breaks with the received historical discourse, and as soon as we admit that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs, then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning breaks down (trans. Alan Bass, 258).

Barr positions himself as the engineer of modern art; claiming to establish the truths of the discourse. Barr uses the teleology from the torpedo to construct a narrative of modern art that claims to be a closed, all encompassing, system. As the museum leaves the modern era of systemic discourse into the open systems of post-modernity, its authority imbued by Barr begins to waver. No longer can the museum claim to be the authority on the closed system of modern art, as said system begins to fall apart. As the world of contemporary art expands beyond the articulated confines of the western tradition and breaks free from (and expands beyond) its western roots, it can no longer be contained by Barr’s modernist model of artistic development: “Totalization, therefore, is sometimes defined as useless, and sometimes as impossible” (Derrida 289).

In the global age, art is the ultimate form of play. It takes signs of the past and alters them to have new and expanded meaning in the present with disregard for their historical meanings. Signs and their signified meanings are loosely related to one another, constantly and unpredictably changing with the progression of dissociated time.

Edward Maza is a master’s student at Oxford in the department of Theology and Religion. His academic work focuses on the intersection of religion and art history with a particular focus on the Hebrew Bible in modern art.

Intellectual history

An Afternoon with Bodys Isek Kingelez at MoMA

All photographs by Enrique Ramirez, click to enlarge + read captions

By guest contributor Enrique Ramirez

There was a moment upon entering Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams, currently at MoMA until January 1, 2019, when I felt as if I had left something behind. It was momentary, as if a pulse of light blinded me and I needed a second to reorient, to re-adapt. The first thing I abandoned was any assumption about what an exhibition does or how it should be organized. There, by the entrance, was the wall text, predictably serviceable, telling me of Bodys Isek Kingelez, the Congolese artist, arriving on the art world scene in 1989 with his models, impeccably-designed constructions that oscillated between architecture and sculpture and bore the not-humble name “extrêmes maquettes” or “extreme models.” And below this text, something else: a link to a Spotify playlist. It was nothing like I had encountered before, for when I see people wandering through a museum with headphones, I assume that they are listening to the audio commentary to an exhibition, not music. My memory of the wall text description of the playlist may be fuzzy, but a quick glance at my phone reveals that it features West African pop music from the 60s onwards—a roster of musicians such as Les Bantous de la Capitale, Pepe Ndombe, Youlou Mabiala, and Papa Wembe—all comprising a sonic environment for Kingelez’s creativity. It is an apposite connection. One the one hand, the playlist strove for a kind of a kind of range matched only by the exhibition, the first ever comprehensive showing of Kingelez’s work. One the other hand, its breadth matched the works on display, also bursting with something like the upbeat polyrhythms, guitar acrobatics, and shimmering harmonies that characterize Afropop music. The models on display are not just an assortment of buildings and cities made of materials like cardboard food wrappers and bottle caps. If, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once quipped, “architecture is frozen music,” then these “extreme models” are not just physical embodiments of Afropop sounds and rhythms. Kingelez, who died of cancer in 2015, has instead left us with something that is uniquely his: a magpie geography born of a life marked by a singular, fertile, and generous imagination, one whose contours, conurbations, terrains, and buildings created a world that was at the same time universal and yet unmistakably personal.

I too would like to think that this is an essay about the universal and the personal. It is, ostensibly, an essay about Kingelez, about his show at MoMA, which you should see. Yet this essay is cloaked, maybe nestled momentarily, in the folds of another essay, one about things that you may give up or lose when entering a museum. It may veer between the two, sometimes at a moment’s notice, and as reader, you may experience a bit of disorientation. Did he just say that? Why is he talking about that now? As an incentive for you to keep on reading, I offer you this: it has a bittersweet ending. Now, about those things you may lose or give up. If it is winter, you may check in your coat, scarf, and gloves. If your bag is too big, you may have to check that in too, although you can probably get away by holding it close to your torso. A blockbuster show means that you will wait in line, and if you go to MoMA on a Friday afternoon, admission is free, so be prepared to wait in line then as well, which means that you will give up time. The crowds may be large, and this requires you to give up (or at least alter) your own idea of personal space. You may be looking at, say, a large Barnett Newman triptych and want to capture it with your phone. You back up so as to accommodate it within your phone’s limited picture frame and bump into someone behind you. Or, as is almost always the case, you wait for that moment when the space between you and the painting is empty. And as you tap on your phone’s screen to make sure that you are actually focusing on that Newman or that Bell-47D1 helicopter dangling precariously over the escalators, someone walks in front of you and becomes an unwilling study in what was supposed to be a quick but at least thoughtful document of your trip to this museum, on this day, at this very time. And sometimes you give up and surrender and let these people wander into your frame. You may even fancy yourself as some kind of cut-rate Thomas Struth documenting the life of a museum on that very day, that very time.

I did this last year. In one, I captured a young man and a woman shortly after an embrace in front of that very Barnett Newman. As soon as their embrace ended, the man took on a studied pose, arms crossed, one foot in front of the other, examining the painting. As for the woman, she retreated to her cell phone. And in my photograph, I just happened to frame her in the center panel of Newman’s triptych. In another, a man and woman hold each other as they peer through the large floor-height window into the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture garden. There is a thin strip of alloy that separates them from the window, so at least from my vantage point, they appear as if they are preventing each other from leaping into that void, into that garden. Later, when I was down in the sculpture garden, I spied two women and man sitting and laughing. They appeared to be comparing photographs taken on their phones. They were also speaking in French. In retrospect, I think these images did more than just capture people during unguarded moments. Perhaps they were a document of my own longing. It was an unseasonably hot September afternoon. I was far from home and wanting to unburden myself of the various bags I took with me from the airport. I gave up my carry-on at the coat check at the entrance on West 53rd street, but I think I gave up my heart as well. I may have been in love. It is hard to be objective about museums, after all.

It is also hard to be objective about Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams. I had to give up my own pretensions as an architectural historian and engage Kingelez on his own terms. This is not to say, however, that I was not finding some kind of lifeline in my academic training. Architectural history is teeming with examples of cities summoned as if from mid air, of audacious plans and bold schemes, surprising glimpses at futures never realized. “Somewhere I have never travelled,” wrote e.e. cummings, words that come close to that sense of slackjawed incredulity when encountering, say, the glinting peaks and faceted surfaces of Bruno Taut’s crystalline Alpine Architecture, the relentless field of cruciform towers obliterating Paris in Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin and Ville Radieuse, the pastoral functionalism of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, or even the machine-like infrastructures and ziggurat terminals of Antonio Sant’Elia’s Citta Nuova. These schemes point to something that momentarily sets the realm of architectural history apart from other disciplines, for ours is a field that does enliven the power of the counterfactual as a tool for writing history; which is to say that we look to the unbuilt and fantastical as a way to gauge a particular designer’s engagement with the world.


Placing City Dreams in such company seems apposite, for Kingelez’s models of buildings and cities can be thought of a larger scheme, one where the artist envisioned a world coming to terms with itself after independence from European colonial powers. As whimsical as these buildings may seem, they are, to repeat that old saw from architectural modernism, functional. They “work.” In City Dreams we see schools, hospitals, stadiums, restaurants, airports, train stations—evidence of a world organized for the sake of a real, growing, and vibrant population. Yet these expressive forms will resonate with contemporary architectural audiences as well for the exact opposite reason, for they seem to refer to themselves and themselves only. Take a glance at projects coming out of well-heeled architectural programs and you too will see something similar. Building facades and site plans in high-saturated pastels; an emphasis on surface effects; a general aesthetic that privileges the hard edge of a cartoon or the communicative imprimatur of a supergraphic: this is architecture that appears to suspend everything in favor of a kind of ecstatic imageability. Now this seems appropriate for our current time, one where Instagram becomes the primary conduit for ideas about architecture. And in those instances where I try to be the dutiful architectural historian and critic, a set of instincts fall into a kind of reflexive lockstep and I find myself accessing Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, Charles Jencks, and especially Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, names we associate with polemical statements about the image-ability of architecture, a symptom of a condition that we diagnose using the woefully inappropriate yet established term Postmodernism. Call it a surrender, one where architecture culture has finally admitted a complete yielding to an ecology of images. But has not this always been the case? Is it better to say that architecture culture has reached what the late philosopher Vilém Flusser observed as the “dominance of technical images” over text in our world?

Odd how the first things that came to mind when encountering Kingelez were not buildings, but novels. Words. I thought of Jean d’Ormesson, whose 1971 novel, The Glory of the Empire, is not just an imaginary account of a lost world, but one that comes with its own fabrications, everything from imaginary sources to fake footnotes and make-believe indices. “It is not history that makes the historian,” wrote d’Ormesson, “but the reverse, and no historian does anything but give birth to his own universe.” How appropriate. Consider Jan Morris’s Last Letters from Hav, a travel narrative inside a fictional land. In both instances, the novel becomes a kind of mirror reflecting each author’s inner worlds, here cast not just as literary references but also as landscapes, cities, and buildings. The history of D’Ormesson’s Empire features very real references to very real Arnold Toynbee, Michel Foucault, Claude-Lévi Strauss, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And the two monumental buildings in his Empire (painted in fake architectural splendor by Monsu Desiderio, an actual pseudonym given to a group of 17th century Neapolitan artists) were “considered the masterpieces of architecture by Bramante, the three Sangalli, Vasari, Palladio, Ledoux, Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier.” As for Morris, her vision of New Hav features a “less inspired” work by Le Corbusier and an electrical grid by Peter Behrens.

Thoughts of Afrofuturisms were inescapable as well. Mark Dery coined the term in 1993 to describe a body of “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and address African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and prosthetically enhanced future.” As with any field, scholars and authors have been mapping Afrofutrisms’s origins and effects from the past and into the future, creating a divergent body of literature that covers everything from slave narratives, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Sun-Ra’s Space Is The Place, as well as the N.K. Jemison’s environmentally-themed science fiction novels. More recently, novelist Deji Bryce Olukuton imagined a solar catastrophe decimating infrastructures in the developed world and leaving the Nigerian space program the only organization capable of rescuing a stranded cosmonaut. The spacecraft to be launched from Abuja first appears as a bronze sculpture, which Olukton describes as “festooned with black-painted ziggurats and Gelede masks peering into new realms of time, the cultural heritage of Nigeria forged into a colossal sculptural vision of the future.”

This all speaks of this inchoate idea called “utopia”, one that seems to be on the lips and fingers of many a critic who distill Kingelez’s work into a kind of coherent project. Even the exhibition’s title conjures it, this notion of a dream city, this alternative to the present. Is it possible, then, that we do this work a disservice by labeling it as a “utopia”? For what are we thinking of when we conjure alternative schemes in distant futures, of realms and environments that are supposed to provide a balm of sorts for what ails us? I think of the late Denis Johnson, who wrote in Jesus’ Son, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” Utopia is for people like us, a vessel for our thoughts and aspirations, and perhaps just that. It is a dead letter sent forward in time, never addressed, and never to be returned.


I wonder about other things left and given up at museums, never to be returned. I can come with lists of things I have forgotten at galleries and exhibitions: tote bags, headphones, my wallet, lunch. But there is something else, something fleeting that may gnaw at you the way it does at me. You realize that you left it when you recognize it as forgotten—which is a roundabout way of saying that you have actually remembered it. There are names and terms for this, yet these words fail to give it adequate contours and volumes. Something neither perceptible nor detectable persists and lingers about. Perhaps it is a feeling. Perhaps it is closer to synesthesia, the “colored hearing” Vladimir Nabokov once wrote about in Speak, Memory, when “the color sensations seem to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline.” Is this feeling one where your sense of space is mapped out in time? I can make it from one corner to the room in twelve heartbeats … Eight have passed, you may think to yourself. I do sometimes. I also think of Svetlana Boym, who described nostalgia as an operation that “charts space in time and time and space,” which sounds as if she was reading the craggy peaks and irregular valleys of an electroencephalogram chart with the eye of a person reading tea leaves—which is to say with an affinity for patterns and coincidences. And perhaps that is what happens when you enter a museum, for instead of patterns and coincidences, that itch you feel is not so much a longing as it is a recognition that you have found something you did not know was lost and is now being returned to you.

These are the things returned to me as I write, fragments of a visit to Kingelez’s work at MoMA: a wall text; a brief explanation of the artist and his work; episodes of a life spent in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and then Kinshasa; Kingelez the school teacher turning his life to scissors, blades, and glue; models of buildings and cities constructed of cardboard, soda and beer cans; turquoise, magenta, palettes for a technicolor fantasy; imaginary places with French names, Réveillon Fédéral, Étoile Rouge, Aeromode; Magiciens de la Terre, a 1989 show at the Centre Pompidou, the first ever to feature his work; of worlds as cities, worlds as infrastructure; papier maché oceans; a box of “Special”, a toothpaste brand from elsewhere; buildings shaped like gossamer-winged butterflies, an accordion’s bellows, a shoe polisher, a shark’s fin (or an upturned fang); the Ville fântome, a city where citizens move between different zones along a “bridge of death”; Stade Kingelez, a soccer stadium; fields of greenery with scalloped edges; a container of Smint and a box of Bic ballpoints; a silhouette of a country priest, shushing, an image I remember as a squadron insignia from one of the World Wars, now pasted on the facade of one of Kingelez’s models; a woman standing on her toes in the corner holding her phone in the air, trying to capture the contents of the exhibit in one take; an elderly man squatting at eye level with one of the models, as if trying to have a conversation with it; security guards checking their email; buildings named after countries; the United Nations building reimagined as a giant conch shell; chatter hanging in the air above; an agricultural village transformed into skyscrapers; a city in the 31st century comprised of real and imaginary buildings from the 20th and 21st; a line for a pair of VR goggles at the end of the exhibit; that Kingelez was born in 1948; that he studied economics; that he died of cancer in 2015. It continues …

… and it all begs an important question, perhaps the one central to this essay: what do we recognize as lost when we enter a museum, when we encounter an exhibition like City Dreams, when we find ourselves in the midst of something so different, so thrilling? One thing we lose is a sense of space and time. Not “our” sense, but “a” sense of space and time, and by this I mean the space and time of Kingelez and his work. Any attempt to express what was going on in Kingelez’s inner and outer worlds is just that—an attempt. My ability to locate his work in space and time is born of the habits and practices I learned while studying and writing about architectural history, and one of these is telepresence. I can write, for example, that while Kingelez viewed his works as evidence of his stature as a “small god”, that his vibrant designs showed an initial affection for Mobuto Sese Seko Kutu’s doctrine of authenticité. I can write that he named one of his earliest sculptures after the day that Mobutu became President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (soon to be renamed Zaire). I know these things as facts culled from what others before me have written. Texts are my modes of transport, my conveyances to a space and time that will be forever unknown to me. An exhibition, then, only amplifies a similar sense of spatial and temporal dislocation—an eternal removal, so to speak. The only difference is that the “extreme models” on display, dutiful arranged by teams of curators, conservators, and exhibition designers, are “messages from a lost past,” as T.J. Clark once put it. They are emissaries from a world we will never be able to access.


Ville de Sète 3009 is one of the very last objects you will encounter. Completed while in residence at the Musée International des Arts Modestes in Southern France in 2000, it was one of Kingelez’s last large-scale works. It shares many of the characteristics of his earlier “extreme models.” There is, for instance, the same color palette, the same vivid ultramarines and oversaturated carmines. The buildings here are versions of the ones he likely saw while in residence there. Yet something else is happening here, for these buildings, on another glance, begin to look familiar. One, for instance, repeats butterfly- and sail-like shapes from earlier works. Another is comprised of two cylinders, and when viewed in plan, looks like a figure eight. Like his other cities, Ville de Sète 3009 is also surrounded by a moat. Rooftops appear to be connected by aerial walkways. There is also a more decided emphasis on pure geometries. And if you take a closer look, some of the buildings begin to look familiar. One is an echo of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. Another appears like a version of the Empire State Building, taller, narrower, conjured from transparent yellow plexiglas. There are even smaller, ziggurat-like structures that appear to reference Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin’s unbuilt Maison à gradins from 1914. These are signs that Kingelez is folding utopias into his own immediate world.


Ville de Sète 3009 (2000): One of Kingelez’s most ambitious sculptures representing an inventory of all the forms used in his prior works.

There are three ways to view this model. There nothing unusual about the first, for it is really the way everyone views larger-scale works or sculptures in a gallery. You approach one of Kingelez’s model and then you bend down to take a photograph, keeping yourself at eye-level. And when you stand up, you now see Ville de Sète 3009 from above, which means that yours is the bird’s-eye view, le regard surplombant, a vantage point affording you a glimpse at the world, a planner or an architect’s totalizing eye, the purview of modernity. The second is unusual because it requires you to look at the ceiling, something you almost would never do in one of MoMA’s galleries. Mounted directly above Ville de Sète 3009 is a large mirror that reflects the image of the city back at you. I imagine that this may be the point of view of an astronaut falling head first, coming down to Earth and peering up into Sète moments before splashing into the water, and like Bruegel’s Icarus, feet barely peering above the whitecaps. Or, is this peering at something on the ceiling a substitute for the artist’s point of view? And then there is the third, which requires you to wait in line for a pair of VR goggles and fly through a three-dimensional rendering of Ville de Sète 3009. In that virtual space, Sète becomes an image of an image of a city. Kingelez’s city has transformed from a cardboard city to a digitized realm rendered from protocols, software, grids, ones, zeroes, machine languages, and mouse clicks.

To fly in this version of Kingelez’s Sète is thrilling. I even felt a bit of momentary dislocation and an acute, yet fleeting, motion sickness that made me giddy. These were symptoms of my own recursion, flying in a digitized version of a city that existed in Kingelez’s world. And I thought of another recursion. Specifically, it was a passage from Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, a description of a balloon flight over Cartagena de Indias. And though I have read that novel several times, I remember the passage because it was blockquoted in a review written by Thomas Pynchon in 1988. In that piece, which I still think is one of the most astounding pieces of writing one can read, Pynchon declares that Garcia Márquez did nothing short of creating art, and that art like Love in the Time of Cholera gives us something we only realize we wanted when faced with it. Pynchon uses a beautiful term for this: “works that can even return our worn souls to us.” And perhaps that is what happened on that October afternoon. I gave myself to Kingelez’s world, and my own worn soul was given back to me.

“Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY) through January 1, 2019.

Enrique Ramirez is a Brooklyn-based writer, architectural historian, musician, and critic. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of the History of Art and Design at Pratt Institute. You can follow him on Instagram at @riqueramirez

Think Piece

Foucault from Beyond the Grave

by guest contributor Michael C. Behrent

Few living thinkers have been as prolific as the dead Michel Foucault. In the thirty-two years since his death, he has published thirteen book-length lecture courses, four volumes of interviews and papers (totaling over 3,500 pages), and countless bootlegs. Meanwhile, the fourth volume of his History of Sexuality, completed shortly before his death, sits, inaccessible to all, in an archive in Normandy—a rare text to have found no way around his estate’s prohibition on posthumous publications.

His will notwithstanding, one can only imagine that Foucault himself would have reacted to this state of affairs with a caustic laugh. For as two recently published volumes remind us, Foucault was haunted by the bond between language and death, as well as the notion that writing always, in a sense, comes from “beyond the grave.”

41pbmufcnrlThe two books in question both appear in a series put out by the Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales called Audiographie, which publishes texts that were first delivered in a spoken form. La grande étrangère (The Great Foreigner, 2013), consists of a radio program on madness and literature from 1963, two lectures on literature given in Brussels in 1964, and a talk on the Marquis de Sade delivered at SUNY Buffalo in 1970. The other, Le beau danger (The Beautiful Danger, 2011), is the transcript of an extended interview on the theme of writing that Foucault gave to the literary critic and journalist Claude Bonnefoy in 1968, but which has never before appeared in print.

If there is a common theme linking these interventions, it is that of Foucault’s obsession with the connection between writing and death. The texts in these volumes all deal with literature and writing; the problem of death figured prominently in the literary essays that Foucault, in the 1960s, devoted to Bataille, Blanchot, and Roussel. Yet what the Audiographie books make clear is that the problem of literature and death was not, for Foucault, some esoteric side problem. It was integral to the ideas he was developing in his major publications. Thus modern literature exemplifies, Foucault maintains, the fact that the modern mind is steeped in what, in The Order of Things (1966), he dubbed the “analytic of finitude.” One of the many consequences of the growing consciousness of the radically finite character of human existence that follows the death of God is, he argues, the enormous significance that modern society assigns to literature. The value we attribute to literature is inseparable, Foucault suggests, from a cultural horizon shaped by human mortality.

In the 1964 Brussels lectures, Foucault contends that early modern Europe (during what he calls “the classical age”) did not, strictly speaking, have literature—at least in the way we have since come to understand the term—for the simple reason that it interpreted itself culturally as the tributary of the word of God. People in this period, of course, wrote novels. Some even experimented with the kind of knowing self-consciousness about their own literary artifices—referring in writing to the fact that they were writing—that would later become associated with literary modernism (Foucault offers a fascinating analysis, for instance, of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste). Yet what distinguishes these earlier endeavor from the literature of the modern age is the fact that, during the classical age, “any work of language existed as a function of a certain mute and primitive language, that the work was charged with restoring.” This “language that [came] before languages” was the “word of God, it was the truth, it was the model” (La Grande étrangère, 100). Rhetoric was the means through which human utterances, in all their obtuseness, could acquire something of the limpidity of divine speech. But what we have come to call literature only emerges once God has died—or become dumb, to be precise. Literature is the attempt from within the unremitting chatter of discourse to mark language, to dent it, possibly to re-enchant or overcome it—hence modern literature’s frequently transgressive character. But once it has ceased to represent the word of God, once it has become simple the words filling a page, literature becomes an emblem of human finitude. As such, it cannot be other than “beyond the grave” (104).

Foucault’s claim that, strictly speaking, literature does not exist as an independent realm of discourse until the late eighteenth century parallels the claim he would soon make in The Order of Things that “man” (in the sense of the “human”) did not exist as a specific object of knowledge until the same period. The birth of the human sciences and the genesis of literature are both, Foucault, maintains, consequences of t God’s retreat.

The problem of writing also lies at the heart of Foucault’s 1970 lecture on Sade. His question is simply: why did Sade write? What compelled him to fill volume after volume with his transgressive yet mind-numbingly repetitive fantasies? Foucault’s analysis is characteristically complex, yet his argument harkens back, however indirectly, to the themes of the Brussels lecture. Sade’s libertinism is, needless to say, directed against God. Yet it is not atheistic as such; God is not dismissed as mere illusion. God, Sade believes, exists, but as an abomination, as evidenced by the “meanness” (méchanceté) of the world—and indeed, by the fact that there are libertines. In Sade’s peculiar logic (which Foucault calls “anti-Russellian” [199]), it is because God is abominable that it is necessary that he not exist. This theme illustrates what Foucault sees as the ultimate function of Sade’s writing: the intertwining of discourse, truth, and desire. Sade needs God “insofar as he does not exist, and insofar as he must be destroyed at each instant” (204), as both his writing and his desire depend on him.

41W+Fo8Tv1L.jpgThe reason Sade wrote is thus because in discourse, truth and desire become enmeshed in spirals of reciprocal stimulation and impulsion. Yet his originality, Foucault claims, lies in the way he emancipated desire from truth’s tutelage, pulling it out from under “the great Platonic edifice that ordered desire on truth’s sovereignty” (218). The point is not (as with Freud) that desire has its own truth, which is more or less hypocritically covered up by social norms; it is also, Foucault seems to be saying, that truth is a form of desire. Truth is not the neutral and transparent element through which words can name beings. It is a libidinal force, as seen in Sade’s relentless insistence, despite his novels’ preposterous plots, that he is telling the truth. Foucault’s account of the truth function in Sade recalls the themes of his first Collège de France lectures, on the “will to knowledge” in ancient Greece, which he would deliver the following year: the sophists, who believed that arguments are not proven logically, but won or lost like battles, resemble in many ways Sade’s approach to writing. Language, here, is no longer just a rumbling murmur that literature seeks to transform into a voice. God is dead, and we—or our truth-creating discourse—have killed him.

Yet at least according to Foucault’s position in Le Beau danger, language—or at least writing—has less to do with killing than with—as he put it in Madness and Civilization—the “already thereness of death” (“le déjà là de la mort”; cf. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1972 [1961]), 26). Foucault explains: “I would say that writing, for me, is tied to death, perhaps essentially to the death of others, but that does not mean that writing would be like murdering others,” in a way that “would open before me a free and sovereign space.” Writing, rather, means “dealing with others insofar as they are already dead. I speak, in a sense, over the corpses of others. I must confess, I kind of postulate their death” (Le Beau danger, 36-37).

In this sense, the death of God, Foucault suggests, is not only the cultural situation that his thought attempts to assess; it is the condition of possibility of his own work. The idea of writing as a form of resurrection, a way of rendering present the “living word” of “men and—most likely—God” is, he says, “profoundly alien” to him. Writing, for Foucault, is “the drifting that follows death, and not the progression to the source of life.” He muses: “It is perhaps in this sense that my form of language is profoundly anti-Christian”—even more so than themes that he addresses (39).

In these texts, the reader will find few of the concepts for which Foucault is best known. There is no or little mention of archaeology, epistemes, genealogy, or power (discourse is the one exception, though it is discussed in a far less technical manner than in, say, The Archaeology of Knowledge). What they remind us of are the philosophical preoccupations that presided over his early work—and that no doubt continued to shape his later thought, works such as Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, albeit in a more subterranean way. Here, we have a Foucault concerned with finitude, mortality, and the death of God. Perhaps this Foucault is in need of—how else to put it?—resurrection.

Michael C. Behrent teaches modern European history at Appalachian State University. He is currently working on a book exploring the origins of Foucault’s project.

Think Piece

Leibniz and Deleuze on Paradox

by guest contributor Audrey Borowski

Paradox features prominently in Leibniz’s thought process, and yet has failed to receive much attention within mainstream scholarship. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, however, devoted his book The Logic of Sense to the analysis of paradox. I undertake to shed light on Leibniz’s deployment of paradox through the prism of Deleuze’s reflection. Deleuze greatly admired Leibniz, and even dedicated a book to the latter’s “art of the fold”—his particular treatment of and extensive recourse to continuums—in 1988. And yet Deleuze’s connection to Leibniz may run still deeper.

For Deleuze, paradox designated that which ran counter to common opinion (doxa) in its dual incarnations, good sense and common sense. He defined it in the following manner: “The paradox therefore is the simultaneous reversal of good sense and common sense: on one hand, it appears in the guise of the two simultaneous senses or directions of the becoming-mad and the unforeseeable; on the other hand, it appears as the nonsense of the lost identity and the unrecognizable” (Logic of Sense, 78). In this manner, paradox ushered in a novel type of thought process, one which broke free from the strictures of simple causality implied by good sense and proved deeply unsettling by constantly oscillating between two poles, “pulling in both directions at once” (Logic of Sense, 1). Paradox was to be distinguished from contradiction: while the former applied to the realm of impossibility, the latter was confined to the real and the possible from which it was derived. Paradox operated on a different conceptual plane; it lay beyond the framework of pure signification altogether.

For evoking impossible entities, paradox has too easily been dismissed as philosophically suspect. Yet, far from entailing error, paradox suggests a “certaine valeur de vérité,” a particular type of truth inherent to language: after all, “It is language which fixes the limits… but it is language as well which transcends the limits and restores them to the infinite equivalence of an unlimited becoming” (Logic of Sense, 2-3). In this manner, a squared circle, for instance, possessed sense even though it lacked signification. While they lacked real referents—and thus failed to exist—paradoxical entities inhered in language: they opened up an uncanny wedge between language and existence.

In fact, Leibniz had previously cultivated to perfection the dissolution of seeming contradictions into productive tensions. He formulated his mathematical “Law of Continuity” most clearly in his Cum Prodiisset in 1701, in which the rules of the finite were found to succeed in any infinite continuous transition. By virtue of this reasoning, rest could be construed as “infinitely small motion,” coincidence as “infinitely small distance” (GM IV, 93), elasticity as “nothing other than extreme hardness,” and equality as “infinitely small inequality” (and vice versa) (GP II, 104-5). In fact, Leibniz’s epistemological project essentially hinged on a process of reconfiguration: whereby finite and infinite were no longer pitted against each other, but correlated through the recourse to “well-founded fictions” which were not rigorously true: whilst they were uniquely “apt for determining real things” (GM IV, 110), they constituted finite ideal projections of which they were “none in nature” and which strictly speaking “[were] not possible” (GM III, 499-500). Reality was henceforth accessible primarily through fiction.

With his infinitesimals, Leibniz tread an ambiguous middle ground, whose lack of empirical counterpart or referent earned him much criticism from a number of contemporary mathematicians. French mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert conveyed the sense of dismay which Leibniz’s constructions elicited even more than fifty years later: “a quantity is something or it is nothing: if it is something, it has not yet disappeared; if it is nothing, it has literally disappeared. The supposition that there is an intermediate state between these two states is chimerical” (d’Alembert (1763), 249–250). Simply put, an intermediate state between “something or nothing” was simply inconceivable.

And yet, according to Deleuze, such absurd mental objects, whilst they lacked a signification, had a sense: “Impossible objects —square circles, matter without extension, perpetuum mobile, mountain without alley, etc.—are objects ‘without a home,’ outside of being, but they have a precise and distinct position within this outside: they are of ‘extra being’—pure, ideational events, unable to be realised in a state of affairs” (Logic of Sense, 35).

In Deleuze’s account, paradox stood not only as that which destroys “good sense as the only direction,” but also as that “which destroys common sense as the assignation of fixed identities” (Logic of Sense, 3). It emerged as the unforeseeable or the “becoming mad” and acted as the “force of the unconscious” which threatened identity and recognition. This was perhaps all the truer in Leibniz’s deployment of paradox in his metaphysics. Leibniz’s concept of “compossibility,” whereby the world was only made up of individuals that could logically co-exist, went beyond mere adherence to the principle of non-contradiction.

In the preface to his New Essays on Human Understanding, Leibniz defined his principle of continuity. According to it, “nature never makes leaps.” The world was organized according to an infinitely divisible continuum, in which everything was interconnected and change took place gradually. In it, “diversity [was] compensated by identity” (Elementa juris naturalis, 1671 (A VI, 484) in the image of the monad, that foundational spiritual entity which acted as a “perpetual living mirror of the universe,” albeit from its own particular perspective (Monadology, § 57, 56). In this manner, reality folded and unfolded indefinitely and rationally in an “uninterrupted” process of continuous transformation, whereby one state naturally “disappeared” into the next, a sufficient reason “always subsist[ing]… whatever alterations or transformations might befall” throughout the transition (New Essays). Each state was simultaneously the product of “that which had immediately preceded it” and “pregnant with the future”. Simply put, “something also was what it wasn’t” (Belaval (1976), 305).

Leibniz consecrated a thoroughly fluid and dynamic outlook, one in which truth was “hallucinatory” and lay in the very act of vanishing itself (Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque). It could no longer be reduced to the fixed identities of “common sense,” but was essentially diachronic, governed as it was by “logic of becoming“:”The paradox of this pure becoming, with its capacity to elude the present, is the paradox of infinite identity (the infinite identity of both directions or senses at the same time- of future and past, of the day before and the day after, of more and less, of too much and not enough, of active and passive, and of cause and effect.)” (Logic of Sense 2).

According to Deleuze’s critique of the “regimes of representation” in Difference and Repetition, Leibniz had made representation infinite instead of overcoming it, thereby producing a “delirium” which “is only a pre-formed false delirium which poses no threat to the repose or serenity of the identical” (63). In The Fold, Deleuze asserted that “one must see Leibniz’s philosophy as an allegory of the world, and no longer in the old way as the symbol of a cosmos” (174).

In this manner, fixed identity had given way to infinite iteration in the shape of a “continuous metaphor” (metaphora continuata). This infinite deferral of proper meaning made incessant creation possible; truth was “infinitely determined,” each viewpoint becoming “the condition of the manifestation of truth” (Deleuze, Lecture on Leibniz, 16 December 1986). Leibniz’s philosophy of “mannerism” consisted in “constructing the essence from the inessential, and conquering the finite by means of an infinite analytic identity” (Difference and Repetition 346). Truth lay in infinite variation itself, each moment eliciting a different modality of an essentially elusive essence that could never be directly grasped or circumscribed.
Leibniz turned paradox into a marvelously fruitful tool, emblematic of the audacity and subtlety which drove the endless twists and turns of his broader thought process. Far from being the mark of a flawed system, it ensured that the system would remain contradiction-free by bringing about the “coincidence of opposites” (The Fold 33) in the process, confirming Leibniz as the quintessential philosopher of the Baroque age.

Ultimately both Leibniz and Deleuze inveighed against the poverty of the conventional thought process and set out to open up new horizons of thought by recovering the genetic force of paradox. Paradox threatened to overturn the very foundations of philosophical reason. And yet, by unsettling and challenging us, it forced us to think.

Audrey Borowski is a DPhil student in the History of Ideas at the University of Oxford.