Boris Groys on “On the New”

I’ve been meaning to share this fairly recent interview with Boris Groys published in Krisis late last year. It’s almost entirely a reflection on Groys’ book On the New, which was originally published in 1992 and features heavily in my own book. Interviewer Thijs Lijster does an excellent job leading us through the book with his guest and applying it to the situation today. The primary difference between the time of the book’s publication and the contemporary situation is, of course, the internet. Groys notes that today we have a “situation of mass cultural production” in which everyone’s an artist, etc., while the internet remains far less stable of an archive than people imagine. The result is that “in the contemporary global framework, you have total representation, but from a future perspective, it is all garbage.”

Since Groys is focused on the museum as an archive, and thus a source of the valorizing comparison by which we determine the new, this situation becomes tenuous indeed. Inarguably the institution’s archival function has been challenged, at least, by the validity of one’s own archiving–your collection of funny cat memes, or your library of those MP3s you downloaded–and that means what’s new has become, perhaps, more personal and self-determined. There’s less social consensus about what is new, not because people disagree about singular works but because their personal archives are radically different and filled with a plurality of different works. There’s competition for the museum, not in terms of what art is collected or what art isn’t, but in terms of what is collected in the first place. A great democratic achievement? Maybe. But it relies on a system that is, as Facebook and others have shown us recently, surveilled by corporations and governments in a way that museums are not. Not to the same extent, not for the same purposes.

There’s also this interesting exchange regarding the possibility of the archives’ dissolution, which would mean a dissolution of that comparative source for the new:

TL: You say that people are no longer interested in the archival function, but at the same time there is a lot of anxiety about the preservation of tradition, in the shape of ‘cultural heritage’ and so forth. In Über das Neue you write: “[T]he new ceases to represent a danger and becomes a positive demand only after the identity of tradition has been preserved” (2014, 21). Might one say that the contemporary anxiety emerges from a lack of historical orientation? In other words: since we cannot make sense of the present, or determine our direction for the future, we do not know what is historically meaningful and meaningless. And what would this mean for the category of the new?

BG: Indeed, we can no longer rely on the tradition. And again, I think this is related to digital media: we are confronted with everything at the same time, and everyone globalized him or herself. At the same time, we’re not sure what the archive still means under this new condition. But as long as there are archives, it makes no difference for the category of the new. There would only be a difference if the archives would dissolve completely. If that happens, then we no longer have the new, but then we also no longer have philosophy, literature, and art. Probably we’ll still have politics, but I’m not sure about it. All these phenomena relate to the archives, so if the archives dissolve, then all the other things dissolve as well.

TL: Is that a real threat?

BG: Maybe it is a threat, maybe a relief. I think a lot of people would see it as liberation. It is difficult to say. I think it is a mixture between threat and liberation, in the same way that every utopia is also a dystopia. But I think the fact is that many people welcome this development; that the feeling of liberation prevails, the feeling of being liberated from the archive, but also from literature, art and philosophy.

Many people would feel liberated by the dissolution of the archives and the new itself on the grounds of the institutions’ history of exclusion and rarefied attitude; in other words, it would be seen as a kind of cultural comeuppance. At the same time, however, we already see the continual pressure applied to institutions such as museums and libraries, and the non-profit organizations which serve them, by conservative politicians on the American Right. Their goal is also utopian/dystopian: the suppression of cultural heterogeneity, progress, and so forth, all of it marked as the new and legitimized by the archives. Eradicate the archives and you erase one major way in which the innovations of the past are recognized and innovations today may be valued and counted for the future.

In other words, as I’ve followed the campaigns by the Trump Administration and its Republican lapdogs against institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts, I’ve heard the same arguments we heard decades ago: radical leftist art shouldn’t be funded by public money; let the artists learn to survive in the market; let philanthropists carry the load. All of it is part of the Right’s ongoing war against the very notion of an American public. But here we see that it’s also a war against the American future. What they want is stasis followed by withering. In a land without the archive, for most Americans there would be only the present of ordinary life, called by Groys the “profane realm,” in which nothing new is preserved with any real kind of protection for the future. The only way to protect the new, if the archival function were abdicated by the government, would be through the market. If you want to know how well the market protects innovations, try to buy a Walkman.

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