Voyage au bout de l’ennui
After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer, BAK, Utrecht, 20 May–15 July 2012; OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Shenzhen, 21 September–16 November 2012; Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 17 October 2012–7 January 2013.
In a darkened room stand seven podiums, like black treadmills at a standstill. Each faces a digitized photograph projected onto a bare wall. The humming projectors are interrupted every thirty seconds as new images replace old ones. Nearly 400 photographs comprise the endless repetition that forms the core of the exhibition After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer. The French philosopher took these photographs in the 1950s and 1960s during his travels as a bureaucrat for the French Ministry of Economic Affairs. Seven geographical regions in all: China (1967), Japan (1959 and 1967), South Asia (India, Ceylon, Nepal 1959 and 1968), the Soviet Union (1968), Southern Europe (Italy, Spain, Switzerland in 1963 and 1964), Iran (1965 and 1968) and France (between 1959 and 1964). The photographs, as well as the thousands of postcards contemporaneously collected by Kojève that comprise the second half of the exhibition, are a recent discovery by the curator, Boris Groys, in the archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris. From the perspective of the exhibition, this trove of images – some created, others collected – are not to be relegated to the domains of the private or the trivial, but can complement and even transform our understanding of Kojève’s philosophical positions.
Born Aleksandr Kojevnikov in 1902 in Russia, Kojève became an iconic figure in French intellectual life through the seminars he gave on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes between 1933 and 1939. To read the list of the attendees is to see a panorama of figures who would become the towering intellectuals of the subsequent generation: Raymond Queneau, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Lacan, Raymond Aron, Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille. Kojève’s seminars, which gained a wider circulation only after the war when they were edited and published by Queneau, were one of the central conduits of Hegel’s thought into France, displacing the reigning neo-Kantian paradigm based on an optimistic progressive rationalism. Within the labyrinths of Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel, two theoretical topoi have had especially vibrant afterlives. The first is his revivification of Hegel’s concept of desire as a distinctly human and even anthropogenic force which is irreducible to anything natural in the world. For Kojève, the specificity of the human cannot be located in a set of essential faculties or describable material characteristics. It lies, rather, in the opposition to nature, which is not simply given, but is realized as a process. History is the time of this realization, a domain of uniquely human action, in which the irreducible autonomy of the human becomes actualized and recognized. Kojève’s conception of history includes the additional caveat that such recognition, which would be the fulfilment and end of history, is not an unreachable regulative ideal or an endless process, but one that can actually be achieved. In fact, this end of history had, according to Kojève, already come about in the events of the French Revolution and the establishment of a universal state during the Napoleonic era. All that remains is the perfecting of the universal state, the political form correlated to human freedom and autonomy. The photographs collected in After History offer, for Groys, a recapitulation of this thesis in an aesthetic register.
There is something purposefully un-signifying about the series of photographs that comprise the exhibit. Anonymous architecture, stilled spaces, barren nature, miniature human figures, all mutely show themselves. These photographs do not elicit curiosity or fascination, only profound boredom – a boredom, moreover, that is not incidental, but attentively curated and meticulously produced. It is presented as the dominant affective state appropriate to the post-historical condition: there is nothing more to do, only register what remains. To persist in the darkened room, inhabiting this enforced boredom, is to be subjected to the sheer reiterative presence of the photographs, their monotonous seriality: the landscapes reproduced by Kojève’s photographic gaze are severe and depopulated (Western Europe completely so, Asia still containing some traces of human existence, but already minimized and muted). The photos linger on grey and limestone Gothic cathedrals, steeples and minarets, spaces evoking the stillness of monastic isolation devoid of all human remnants. The mute minimalism of the photographs is withdrawn, detached, almost uninterested. If one trusts that the curatorial pruning was not tendentious (after all, only 391 photographs out of thousands are displayed), then the homogeneity of the photographs cannot but be the result of stringent methodological principles of reduction and purgation. This underlying will to reduction and repetition, as Groys convincingly suggests, is what makes the photographs artistically significant and comparable to the other long-term projects of seriality of the postwar era.
The austere architectural husks in Kojève’s photographs, however, are of a less tragic modality than the ruins and decay that have permeated the visual imaginary of the present, from Richard Pare’s capturing of the afterlife of Soviet modernist architecture in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union to the more recent elegiac paean to Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. In such visions, a certain history has come to an end, but only for Kojève has it done so not as catastrophe but as fulfilment. This also determines what follows the end: boredom and technocratic formalism on one side, dilapidation and bleak survival on the other. Therein lies one of the merits of the exhibition: revealing the radical distance that separates the post-apocalyptic imaginary of the last two decades and the deactivated stasis that characterizes Kojève’s end of history Positioned alongside his postcard collection, the very photographic identity of Kojève’s photographs is undermined. If photographs capture a certain deictic moment of singularity, as was noted by both Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, then Kojève’s photographs have abrogated their photographic essence. Their faux-objective generic aesthetic explicitly repudiates such an imperative for the singular, the unrepeatable, the historical. His photographs of Western Europe are a meticulous exercise in the elimination of all puncta – those puncturing moments of contingency in photographs, elaborated by Barthes, that produce an affective resonance, a discordance that opens up to a flight of desire. Even as Kojève travels eastward, despite the proliferation of contingent detail (the austerity of the gaze is slightly relaxed), there is nothing like the solicitation of desire, the possibility of adventure or the production of animation in his photographs. They forbid the evocation of that animation and adventure that Barthes thought was essential to photography, instead blindly averring that nothing of the sort is possible any longer. It is as though his photographs insist on being the equivalent of mass-produced postcards – without desire, subjectivity or historical specificity.
The abundant curatorial text of the exhibition attempts to give the muteness of the images a voice. For Groys, Kojève’s photographs and the photographic method that generates them seek both ‘to register the post-historical world’ and to capture ‘the historical monuments that remind one of the time before the end of history’. In so doing, they ‘manifest and confirm [Kojève’s] faithfulness to the event of history’. The photographs themselves push towards other interpretations. The Soviet Union of 1968 is a barely recognizable land of Orthodox cathedrals, village churches and the towering presence of the Kremlin – all either depopulated or, in very much a Stalinist vein (and Kojève referred to himself as a Stalinist, despite escaping the Soviet Union in 1919), dwarfing the people who live in their shadows. Some of the photos seem less interested in registering the end of history than in studying the ways that the monumental dimension of architecture exceeds everyday life. Their stillness dehumanizes, and their relentless objectivity expels the human out of the frame. Kojève’s post-historical photography cannot easily be said to be faithful to the event of history because its dominant effect seems to be a radical act of dehistoricization, the evacuation of the historical dimension tout court. The images projected onto the gallery walls do not register anything properly human, properly historic, but, with an objective detachment and a melancholic boredom, record the dwelling places of gods and giants, now abandoned. The question that arises is what exactly makes this repeated insistence on sacred and religious architecture not only the appropriate but the necessary subject for the end of history? Perhaps sacred architecture is the highest achievement of human history, or perhaps Kojève decided to replicate directly the architectural postcards that he was collecting by the hundreds. The question is left unresolved, but it does point to a convergence between the end of history and the end of religion.
For Kojève, the post-historical condition opens up towards an aestheticization of existence, a commitment to mere form that he infamously found in Japan during his 1959 trip, in such practices as Noh theatre, the tea ceremony and the decorative arrangement of flowers. In each practice, the elaborate formalism is taken as a value in itself. An existence expressed in such formalized practices became for Kojève the proper subjective position after history has come to an end; after, that is, the era of historical struggle. He called these practices, which in their aestheticization rejected the natural sphere, pure snobbery, and did so without disparagement. Yet this formal-aesthetic dimension is indelibly bound up with an administrative-technocratic one. After all, having declared the end of history, Kojève became a functionary of the French state and worked on the development of the structures of tariffs that laid the foundation for the European Common Market, which would subsequently become the European Union. This was the concrete form that Kojève gave to the task of constructing the universal homogeneous state – the political form that inaugurates the end of history in Kojève’s reading of Hegel. Yet there is not even a whiff of this bureaucratic corollary in Kojève’s photographs. It is as though existence had become radically severed: technocratic political tasks on one side, and an aestheticized gaze photographing sacred sites and muted landscapes on the other.
In the end, Kojève’s photography cannot be taken as a straightforward recording of the dull boredom and mild melancholy of the end of history. The 1960s left many indelible images in the cultural imaginary, and the vast majority do not represent the world as wistful harmony and a series of depopulated landscapes. His trip to China occurs amidst the Cultural Revolution and his trip to the Soviet Union during the Prague Spring, but neither event finds any expression in Kojève’s photography. In a world full of turmoil, in which something akin to historical action was again becoming a possibility, Kojève’s camera persisted in creating aesthetically a forlorn, inactive, depopulated world. It is as though photography became an ascetic regimen through which to train the eye to see the world as post-historical with the hope of obliterating the history that was again rising up. Instead of taking the epoch of the end of history as itself a product of history – as a political formation that suppresses the possibility of collective action by severing existence into a technocratic realm, on one hand, and an aesthetic realm, on the other – Kojève insisted that this transformation is simply an ontological reality. These hundreds of photographs and postcards do not, then, merely witness the end of history; they seek to enforce it. What remains proscribed is political action that is not fulfilled in and through the state, or an existence in which politics and aesthetics are not severed from each other. The ultimate import of the stilled boredom of Kojève’s photographs, then, is their attestation to his inability to perceive a way out of this binary, either for (political) practice or (philosophical) thought. This becomes even more perverse when the bureaucratic vocation is affirmed as the fulfilment of history. Something of the insanity of this sentiment is audible in one of the hyperbolic gems of Groys’s commentary: ‘One could say that Kojève was a kind of Arthur Rimbaud of modern bureaucracy – a philosophical writer who consciously became a martyr of the post-historical bureaucratic order.’ The scene of martyrdom was appropriate to the vocation: Kojève died from a heart attack in the middle of a meeting of the European Commission. The year: 1968.