As part of The Combinations Week, we talk with author Louis Armand about creativity, politics and the political, and the Prague literary scene. Born in Sydney, Australia, Armand has lived in Prague since 1994. Founding editor of VLAK Magazine, he also helms the editorial board of Rhizomes: Studies in Cultural Knowledge, and directs the Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory at Charles University, Prague.
Throughout The Combinations we see the recurring themes of authenticity (vs. fakery), the burdens of history, and a deep suspicion of ideologies and institutions. How do these themes square with your ideas on the artist’s place in society?
“The Artist” is an abstract categorical being that (not who), according to the nature of a given society, is accorded a “place,” a “function,” a “task,” all of which are no less imaginary (and paradoxical) than it is. Inevitably, to identify with such a role, strategically or otherwise, requires intervening in the system of expectations & meanings attached to it, in order either to produce new ones, or to sabotage “categorical being” itself. This is where you get Shelley’s idea of the unacknowledged legislator, not because “the Artist” represents the guilty conscience of power, but because it represents a paradoxical consciousness: as the affirmation of that which it contradicts. “The Artist” is an unstable commodity that is capable of producing aberrations within society’s image of itself, only in so far as these can in turn be fed into new systems of normalisation (the “Culture Industry”). In order to sustain this ambivalent status, in which the possibility of real subversion is always left (tantalisingly) open, “the Artist” can’t afford to have a “place in society,” yet nor is there any such place as “outside society.” And so far as ideology can be defined as systems of meaning, the work of “the Artist” is necessarily subversive of, yet equally productive of, ideology. In the prevalent utilitarian fantasy that governs industrialised cultures, “the Artist” is useful because it produces the décor of power by homeostasis, evoking dangers that power is thus able to get the measure of & materialise within itself (like trophy heads) – internalising the hack to strengthen the source code, so to speak. It’s for this reason that we can speak of the “authentic” not in dialectical opposition but as the other side of art. Art is “like” an unconscious: on the one side is the social and on the other side there’s the real.
What stresses and/or compromises do capitalism and/or dictatorship place on the artist?
There are always acts of survival, under any regime whatsoever, and compromise takes many forms. The fact is, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, there’s no “abstract” art in this respect, because what we call art is a product of social psychology, of libidinal economy, of subjectivisation. Art is born of compromise, it is a genre of compromise, a readily accessible category for that which otherwise would constitute a formlessness, an unpresentability. To adapt a well-known line from Artaud: “An artist is someone who prefers to become what is socially understood.” Wherever it isn’t subversive of its own categorisation, art is thus institutional imagination. Capitalism provides the illusion that, by way of the transcendentalism of the commodity, such an “imaginary” constitutes true emancipation; dictatorship produces the same (though seemingly inverted) “emancipative effect” through the metaphysics of opposition to a temporal power (in tandem with repressive violence transformed into the personal or collective prestige of the “dissident” – readily commodified in due course – Solzhenitsyn, Ai Wei Wei, many others). In both cases, the appeal to the autonomy of art is usually an appeal to something beyond the political – even if that art adopts an openly political stance (that it’s both “political art” and “art despite its politics”) or an openly antipolitical stance, by defiantly proclaiming, for example, its narcissistic egoism (which is no less political for that). The question, of course, is to what extent art has ever involved any such choices – as if it constituted its own self-preserving causality, rather than a symptom. This of course has NOTHING TO DO with real oppression, which isn’t permitted representation as such: art is only ever the articulation of something that gets away, survives, blends in, has conduits for being smuggled out (into the world), and so on: which implies an “elsewhere” in which that art can exist as art, in which (a certain kind of) oppression isn’t the rule. Yet it escapes the one only to be appropriated into the discourse of the other: “art” becomes “testimony”; “testimony” becomes “art” (keeping in mind that elements of “capitalism” and “dictatorship” more often than not co-exist in a kind of secret compact within the same society: exemplified by such illicit artefacts as Wikileaks’ Collateral Murder). What is too easily made to appear a “romanticism” of struggle thus involves an inscrutable psychology, in which compromise isn’t in order to exist but with existence itself.
Since The Combinations is based around the game of chess, how did the forces of schematics and improvisation play into the writing of The Combinations?
The sound artist David Toop writes about improvisation being as “familiar & alien as breathing”: “from moment to moment,” he says, “improvisation determines the outcomes of events, complex trajectories, the course of life” & yet “the central role of improvisation in human behaviour is constantly devalued.” This is from his book Into the Maelstrom. Like most people in the experimental music scene, Toop readily acknowledges the enormous influence of John Cage, who brought together chance procedures & schematic systems, like mesostics & the I-Ching, in the production of his work – a couple of good examples being Reading Through Finnegans Wake & Roaratorio, his two best-known experiments with the work of James Joyce. Of course Joyce is one of the 20th-century fountainheads of schematic writing, mostly thanks to the Linati schema for Ulysses & the Wake notebooks (as well as the kind of early “structuralist” decipherings by people like McHugh, Hart, Škrabánek). Joyce wasn’t interested in chess, though, unlike Cage’s other principle collaborator, Marcel Duchamp, who made a great show of abandoning art in favour of chess at one point – though his gameplay, including two encounters with Tartakower (both of which he lost), was far less interesting than his art. Cage, who was himself an indifferent player, staged a match with Duchamp as a piece of “performance art” & called it Reunion. For his part, Duchamp also developed a Monte Carlo system, which reportedly managed to break even – he even offered shares in it. But the schematics of chess & roulette only tangentially intersected with the concerns of his art, which was more concerned with play, parody (including parodic pseudo-schemas like the Green Box) & confidence trickery. When Georges Perec set about writing Life: A User’s Manual, he brought all of these elements together by constructing a parodic yet functional compositional system based, among other things, around a modified chess puzzle: the Knight’s Tour. His book, however, isn’t “about” chess, rather it’s “about” puzzle-making, solving, & dissolution – ending with what appears to be an impossible dilemma: a jigsaw puzzle that’s been “solved” down to the last piece, which doesn’t fit. It’s a little like the apparently paradoxical nature of the relationship between schematics in general & improvisation in general – in which what we call “chance” is both over-determined yet unpredictable. As Mallarmé says, a throw of dice will never abolish chance: no matter how often the dice are cast, chance will remain undiminished (“eternal”), yet its expression will always be limited to a very finite outcome, individually between 1 & 6. The same can be said for language itself, or any rule- or constraint-based system, like DNA. It’s this relation, between singular actions & a universe of recombination, that interested me in making The Combinations – in which composition, form & subject-matter (writing, in other words) are all, so to speak, expressions of one another, & are the book’s real protagonists.
As the novel approaches its conclusion, Němec meets with Faktor at the Golem City Botanical Institute. In a lengthy monologue, Faktor explains the “Réti puzzle” to our dear squillhead.
“Yet whichever decision he makes, he is in fact without a choice. The end has already been determined, though it will only come into view for him when everything else has receded from the picture. The one determining factor is Time, which is always against him. It is the geometry of Destiny at work. Illusory, paradoxical, yet inescapable.”
The question is: With all the supranational processes at work in modern life – geopolitics, economics, mass migrations, wars, etc. – where does this leave the individual? Is the individual doomed to be the pawn of forces beyond his or her control? Is optimism for the future a fool’s errand? Or should we sit back, let the entropy take hold, and enjoy the show?
The real delusion has been, at least since the cult of emancipation became the dominant discourse of commodification, that the “individual” can be abstracted from the system of relations that produced it – because the individual is first and foremost a paradox, an abstraction-of-abstraction: both the scarecrow-like manifestation of a “free agent” of the will-to-power, and what Guattari (actually it was Victor Tausk) called a “desiring machine.” You see this in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is really a thesis on the industrialised “individual.” What is it in that book which most represents the pathos and thwarted desires of so-called humanity? Shelley was a subversive, like Blake, and yet this book is still read as a kind of sentimental allegory – as a sop to the philanthropic conscience of the middle classes. They needed to work out their compromise between “free” enterprise and market determinism (it’s manifest destiny). The future is a far more radically Darwinian prospect (meaning contingent, stochastic): optimism, on the other hand, is only rhetorically concerned with this kind of future, insofar as “prediction” can be made to coincide with whatever we happen to want, in which a collective narcissism is able to plot the lineaments of its gratified desire as the “society of the future.” At a certain point this optimism – which more often than not amounts to a propaganda for perpetual status quo – always cedes to self-parody, whether it acknowledges this fact or not (power is never ridiculous in its own eyes). Any form of permitted change (for the better, needless to say) – as in the case of reformism – is just a self-fulfilling prophesy, like mark-to-market accountancy, banking the profits in advance to keep the share price on a perpetual uptrend. Is that all art amounts to? Is politics just fiscal management by another name? Are individual actions just data points in a universal algorithm? If the idea of the “individual” is measured against this kind of optimism/pessimism dichotomy, then it’s just TV romance, because there’s simply no such thing as a “free agent” of the will-to-power. Nor is the “individual” enslaved in any simplistic sense within a machinic universe; it’s mass mechanisation that gave rise to the modern (abstract) “individual” to begin with – as opposed to that fictional “organic individual” of romanticisms of every age (Eve and Adam in Paradise, no less – and Eden, let’s not forget, was an utterly totalitarian construct). Certain prevalent concepts of “emancipation” are just other ways of speaking about commodification. This is where the so-called anti-art of Duchamp, Cage, and others has something to tell us about “pawns of forces beyond their control.” You might say that there’s a political, and not just “aesthetic” or “philosophical,” lesson to be drawn here.
Ulysses was very much a novel set in the periphery of Europe. Why is it important to tell stories set in Mitteleuropa?
In his book, Prague: Capital of the Twentieth Century, Derek Sayer makes an interesting and important argument for “Prague” as a paradigm of the ideological contests that have defined recent world history. Prague (“Praha”), as any tourist guide will tell you, means “threshold,” and a now out-of-use expression places “middle” or “central Europe” as Zwischeneuropa – “between-Europe.” There might be something to be said about this relation of peripheries (in Ulysses) and the in-between, the transitional, the non-place which, after all, has always been the status of art itself (of the “mirror held up to the world,” apparently). On the other hand, even as a former seat of empire (or because of it), it is this inner-peripheral status that contradicts the obsessive preoccupation with myths of sovereignty of all kinds: linguistic, political, ethnic, etc. Prague has been perpetually occupied territory throughout the modern era, even today (economically, but also through proxy political influence), and this has fuelled all kinds of reactionary sentiment: anti-Semitism and anti-cosmopolitanism; national socialism of both the nativist and collaborationist varieties; cultural, especially literary, chauvinism; xenophobia generally, and so on. In this way Prague remains paradigmatic of those historical dynamics Joyce encountered in Trieste (for which the “Dublin” of Ulysses is really a cipher: but the substitutability of the one for the other also reveals a universality of this “threshold” experience, which has always been the appeal of Joyce’s book to a certain kind of reader). Now while it would be easy to draw a simplistic moral about the “place of the artist” in the face, for example, of the rise of populism (neo-Nazism, religious fundamentalism, etc.) – as we see again today – it’s necessary to resist the seduction of precisely those ideologies that would place a dividing line between an “us” and a “them.” Just as “the artist” is always a foreigner, and never so much as in its “own land,” so too art is never on the side of the self-righteous at either end of the political spectrum. As Breton, in his 1935 series of Prague lectures, insisted: art in the service of one or the other isn’t art but agitprop, commodity, alibi. Yet the ambivalence (the “autonomy”) of art isn’t a gesture of indecision, of non-commitment, but a repudiation of – and subversion of – the false choices presented by the institutions of power (whether they be externally-imposed or internally reified: the “state” to be overthrown, or the “state” to be erected in its place). Art belongs to the thresholds.
Which writers, artists, and filmmakers interest you?
More recently, for different reasons and in different ways: Ann Quin, Lukáš Tomin, Richard Makin, Anna Kavan, Stewart Home, Vanessa Place, Sean Bonney, Ania Walwicz, D. Harlan Wilson, Violette Leduc, Jean-Marie Gleize, Hito Steyerl, Germán Sierra, Eva Kot’átková, Krištof Kintera, Derek Jarman, Ulrike Ottinger, Claire Denis, Leos Carax… Just to name a few.
The Combinations Week ends with: One hell of a footnote!