Art Criticism, Boris Groys, Difference, Durkheim, Fashion, Gabriel Tarde, Repetition

Gabriel Tarde and Boris Groys on mass culture

Recall the equally interesting as well-known statement from art critic Boris Groys in which he hails the future as tautology; ‘modern civilization is characterized by her ability to meticulously reproduce the existing’. That is to say, there exist a great contemporary potential (and, seemingly, will) to repeat the present. Making this a claim about the practices of modern art in relation to consumerism, Groys shares Koolhaas’ exploration into the increasing colonization of the modern city by the generic. In several studies – most notably, perhaps, Art Power – Groys has shown how recent developments in all sectors of culture and technology have not only produced generic cities, cars and commodities, but has caused literature, the visual arts and music to reproduce itself ad infinitum. Groys then adds that cultural plurality or multiplicity does not go together with mass culture which is, ofcourse, an apt critique of the status and role of the arts in our times. That is; it illustrates how big-money has entered the cultural scene not only by sponsoring and adopting it, but by hyjacking it into the mores of its own logic. Art, then, does not only become a safe investment for private bankers, but also something which rules, codes, production, content and progression is becoming part of its former opposite.

Gabriel Tarde – the unfortunate victim of Durkheim’s omnipresence in 19th century sociology and the ‘loser’ of the public debate which caused that he has been forgotten just until a few years ago – in his The Laws of Imitation devotes a whole chapter on the phenomenon of fashion. Fashion as a cultural phenomenon developed heavily in the 1880-1890’s Parisian circles in which Tarde dwelled more than often. Be that as it may, Tarde tries to show how fashion confirms to his universal laws of difference and repetition (yes, Deleuze did get this from Tarde – see Alliez ’08). In opposition to Durkheim’s postulation of the ‘social’ as a unique realm of reality that exists external to and prior the individual actions, Tarde depicted repetition as the sole foundation of sociology. Society, for him, is not something that explains, but must itself be explained. How does this work with regard to fashion? Fashion, according to Tarde, shows that repetition – the invention of a summer/autumn/spring/winter collection, the production of the outfits, the money spent by consumers etc. – in the form of individuals wearing certain clothes, causing others to see it, want it and act accordingly by going into the shop and buying it, inherently implies difference. Where the natural sciences can only observe phenomena due to their continual repetition, the social sciences can only grasp what is ‘social’ in that which moves, that is active. According to Deleuze, the difference inherent in repetition is a difference that ‘keeps on differing’; repetition is both a passive and an active phenomenon. This is the reason why Tarde – although the 19th and 20th century claimed the opposite – is not an individualist and, moreover, skips the whole sociological problem of the individual versus society; repetition is something that happens between individuals. More importantly, (i) repetition (or in Groys’ terms; reproduction) always involves the production and accumulation of difference and, (ii) invention is always a part of repetition and can, in an immanent fashion, set forth a new line of repetition.

Tarde can, arguably, oppose Groys’ idea that mass culture’s infinite reproduction is a tautology, i.e. an infinite expansion of the present into the future-present. The only break with mass culture, following Groys, would be to stress the importance of transcendent-revolutionary acts positioning itself above art to change art. Tarde would claim that art is always already repetitative; instead of denying the force of art, Tarde would hereby ascribe art an immanent power of differing. Tarde would claim that – following Graham Harman’s sense of objects at this point – art, like fashion, like atoms can never be exhausted in their existence by anything external. To assume that mass culture is able to incorporate art in totu could be said to minimize what it tries to maxime, namely the force of invention. With Tarde the message would be that art has the force of always being different than itself – ‘itself’ here meaning the (relational) existence it has at a certain moment in time. Mass culture is, hereby, being deprived of its totalizing power and art granted the force it irretrievably has.


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