On the Political as a Research Gesture / Shaul Setter

translated by: Margalit Rodgers

Following the anthology of articles “Visual Culture in Israel”

Walter Benjamin’s 1929 essay, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” begins as follows:

Intellectual currents can generate a sufficient head of water for the critic to install his power station on them. The necessary gradient, in the case of Surrealism, is produced by the difference in intellectual level between France and Germany. What sprang up in 1919 in France in a small circle of literati […] may have been a meagre stream, fed on the damp boredom of post-war Europe and the last trickle of French decadence. […] [However,] the German observer is not standing at the head of the stream. That is his opportunity. He is in the valley. He can gauge the energies of the movement. (Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings. Vo. 2, p. 207)

The German observer is, of course, Benjamin himself, who was still in Berlin in the late 1920s, far, in terms of time and place, from the wellspring of Surrealism in Paris. However, it is precisely his distance from the primary wellspring, being in the valley – the valley of the Weimar Republic’s parliamentary republic crisis – that enables him to conduct a political and aesthetic articulation of the Surrealist movement, stressing its critique of the concept of humanistic freedom, the primacy it accords to language over meaning, its exploration of unconscious creation in dreams, the decline of the concept of the discrete I in favor of an urban space with collective physical designs, its perception of revolution that is not based on historical teleology and technological progress, but rather on the intersection or explosion of historical times. In 1929 Benjamin proposes a last snapshot of the European intelligentsia, the final moment of liberal, humanistic, democratic European culture, the moment of its end – in revolution or catastrophe. Today we know it was the moment before catastrophe.

If the anthology of articles “Visual Culture in Israel” (edited by Sivan Rajuan Shtang and Noa Hazan, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Red Line Series, 2017) was created in “France”, that is to say, in the wellspring of academic research, while I have been staying in a kind of Germany of my own, in the Vale of Tears of art criticism, then I would suggest that this book proposes a last snapshot of the Israeli intelligentsia, a moment before catastrophe – we do not know what form it will take, when it will take place, and what will come in its wake, but its signs are already evident. The anthology before us is a kind of testimonial document on the intellectual path taken in recent years – the origins of which are in the critical theoretical studies formulated in the 1990s (the theory years), their substantiation and various embodiments in the 2000s (the research years), and its conclusion, in some respects, at this moment and in this book, which exists here as the unfolding of a research paradigm and a collection of its presentations, as well as a memorial monument to a past and concluded period.

The first pages of the book, the introduction by the editors, contain several lucid and accurate statements that touch upon the basic premises of visual culture research: the research arena is everything that is visible to the eye. The research subject is the mediation inherent in the act of looking, which is never transparent or neutral; mediation that encodes power relations, struggle for meaning, competing passions. The research practice is one of tracing and revealing: delaying the gaze, suspending the self-evident, observing the ostensibly objective order and exposing it as artificial and socially designed, and examining its hierarchical, differential, and oppressive organization. By the very emphasis placed on “mediation”, visual culture research is both linked to art research and separated from it: linked, for in art thought, too, the act of mediation and processing is what transforms the crude material into an artwork – mediation or Vermittlung as a creative act of according form, refinement and sophistication, elevating to a higher level, transforming into a processed human creation possessing meaning. Accordingly, art research also traces different ways of transforming the natural into the artificial. However, in mediation visual culture research is also separated from it: since mediation in visual culture is not done by the creating artist, an individual desire or a subjective artistic practice as an act of creating; it is done by society and culture, through ideology and within a particular discourse, in the “changing relations between power, knowledge, passion, and ideology” (p. 8). The title of the first section in the book fulfills this transition “between institutional representation (i.e., artistic, S.S.) and subversive performance (of visual culture, S.S.)”; while these are indeed the coordinates of the article by Liron Mor, and Yaara Gil-Glazer objects, in the name of visual culture, to “the expectation for me to be the propagandist of a pre-determined list of masterpieces, an agent of the art market, as well as an active participant in the historical commemoration enterprise of dead-white-artists who painted in oils on white canvas”, and so on and so forth, and we are highly familiar with this argument. But I wish to return to the question of mediation, and ask about the relationship between the two acts of mediation – artistic mediation and social mediation: is it necessary to revoke the first in order to pay attention to the second? What is the status of the creative force, which also negates nature and the natural, in a dialectic negation, processing its deflections, changing it, sublating it into something else, in visual culture thought? Is artistic mediation completely absent in social mediation, or can this very absence also take the form of dialectical negation, namely one that possesses a dimension of preservation, processing, transformation?

The mediation discussed in the book, the main ideological mediation system, is a state-national mediation. It is only natural: the title of the book, “Visual Culture in Israel”, already indicates this, as does the historical timeline with which it begins: “Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the task of inventing, producing, and disseminating the new Zionist visual art was under the responsibility and supervision of the state and its information institutions”, and goes on to speak of “critical visual research in Israel that exposes the national interests”, and “an examination of state visual mechanisms”. The articles in the book place the national system at the center: Ariella Azoulay, the Zionist Archives and 1948, Orly Lubin, the Israeli army, Noa Hazan, the National Museum, and Sivan Rajuan Shtang, the Zionist body and queer passion. It seems that Sivan formulates this structure most lucidly: the Zionist body as a community of desire whose unity and uniformity are located at its core embody a law that is fulfilled in the body as a moral imperative. And in contrast with its uniformity, she sketches the lines of the queer rebellion against it – deconstructed and deconstructing resistance by means of excess or irony, digression from the law in parodical poetic protest. The one, uniform, appropriating and total voice of the national ideology, and against it, a lawless body, a minor collective enunciation. And indeed, nationalism and the state, Zionism and Israel, are the most extensive and ramified systems tightly gripping our life. But has the political path of the national system remained as it was in the past, and is it one, uniform, and unifying today too? And does it entail the current principal ideological path in Israel? Invocations of other stories can be found in some places throughout the book. For instance in the article by Noa Hazan, when she presents Dipesh Chakrabarty’s research on museums in the era of late democracy, indicating a change in the 1960s: the transition to a non-conceptual, but rather an experiential and sensory political pedagogy, to a performative model based on mass communication, to a consumerist perception of democratic public space, and consequently in the museal space, to interactive, participatory, playful, entertaining, childish exhibits – think of the blockbuster exhibitions mounted in the various museums, such as Ai Weiwei at the Israel Museum – and thus, “museums that astutely updated the range of narratives and communities in their exhibits in accordance with the politics of identities and cultural diversity”, in Noa’s words (p. 59). And so, performativity, partnership and participation, relinquishment of cultural elitism, opening the artistic canon to representatives of disadvantaged communities – all these not only stand in contrast to the national ideology, as configurations of resistance to it, but rather as its current and contemporary incarnation. Today it is nationalism that is deconstructing and deconstructed, playful, ironic, and parodic – but no less brutal as a result. Netanyahu’s purple hair, Miri Regev’s Jerusalem gown, Donald Trump’s tweets – this is the national performance of our time (and therefore not unitary, prudent or serious; indeed far removed from Habima National Theatre or the JNF, symbols of classic national culture, as Sivan describes in her article, and actually closer to a display of the “national erection”, queer in its anomaly, in its distancing from the law). In other words, far-reaching changes are occurring in the political and visual configurations of nationalism – and it is to them that attention should now be paid. The Zionism of today is not based on the Mapai model, i.e., settler colonialism – with its appeal to the West, reliance on a humanistic ethical discourse, tormented souls and a cleansing of conscience, and its worship of law and culture; the enlightened occupation nationalism. That story is over. Therefore, today the oppositional power of deconstruction cannot be simply assumed – deconstruction into different gendered and ethnic identities as well – when the deconstruction itself takes part in the present ideology.

Deconstruction – dispersion into groups, decentralization of power – is part of a national ideology, or rather a current neo-nationalism linked to the neoliberal one, wherein the unitary community is deconstructed into small identity communities, each of which is opposed to the “unitary national story” (à la Mapai), and thus participate in the market, communities engaged in the presentation of the self, a self that will appear in visible space as a political power, but also as an economic power that can be traded, and especially sold to. Therefore, more thought should be given to the significance of the demand for a voice of your own, a portrait of your own, and the assumption that in and of themselves they “challenge the hegemonic Israeli perspective” (in the words of Tal Dekel, p. 477). Does today’s hegemonic perspective not actually demand cross-border visibility, absolute availability for the gaze, continuous self-appearance, reported and photographed – as part of the mode of operation of power and the form of response to it (in the “private” photograph on social media, or the national and imperial satellite photograph)? In other words, in the realm of “Visual Culture in Israel” – what of the ideological systems of the society of the spectacle (in which images have become a commodity, and social relations are mediated by images) that shape the space of the visible and convey the economic imperative to see and be seen?

This anthology of articles is political – from beginning to end, wholeheartedly and openly. Therein lies its strength, in that it links the very discipline of visual culture and a critical oppositional position. The adjective “political” appears in it numerous times. Ohad Zehavi, for example, discusses the photograph of Moshe Silman setting himself on fire during a demonstration in Tel Aviv, a photograph that is itself set on fire and goes up in flames, and views the act as “a secular act incarnate, political par excellence” (p. 165), “pure political enlightenment” (p. 170), and this in contrast with other interpretations that emasculate, according to him, the political in the name of the theological or messianic (including the undersigned). Or Avi Lubin, who in his discussion on the public appearances of Margalit Har-Shefi and Tali Fahima writes that their transformation into images (Margalit Har-Shefi’s braid, and Tali Fahima’s glasses) characterized and catalogued them, and thus limited their ability to “express themselves and act politically and publicly” (p. 259).

But is there a political – a familiar, ready, and fixed, pure and even exemplary political – that we can identify and to which it is clear that we are aspiring to, and in accordance with which we should act? Has the turn to the political not become a gesture, itself familiar and regulated, in cultural research, that the time has come to ponder its meaning? Is it not the “natural”, and in fact the imprinted (i.e., what has undergone naturalization), of the discipline whose artificiality should be exposed? I am not seeking here to return to the pre-political, to the aesthetic in its naïve meaning. But it seems to me that today the oppositional political should appear as a question, contemplation, even perplexity, more than a determination and demand. Is turning to god indubitably non-political (the turn of Muslim communities in Europe? Of ISIS?), whereas going on a demonstration is necessarily political (the one against corruption every Saturday night)? And is it clear what is the political space in this era – the space of action and change (is it possible, for instance, to distinguish between the political and the economic in the era of the media, in media capitalism wherein public space functions as a space for various forms of consumer boycotts?), and are not the political powers – the radical, the oppositional, those that shake the foundations of culture – in the hands of the extreme right today? Emerging from all this is that the political cannot be rehashed over and over – academicians going through the motions – like a magic word that will instantly open the gates of (secular!) salvation.

Finally, I wish to return to Benjamin: his essay on Surrealism can be viewed as one of the seminal writings of visual culture research, even before its establishment, avant la lettre (just as he himself writes in this essay about Saison en enfer [A Season in Hell] by Rimbaud as the first document of the Surrealist movement). This is because he understands Surrealism not as an artistic event within the domain of the aesthetic sphere (as many literature and art commentators of his time referred to this movement), but as a creative event that bursts forth from the artistic, a cultural, visual-political, and revolutionary event.

But he does so, (a) without discarding art, but quite the opposite, in terms of what takes place in it as an act of mediation and as a social action – to the extent of “a constantly renewed, primal upsurge of esoteric poetry” (Benjamin, p. 212); (b) without relying on the frameworks of ideological analysis of his time, but in an attempt to extract the new political concepts of the period from the creative work. The artistic work is what informs us on the contemporary social system, not the other way around: otherwise there is no point to it other than confirmation of what we already know; and (c) in a search, from the experience of the Surrealists, for a different, dissident, “dangerous”, concept of the revolutionary – “profane illumination”, “the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded’” – a concept that the Marxist orthodoxy of his time did not like, and which was certainly not pure or exemplary.

And all this while rejecting the moralism of the political discourse of his time, and on the basis of attachment to the image, the visual-historical image that bursts forth and disappears, appears in moments of danger. “To organize pessimism [the task of the revolutionary intelligentsia] means nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in political action a sphere reserved one hundred per cent for images” (Benjamin, p. 217).