“We don't feel fragile, but maybe tomorrow...”
In conversation with Claire Denis, Okwui Enwezor and Sarah Rifky
PDF, 10 pages
Kerstin Stakemeier: I would love to start by taking up what Claire was saying about the figure of the intruder and about intrusion and asking how you, Okwui and Sarah would respond to that, how you would reflect it back on to both of your contributions.
Okwui Enwezor: I think the encapsulation of this discussion in terms of the relationship between the intruder and hospitality is so perfect and apt because it is only in that context that the question of an unsettling disturbance arises. I think that intrusion has a force to it – a force that also provokes recognition and I think it is in that space of recognition that the debates about fragility can really happen. And I am very grateful that you brought this up, Claire. Of course, in my text there is a longer passage about Derrida, about hospitality, which relates precisely to this. I want to briefly speak about this text and how it came to inform the project I had undertaken, because when I was invited by the French Ministry of Culture and the subsidiary parastatal called Delegation aux Arts plastiques to take on the Paris Triennale, my brief was to create an exhibition about the French artistic scene. And I thought I might be the most unqualified person to take on such an exhibition, because that was in itself an invitation of exploration, of incursion, of really travelling to out-France and find native artists and so on. But I thought at the same time that this was a very productive, interesting invitation in the sense of how one might engage with that invitation. Not out of the naiveté to come and discover French artists but really to locate the very disturbance inside this invitation to come and undertake this project. That was the beginning of my thinking, because reading that incident about pork soup in the New York Times
I thought: “Well this is a perfect invitation to really explore what that meant.” I wanted thus to begin not by looking at the French art scene but to locate the project within a French, a European, culture debate. And I thought that the figure of the ethnographer was really very important, because of the immense innovation that French ethnography in the first half of the 20th century brought to these debates: from Marcel Mauss’s idea of the gift, to Michel Leiris, Marcel Griaule and the group around Documents – if you look at some of the very first editions of Documents from 1929 onwards, you’ll see what I mean. And I was immediately struck by what Marcel Mauss speaks about in his essay The Gift – the “inalienability” of the concept of a gift. And that was really the principle. I wanted to engage in this dimension of inalienability and how one might organize an exhibition thinking about this. The second context was discovering Wifredo Lam’s series of drawings, which he had made from the beginning of early 1940–41 before he became part of this group of intellectuals and ordinary people who got on the boat Capitaine-Paul-La-Mer in Marseille.
He had started making these drawings entitled Carnets de Marseilles, a series of drawings in a notebook, which he then continued on the boat that travelled via Africa on its way to the Caribbean and to the internment of the group in Martinique. Of course you have read all of this in Tristes Tropiques, but Wifredo Lam was not in any way mentioned in Lévi-Strauss’s account – it was only Victor Serge, Andre Breton and a bunch of other people who ended up in the book. So I was trying to use this artistic project to reconcile some of these elements. For me most exhibitions begin with long-term reading projects, before I come to the basis of what the exhibition could be. So this was really very important.
Sarah Rifky: I was trying to find parallels to both of your talks about the premises of hospitality and hostility in relation to Claire’s discussion of the implantation of a heart as an intruding body in a very opposite sense. It made me think about some of the conversations I had about starting institutions in Cairo, with this driven intent to force something into becoming at a time and in a place where it’s hard to resist the current circumstances. It almost feels as though there is this opposite form, that these young agonistic institutionalizing bodies are also intruding hearts into a larger civic body that is very much rejecting these kinds of pulsating initiatives that are constantly forcing some semblance of a culture or an intellectual life into being, and possibly into being despite the given circumstances. It makes me think about what it means when the civic body in its larger conception actually almost rejects this cluster of pulsating hearts of institutions that are trying to force something into life within this body despite the fact that something else is at play. This is maybe the closest way in which I would be able to read this. Another aspect is that there is more a kind of hostility in relation to these institutions because hospitality exists elsewhere, it is displaced from the public eye in Egypt itself. So the celebration and invitation to accommodate and to foster and help nurture and to grow in and through these spaces is often located elsewhere – outside Egypt rather than inside. This very strange structural relationship makes me think about how to continue in the nurturing of these initiatives, of these attempts of making something to continue and pulsate which is misplaced within its own body.
Okwui Enwezor: One of the things that I have particularly been interested in and fascinated by is the range of ideas and the forms of institutionalisation that have emerged in this region over the last 15 or 20 years. When we think about Egypt today and the so-called Arab Spring, we are really also describing a fundamental struggle. That is, a struggle between the civic and the public – about how to think these two forms in a political context, in which there isn’t any public in that sense. So what we are witnessing is the manufacturing and production of civic spaces. But civic spaces in the absence of public spaces are spaces that you have to draw upon and in which you can create new possibilities for conversation, for discussion, for self-analysis. This for me is a very innovative development that has occurred in the region and which we should really pay strong attention to. It is proliferating all across the Arabic countries and manifests in very complex ways in relation to what is politically going on in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon ….
Claire Denis: … and in the Iran.
Okwui Enwezor: Exactly! So these civic embodiments are really very important. They require deeper engagement, also from us.
Kerstin Stakemeier: … this relates again to the concept of hospitality as a fundamental denaturalisation of that social proximity Okwui mentioned before, and to questioning the understanding of what “form” is, in how Sarah was speaking about processes of self-institutionalisation. I would love to bring this back to the individual: How to find structures of subjectivisation, which you can sustain within such a denaturalised proximity? When you, Claire, were talking about Jean-Luc Nancy, I was reminded of the beautiful text he wrote about Beau Travail, where he argues that Beau Travail demonstrates the possibility of an atheist art, because it uses religion as a form but uses this as a form beyond its social implications. I found this a very productive model – also in relation to what Sarah was saying about institutionalisation: to use a form which used to be naturalized within the idea of an indigenous society but is denaturalized and transposed in the search of a civic, but also in search of another subjectivization within this civic ….
Claire Denis: Yesterday on the plane reading the newspaper I was wondering if I would be able to speak about what is happening now – not in Egypt or in Syria or in Lebanon – but in the Central African Republic. On the occasion of the funeral of Nelson Mandela a discussion took place about how fragmented Africa today is. I think it is in fact not so fragmented at all, but, here it is the violence, which censors our perception of its civic life. Some newspaper wrote: “How can it be that there
is this funeral of this Great Madiba and so close by is a war in which Christians are brutally killing Muslim babies and Muslim women?” It is very difficult to oppose that and to contain it. In some newspapers it was even written that South Africa has got a higher level of civilisation than the Central African Republic. But this means nothing! It’s the violence of the discomfort of the civic and the public, which makes those measures fail.
Okwui Enwezor: I think it’s a very important question, because – what we see not only in the context of apartheid, but also in the context of the Central African Republic or even in the Arab Spring is a very strong politics of dissent. And this break between previously cohabiting communities is really a difficult question to organize societies around: If you look at the Central African Republic there are Christians fighting against Muslims, and up in the northern parts of Nigeria there are Muslims fighting against Christians. These are processes of deep entanglement, which are often not really taken on very clearly, mostly because Islam represents another dimension of social, cultural and ideological belonging, that is fundamental to the identity of Africa. Most people, however, don’t really know that there are more Muslims in Nigeria than there are in Egypt – or more Muslims in Nigeria than there are in Iran – a country of 180 million people where 50 percentage or more of the population is Muslim. And I want to raise this as a question also, because it is the overly simplified idea of the global, in which political discussions about insurrection and insurgency very often tend not to connect what happens in North Africa to West Africa, and even in North Africa the rest of Africa is not present. There is an ethical, political, historical and discursive blind spot that North Africa inhabits in relation to the rest of Africa. And this is a very fundamental point of critique! That is why these discussions are very difficult to ameliorate. So if you look at the entire Indian Ocean sweep of the Amani Coast to East Africa – Kenya, Tanzania and all the rest going down to Central African Republic – we are really looking at a struggle between two civilizational contexts: between the West and Islam. And so these proxy battles are unfolding in tiny corners of the world, where the opacity of global media networks makes it impossible to really connect this insurgency to what might be happening in Tunisia, in Mali, in Nigeria or in Morocco. So it’s a very important question to unfold, and it’s a question that many philosophers and social critiques are beginning to come to terms with.
Sarah Rifky: Obviously because of the current discourse in relation to the pushing out of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt the question of Islam penetrates almost all aspects of daily life, from thinking about language to constitution writing to cultural norms and so on. In his beautiful and much overlooked book Why are the Arabs not Free? Mustafa Safouan, who had studied with Jacques Lacan, makes a very simple argument, saying that the reason why we cannot overcome our systems by being a multitude of subjects and voices is because we are bound to what he understands as an almost dead language or a classical language at the core of society and the kind of displacement which is going along with this. The Koran is the supervising language in terms of linguistic, poetic marvelousness and magnificence, which somehow then renders this constant divide that is also a daily struggle that is reflected within the dealing of all people working within culture. This isn’t only the case for writers. It starts with the decision in what kind of language you subtitle a film – whether you subtitle it in classical Arabic or in the vernacular. This split is very present and this kind of split is also a linguistic one in terms of what renders this imaginary of the Arab world. We don’t speak one language. The difference of languages between Egypt, Tunisia and all the way to Morocco is almost as large as the differences between Italian and Spanish and their difference to languages without a Latin root for example. There are some initiatives by people to push a vernacular speech towards a language that is more common, like Egyptian Arabic, into linguistic discourse, and there are poets like Ahmed Fuad Negm, who just passed away very recently, who was iconic for his use of language. His language essentially put him in jail over and over again, because it was actually understood by most people.
It is interesting to see the current split between what is still present as a reification of classical language – even in how the constitution that is currently being rewritten for the referendum is being put down – and the expectations of the individual citizens to engage with this language when in fact this is impossible. But working within the cultural sphere – if you can call it that – you have three choices: you either work in a foreign language, or you work in a classical language and alienate most people, or you try to find new forms of articulation for a vernacular language, which does not yet exist in a mediated form – or you do a combination of all three. I think this being forced to articulate a new language – even in the most common things as in new popular forms of music and how it appropriates certain kinds of vernacular language – this is where change manifests itself. This is, I think, where these voices come into being and this is where – what you were saying, Kerstin, – where in terms of learning to speak or taking on a voice, this is where individuations arise. This is what for me becomes interesting in terms of seeing how this can transform and actually propose something else. It is this question of language and identity that comes back to mind when we are speaking about such issues.
Claire Denis: When I was a child, the colonial Europeans – Spanish, English, French, Portuguese – they would mostly rather trust a Muslim black person than a Christianised black person. They would feel that the Christianised black person would have accepted his/her Christianisation, but then this person could be cheating, could be lying. Whereas in the northern parts of Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Togo the Muslim people were so serious about their religion, that they could be trusted. Since then colonialisation has arrived at a point where being a Muslim no longer signifies your cultural singularity and now the enemy is perceived as coming from the extremist Muslims. When I was a child they were admired, they had a grand honneur, in the way they lived: “Yes, they have four wives, but have you seen the children? They have a style of their own – you can trust them! They have a sense of honour. Whereas those Christians, no! They are cheating us!” And it is this understanding of honour, which is now held up against them. When Afghanistan was invaded by Russia, America decided to use the Taliban, the Muslim force, against communism. So many people thought the only tool you could use against communism was Islam. And now?
Audience 1 What I found particularly interesting in your contribution, Sarah, was the question of how instability can lead to violence. In many intellectual traditions sovereignty is usually conceived of as a particularly violent mechanism that produces exclusion and that relation kind of upset my thinking in a quite productive way, namely that maybe the lack of reference, the total absence of reference, might in fact lead to violence as well? I would like to link this to the theme of sovereignty. It seems to me that sovereignty can only assert itself when it’s being questioned, because these are the only moments that it can assert its power to include or exclude. Could you elaborate firstly on this interesting point of how the absence of reference can lead to an increasing amount of violence and secondly: Do you think that any real contact is still possible in the absence of reference, where there seems to be no sovereign body to intrude upon or – when there is no host – that can offer hospitality? Can we be too fragile for real contact?
Okwui Enwezor: I don’t think I can answer your question fully, but I can try and speak in relation to some of the things you raised. This unstable situation in Egypt politically has two sides, right? On the one hand it constantly enforces a system that is trying to govern, to make excuses for the violence that is applied constantly, but at the same time it allows for one to find one’s own anchors in a place that is completely undefined. So the fact that there is no reference means that you have almost complete autonomy over who you are and how you seek a form to socially position yourself in, and formulate and articulate your practice and there is not a specific power to whom you are accountable, to whom you need to speak. So it actually gives – directly and indirectly – room for institutions to grow. I would also say that, particularly for me, being part of a small core of dispersed people attempting to set up an institution in this situation, is almost a new mini-wave of institutionalizations that is very much struggling with the essence of these questions. Because it is, in your sense, itself almost a kind of violence in itself to institutionalise these spaces where the civic body that exists in relation to those questions of sovereignty can thrive. I increasingly go back and forth on these questions in a state that is more or less starting to head into a kind of fascist military regime, but that right before looked as if it was being pulled into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. I feel these systems to me are interchangeable and the mechanisms are interchangeable and I think we share the same problem, not just in Egypt but all over the world. It’s a bit of a Catch-22. Usually the sovereign is recognizable – he has a head – but the thing is that in our contemporary reality, in economics as much as in politics, because these two are completely intertwined, it is a monster without a head that we are facing. So it is impossible to speak to a recognizable form, to the point where one might argue that capital itself is a thinking body, a body without a head, which makes it even scarier. So I think that one realizes day by day, that even in everyday practices to institute yourself without references means that you can create assemblages of autonomy but you’re actually never completely separate from the system that is trying to oppress you – be it through the channels of funding you are trying to access or through the economy or trying to fight. It is simply an ongoing negotiation of power. That in itself I think is the dirty work – you cannot fully institutionalize yourself in relation to that question.
Audience 1 I have a question to Claire. In the moment there is a lot of discussion in France about prostitution and the prohibition of prostitution. Punters are being punished and must pay a fine. But as you mentioned earlier in the relationship of Muslims and Christians there are many wars related to problems of religion. Maybe we rather need a discussion to forbid religion?
Okwui Enwezor: To be very honest: I was thinking about this when I told you that I was fragile myself, and that I was not sure of my identity. I was watching all of you, and I thought: There are not many of us in this room that could be really so fragile that they are in danger because of their identity – today, that is – maybe tomorrow one of us will be. So maybe I feel fragile, but it’s only a feeling. I am a French citizen. I have a passport, so in a way I am well-protected. The question whether you have to forbid prostitution is interesting. Why is there free prostitution in the woods, in the streets, with so much danger attached to it? Do we have to create sex laws like in Germany? Because no one wants to go forward, suddenly the law decides to arrest the clients, and decides for restriction. I agree with you: on this side of the problem the urgency is not so big. But thinking thoroughly about that, we will see that of course a lot of women coming from Africa with no money – women from the South of China, women from Albania –, when they have a fragile identity are pushed into prostitution as a way to survive. So I am not for laws with regard to prostitution, but it’s weird not to think about who brings those women with a dream of a better life into Europe as slaves. That’s all.
Kerstin Stakemeier: This confrontation, I think it’s interesting in relation to what Sarah said earlier about how far the individual depends on where he or she lives, whether civic or public. Or, if someone like those women is forced to be individually public. Which I find is one of the problems with the discussions about prostitution: That it’s not about the women, it’s not about the structure of how they are forced to have a life that is exposed as being publicly tabooed but also within civic society can hardly gain any visibility. In Germany the organizing of sex workers was aimed at publicizing exactly this situation. So maybe we can briefly tie this civic and public problem back to the question of the individual for a moment – does that make any sense to you?
Okwui Enwezor: Yeah of course – it makes a lot of sense. If I go back to the question that was posed to Sarah in relation to the idea of sovereignty, particularly in areas that one can call, not developing countries, but societies in transition – the question of sovereignty is fundamental. And that question is dominated by the state, the sovereign state, which reaches deeply into the very issue of individual or social agency. It is really only in this combination of sovereignty and agency that all the emancipatory instruments may become available – both on the wide scale and the limited scale – only from there can we really begin to think about what it means to be a contemporary person today. I think that is the key question that we face. Claire speaks about the fact that as a French citizen she feels protected and this is quiet clear, but that also rests on the state’s sovereignty – because in societies in transition the instruments are really quiet hybrid and unavailable to individuals on an everyday basis. Because the sovereign’s presence in such a feeble state is so overwhelming that new instruments of agency have to be found. And this is where I am particularly interested in the fragility of NGOism right now. Because we are really entering a post-humanitarian, a post NGO-sphere and this is where one aspect of agency ceases to exist. We are no longer in this sphere of ‘Toyota-Landcruiser-Humanitarianism.’ We are now in the framework of new civic structures that are called un-indigenous, they are really rising up in response – not to the dictates of the supranational institutions, such as the UN and so on, but as a response to the dominance of this idea of the sovereign state. And it is here where very important work is done, by writers, by artists, by thinkers, by curators, lately. If you, for example, think of this campaign that people from Fifty-Two Weeks have initiated over the last 10 weeks, you can begin to see that these instruments are really launching an attack on Gulf labour. The dehumanisation of workers in the Gulf region, because of excess – of oil wealth – because of the fact that you have lawless labour under the most severe circumstances you can think of has been exposed. So the fact that these civic structures are a response to, on the one hand, the intractability of the sovereign state, and on the other hand the fragility of the global accord, is a very interesting thing. I think this is also a response to the question: should we ban religion? I don’t think we should ban religion, I don’t think this is really the issue, but it is interesting in what way religiously fundamental structures are now starting to face new competition from civic structures. This is something we should be alert to and ask ourselves how can we participate, how can we involve our thinking and efforts in this new sense. That’s what really makes what’s going on in Egypt and the rest of the region at this point so fascinating.
Claire Denis: In Lebanon they really took over, they reconstruct, they became the civic organisation, the green cross, …
Sarah Rifky: When you, Claire, were saying how maybe today we don’t feel fragile, but maybe tomorrow we will, for me this is something that very frequently comes into focus and then blurs out again. It has been overwhelming to see how quickly in Syria the situation changed from a form of extreme violent uprising into this kind of humanitarian crisis and state of collapse. And I witnessed friends, filmmakers and artists, living in this precarious situation themselves, who in that moment would think that – like you and I do now – this doesn’t really happen to you. But then the next day it really does and you end up without a place, without rights, without sovereignty. So you have to relocate in relation to that and in relation to how other systems then respond to that. It made me feel that these state systems are so much more fragile than we make them out to be at first sight. At the same time if we look at Egypt, you realize that often what we project so much faith in is a hologram projection of what a state is: how it functions, all its bureaucracy and all its systems are quite simply extremely weak and it doesn’t materially exist. For example, we have always been considered a police state: you drive in the streets and there often are a lot of policemen visible everywhere. But then you increasingly realize, that this is only a mirror presentation of force, because in fact they have no force over controlling even petty crime on a day-to-day basis. So it appears as though you have this image of a police state but in fact it’s not, it’s something else. It is, in relation to what you were saying about changing fragilities, a strange transition from 2011 to 2013, because there is this sudden claiming of more and more responsibility, not just agency, because you realize that you are looking into this void of completely eaten-up structures that don’t really exist. So in fact the next best option is simply that you and a bunch of friends realize that there is nothing like a solid infrastructure in the sense that there is something to reclaim and fortify and work on but essentially you’re left with these very small independent, autonomous attempts at things which then informally provide alternatives of a structure. This way of seeing, this change of vision, this collective shift from this moment of a quasi-revolution in 2011 – that almost was but never is. When people were really trying to address the state structures, studying the ministries, studying the language, studying the apparatus and very quickly, within the span of the year, instead of trying to be structured and trying to do all this you begin to abandon all these futile efforts and you simply say: “All right – we are on our own, we’re starting our own institutions. Forget the state, forget the revolution, this is absolutely not for us and it’s not going to work.” This sort of shift in trajectory in which we install a certain faith in these more autonomous civic structures applies almost to all disciplines, it is not just related to alternative culture, but is also related to other, more official fields.
Claire Denis: Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, North of Africa, what we call in France “Le Basin Mediterranean” – “The Middle Orient” and Turkey –, was for us Europeans the richest bowl of culture, coming from all over the world where everything was cooking – writing, language, art.
It was like the oven of the occidental culture. I remember when Greece fell down in front of Europe, Jean-Luc Godard, as usually, said a funny thing. He said: “How come they owe Europe so much money when we owe Greece so much? We are indebted to Greece for all our culture, we should reimburse them.” This was a joke, but still, if you consider the Middle Orient the incubator of our culture – like Greece, like Turkey, all these countries around the Mediterranean connected with China and Africa – it is sad to realize that we, the barbarian Europeans, are watching all of those changes with a certain distance. We are describing the horrors via TV but are not really fundamentally feeling its relation to us. For me it is weird to think this is ‘us.’ When I thought Baghdad was erased from the map, while I flew to India the other day, and we were flying over Iraq I thought “this devastation, this was also us.” Maybe it’s a different culture, a different religion, but this is where we cooked our cultures. It is really terribly sad for me, and for all of us, and it will make us more and more fragile.
Kerstin Stakemeier (éd.), Susanne Witzgall (éd.)
PDF, 242 pages
What is the current state of the subject and what about the status of its self-image? In contemporary discourses we encounter more and more “fragile identities,” in artistic works as well as in scientific theories, and those are today much less referring to a critique of the concept of identity, but much rather to the relationship those concepts of identity entertain with the overall precarious state of the subject in current social conditions that are characterized by political upheaval and change.
The book Fragile Identities investigates among other things the chances and also the possible endangerments of such a fragile self and asks for the resurging urgency of a contemporary concept of subjectivity. The publication combines international artistic and scholarly contributions, discussions and project documentations in relation to the second annual theme of the cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.