24 02 2009


Let’s begin with Paul Rabinow’s 1992 essay, “Artificiality and Enlightenment: From Sociobiology to Biosociality.” Written in a climate of unreflective and unselfconscious enthusiasm for the emerging human genome project, Rabinow – writing perhaps with a mild sense of irony – sought, as he put it, to “sketch some of the ways in which […] the two poles of the body and population are being rearticulated into what could be called a post-disciplinary rationality.” By postdisciplinary, he notes, he does not mean “post-modern.” What he does mean is that, to paraphrase, “in the future, the new genetics […] will become […] a circulation network through which a truly new type of autoproduction will emerge, which I call ‘biosociality.’ If sociobiology is culture constructed on the basis of a metaphor of nature, then in biosociality, nature will be modeled on culture understood as practice. Nature will be known and remade through technique and will finally become artificial, just as culture becomes natural” (Rabinow, 1992) – a heady prognostication, even for an era unabashedly full of promise.

This paper seeks neither to endorse nor dispute Rabinow’s many claims, but rather to expand upon his predictions – to examine what Rabinow left unmentioned, namely the aesthetic debts incurred by this epochal transformation. After all, what could be meant by “nature modeled on culture understood as practice” except aesthetics vis-à-vis politics? As Rabinow points out, the dissolution of the traditional modernist dichotomy between the natural and the social is not the apathetic postmodernism of vapid pastiche, but an entirely new understanding of humans in correspondence with the things they make (and this only if we wish to remain resolutely humanist). Proceeding in provisional fashion, then, this paper seeks to point out by means of three examples, sites for discerning emerging biosocial aesthetic practices built into the shells of modernity: the museum, the stadium, the art gallery. In particular, I will focus on the experience of kitsch – the mass cultural rehashing of nebulous sentimentality, the manufactured trace of fellowship in repetition, or, as Clement Greenberg postulated, the realm of “vicarious experience and faked sensations” (Greenberg, 1939). This experience is of utmost importance regardless of whether Rabinow’s estimate remains accurate; for If Rabinow’s title is to be taken seriously, what’s at stake is one of the most characteristic tensions of modern axiology –the distinction between art, nature and meaning on the one hand; and manufacture, artificiality, and kitsch on the other.

By kitsch, I mean here not simply the notion of art which is overly sentimental, though it could be that, too. As Hal Foster remarks, “the word ‘kitsch’ comes from the German verkitschen, ‘to make cheap’, and an elitist concern about debasement pervades most accounts of the subject.” He goes on to note that kitsch “begins with art but hardly ends there” (Foster, 2005).

One might think here of the Frankfurt school conception of kitsch, by which kitsch is the opposite of art: it is cultural production suffused with false value; a canned simulation of real thought or feeling – or, to put it more bluntly, kitsch is art that is divorced from nature. Among the many dichotomies of modernity this is one of the more persistent: the split between nature, art and science on the one side – symbolizing a sort of “high” culture of beauty and value, and cultural production predicated on the vagaries of the market, or “low” culture on the other. Art, in this formulation, is not learnable, taught, or quantifiable, but comes at a remove from the demands of capitalism. In contrast, as Clement Greenberg points out, academicism, mass culture, etc. is all the realm of kitsch – it is that aesthetic realm that can be quantified, classified, known and consumed. Milan Kundera memorably wrote that “kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch” (Kundera; 2004).

One can see this same twinned combination of feelings in works which attempt to reorient Rabinow’s “post-disciplinary” humans in their new sphere. The point here is that, as genetics condenses as a mass culture, we will have to deal with, if not a collapse, then an aesthetic fragmentation of still closely held distinctions between science, life and art on the one side, and consumption, kitsch and mass production on the other.

Ah, you say – so isn’t this simply the old debate over vitalism versus mechanism, rehashed within a new medium (but carrying no new message)? No! This is not what I’m saying at all. For writers like Foucault , Deluze and Guttari, the unitary human body is the ultimate subject of social science, and the foundation of modernity. Although since at least the 1500s if not before, the realm of art has held this line, it’s recently become increasingly impossible to ignore that biology has seized the body back from art (from, for instance, the heroic excesses of Cellini, or Rubens, or even the more recent sensual registers of a Willem deKooning or a Cecily Brown – and here, think of deKooning’s retort to the formalist criticisms of Greenberg: oil paint is a medium designed to paint humans, so whence the value of absolute abstraction? Greenberg had no reply).

In this sense, one might look with profit at the science museum as one possible site to examine the aesthetic forms hypothesized by a new vision of subjectivity. This trend can be found at work elsewhere, however here I’d like to consider specifically the Hall of Ocean life in New York’s American Museum of Natural History. The room is a gargantuan space dating from the early twentieth century – a simile for the restless oceanic energies which confounded Goethe’s Faust, though its contents represent those energies re-channeled in a testimony to the power of the museum to encapsulate all of nature. Redesigned in 2003, in the Hall of Ocean Life a procession of technologies transport visitors through the manifold scales and limits of oceanic vitality: computer controlled bioluminescent fishes and microbes winkle along the walls, acrylic glaciers demonstrate life in frigid arctic waters; an eerie, undulating ultramarine glow suffuses the space, insinuating submarine depths; a bodacious, ninety four foot long fiberglass blue whale hangs in the middle of the gallery, dwarfing museum-goers and standing as contrapuntal witness to the vastness of the sea itself. Visitors circulate around a catwalk and down stairs into the yawning well of the gallery, pausing before 3-D cladograms depicting the relationships of things in the sea to themselves, or pushing buttons to send haunting, mournful strains of whale song echoing against the distant walls of the gallery.

On the one hand, then, this is simply the museum as usual – an extension of the nineteenth century dictum, voiced by one of the American Museum’s early presidents, Morris Jesup, that “the foundation of public science is pure science.” Notice here the innate fear of kitsch’s taint on the museum’s mission to educate the turn of the century public in the worth of science (and of the industrial capitalism which underwrote the museum). This precarious situation is rescued only by the proximity of “pure science” to “public science.” Thus the museum’s displays were shadows in the platonic cave of science, but they depicted the real thing, nevertheless. In 2007, septuagenarian diorama still line the walls of the Hall of Ocean Life, reminders of a time when museum visitors stood on the outside peering in at the natural world.

But, at least in its current design, this division has receded, the fear of kitsch abated, and in its place the hall is defined less as a grand, Beaux-Arts gallery for showing off the museum’s collection of sea life, and more (in the curator’s own words) as a “virtual ocean”: a full immersion environment intended to offer up the wonders of the sea as though viewers were themselves floating in the deep. The inclusion of a the giant whale centerpiece (added in 1969, in time for the first “Earth Day”) is a clue to this redefinition: just as the AMNH website avers that the sculptor of the museum’s antique glass protozoa had used “his enormous skill to reveal what we cannot observe on our own,” the hall of ocean life presents wildly shifting scales to deep sea explorers in street clothes. They are in the sea, they are witness to the origins of life, they are one with the narrative of biology. By dint of the architecture of the room – the brobdingnagian whale model, the slender catwalk surrounding a looming lacuna, the tiniest organisms in the sea glittering from recesses in the gallery walls – the hall forces viewers to confront their own presence in the room, their own conceptions of their biological bodies, even as the room offers surreal “new vistas” courtesy of the tireless work of science. Perhaps counter intuitively, considering the gallery’s outlandish maximalism, it nevertheless recalls a trope of 1960s minimalist art, in which “viewers were encouraged to appreciate their own existence as real presences in the real space of the gallery” (Roberts, forthcoming). No longer are viewers in a room, looking at diorama; they are in the diorama, looking at themselves. A plastic Xanadu of biological ur-reality, the virtual ocean presents seekers of truth in tennis shoes with the crushing depths of the sea and with the minute metabolisms of protozoa, even as they are encouraged to feel themselves at one with a globally connected network of life. This virtual ocean isn’t simply a rehearsal of old standbys; it’s kitsch of the avant-garde, kitsch at the limits of life. The “vicarious experience and faked sensations,” of Clement Greenberg’s kitsch become, in the virtual ocean, an introduction to an immersive consciousness not simply of the sea, but of emerging biosocial orders – shared experiences of biological and cultural subjectivity.

Or take as another example the sports arena. In Cremaster 1, a video/performance piece by American artist Matthew Barney from 1996, a stadium in the American Midwest stands both as a locus for mass culture spectatorship as well as for the sacred, hidden acts of cell metabolism. In this film, a lead character guides two blimps across a football arena as members of a musical revue dance intricate patterns across the surface of the arena. Simultaneously, within the gondolas of each of the blimps, the same lead character hides beneath a table (or, rather, both tables at once), arranging clusters of grapes in patterns signifying mitosis, meiosis and sexual differentiation, which the dancers outside emulate. The cell processes depicted in the movie are non-specific. The two blimps signify gonads; the shapes made by the dancers and grapes echo simultaneously cell walls and stadium walls, dumbbells and splitting cells; athletes facing-off and protein synthesis. The showgirls are, of course, to be interpreted as camp; they are representatives of a long dead art form, newly resuscitated to play the ghost of itself. At the same time, the extravagant review – dozens of dancers moving in perfect coordination – reminds us of its roots in an aesthetic of industrial efficiency and regimentation. Seventy years ago, the musical revue as practiced by luminaries such as Busby Berkeley was a fantasy of industrial efficiency – a society ultimately ordered and in (gender, racial, class) harmony. In 1996, the revue reappears to speak to the emerging promise of which Rabinow spoke – an ordered, harmonious relationship with biological destiny. It should also be mentioned that Cremaster 1’s use of then-advanced (and expensive) computer generated imaging technology to animate the grapes as they bounce, fall, and roll into their appropriate places is reflective also of the allegorical form that information processing technologies come to play in the biosocial society. That is to say, the video piece brings into line two new emerging metaphors for being human – that of information processing and DNA as code. The point is thus not to speak specifically about cell function, but, as with the virtual ocean, to speak to a state in which the functioning of industrial life and industrial society are not simply metaphorical, but understood as reciprocals of one another. The society of the spectacle, the society of surveillance, is also the society of the cell – a symphonic shift with significance for mapping out relative regimes of aesthetic value in any prospective biosociality.

It bears mentioning also that Barney’s isn’t the first fusion of sport, life and factory to be featured in film. In 1971, Nobel laureate Paul Berg introduced a short entitled “Protein Synthesis: an Epic on the Cellular Level.” In this film – a “molecular happening,” as Berg states in the introduction, students symbolizing molecules and cell structures assembled on a field at Stanford university to enact “symbolically, yet in a dynamic and joyful way, one of nature’s fundamental processes.” Narrated in rhyming couplets patterned off of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” and set to the tune of the psychedelic “Protein Jive Sutra,” dancers labeled with balloons (think again of the bubbles and grapes in Barney’s movies) move through tumbling clumps of bodies symbolizing ribosomes, and come together to create a protein chain. The feel is different from Cremaster 1’s carefully stylized, mannered portrayal of cell processes, and indeed, Cremaster 1 might well portray a more elitist view of the workings of life as understood in biosociety, but the general sense is the same: not only can humans come to identify with themselves as a function of their biological processes; they can identify with each other – we can become lay-performers and spectators of each other’s own biological destinies. Again, one might simply argue that this is a stylistic ploy – a fundamentally serious discussion leavened with camp, but one which ultimately preserves art against kitsch. But I would disagree: the serious discussion is precisely going on in the attempted fusion of two aesthetic orders. While Barney’s work is still considered to be immovably “art” (even if it is, grotesque and tiresome as critics have suggested), and Berg’s is immovably “science,” the cognition of each is nevertheless metabolized on the level of a sort of life-kitsch.

There are many more threads to be sorted out, of course. The compression between factory and studio, for instance, is nothing new, but must be mentioned briefly. Warhol’s famous “factory” is, of course, the archetypical commentary on the space of late modern artmaking as part of a “scene,” dissolving the ability of the work of art to contain the subjectivity of the individual artist. Rather than being the first shot fired in the end of art, Warhol was simply commenting on a process already in motion. But, of course, Warhol still operated in the modernist mode, simply declaring it devoid of meaning. He produced objects, but ostensibly without the traditional weight – the Benjaminian aura – of the work of art. Since then, Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has gone a step further, first making a machine to simulate digestion within the confines of an art gallery – and selling its shit as art – and next, investigating the possibility of creating a corporation to modulate both the manufacture of more machines, and, on an industrial scale, shit.

On the one hand, this might seem to be another example of biosocial kitsch. This time, literal artistic shit is smuggled in under the guise of commentary on the somatic self in the age global corporation. The body is, after all, here depicted as a machine; biological processes are tamed and incorporated; artistic subjectivity is at a step removed from the machine. But let’s be careful – for although this might seem to be a fecund site for biosocial kitsch, what we’re seeing here isn’t the incorporated life of Berg, Barney, or the Hall of Ocean Life: rather, it’s a curiously 19th century vision of what a living creature is. It says little about science and little about art. The point here is that we must be careful not simply to see the emulation of living things as heeling our definitions, but rather, to attend carefully to the particular equivalences and delineations drawn from budding forms of expression. It is no coincidence that Rabinow was inspired by the fact that leftover biomass from the production of soy sauce is used in Polymerase Chain Reaction.

After eighty years of hand-wringing over the relative values of art and society, it is thus perhaps fitting that the resurgence kitsch comes smuggled in on the back of life itself. As Hal Foster notes, “the heart of kitsch, according to Kundera, is the ‘idiotic tautology’ ‘Long live life!” (Foster, 2005).

Only now, the equation is reversed, and life instead is forced to cry, “long live kitsch!” While art, in the sense envisioned by Adorno, could resist the mass culture of machine production, and even the media culture of information production, it buckles under the pressure of life. Artists struggle to acknowledge the ascendancy of biology and preserve the sacred space of the gallery in one in the same gesture. (Witness the aesthetic futility of Ross Bleckner and Alexis Rockman, the total vacuousness, the de-facto retreat to kitsch present even in these protectors of the sanctity of gallery space.) But there is substance also to be found in the flailing of the adrift; or at least in the turbulence generated thereby, and I’d suggest that meaning can be found in this kitsch – indeed, life is the meaning of kitsch. The story is ultimately incomplete, and this is not the place to prognosticate. The act of looking for the real in the manufactured, looking to overcome inauthenticity not in the transcendental realm of art or theology — or even science — but in the banal realm of industrial practice is nothing new. Leon de Laborde in 1856 wrote of the need to reconcile the old values of art and those of new industrial production techniques (Rabinbach; 1990). But here, I contend, we are on shakier ground. The connections between kitsch and totalitarian government are well known, so it is an aesthetic practice best attended to carefully. I can’t comment here on what biosocial kitsch then portends, only to urge more work in a field which, I can only anticipate will come to have ever-greater importance.


Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Partisan Review. 6, 1939. pp. 34-49 (1939); reprinted in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. John O’Brian ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1988. pp 5 -22.

Hal Foster. “Yellow Ribbons.” London Review of Books. July 7, 2005.

Milan Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: HarperCollins. 2004 [1984].

Paul Rabinow. “Artificiality and Enlightenment: From Sociobiology to Biosociality.” In Incorporations. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, eds. New York, NY: Bradbury Tamblyn and Boorne Ltd., distributed by MIT Press, 1992. pp. 234-252.

Anson Rabinbach. The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity. New York, Basic Books. 1990.

Jennifer Roberts, “Art Into Life: 1960-1980” (forthcoming).




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