By JONATHAN CRARY
I’m going to begin with an observation that I believe would have been of particular interest for the person whose work brings us together today. Some of you from Columbia know that we are not gathered here in a generic classroom building on a North American university campus but at a site of enormous and oppressive historical significance. When you walked through the main entrance, you likely didn’t notice a tarnished metal plaque on the wall that officially designates this place as a Registered National Historic Landmark, but gives no details as to why. For three years from 1939 to 1941, several floors below where we are now sitting, crucial research on nuclear fission by a team led by Enrico Fermi constituted the scientific foundations of the Manhattan Project, culminating in the making and use of the first atomic weapons.
I want to use the coincidence of this conference with the site of the Manhattan Project to recall what for me is one of John Berger most piercing essays —- one he wrote in the spring of 2002, titled “War Against Terrorism or a Terrorist War?” In it he juxtaposes the aerial bombings by the US of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the airliner attacks on September 11, 2001 and poses to his reader the question of what actions merit being designated as terrorism. It was courageously written during a fearful time when there was a broad intolerance, even an effective prohibition, on any attempts to understand the Sept 11 attacks in a historical context.
I point to this essay for the way it foregrounds two themes that run through much of his later writing, beginning in the 1990s: 1) the massive erasures and disablings of historical memory, and 2) the parallel corruption and falsification of language and public forms of communication. For Berger, the mendacity with which language is used by institutional power is hardly something recent, as he quotes from President Truman’s message to the American people after the destruction of Hiroshima, when he announced that a new kind of bomb “had been dropped on a Japanese army base.” And he cites the grotesque insistence of General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, that “radiation poisoning was a painless, even a very pleasant way to die.”
But Berger also directs his anger at the lying and hypocrisy that permeated
the aftermath of September 11 in this country. He points to a widely circulated document signed by 60 US academics and intellectuals in February 2002 titled Why We’re Fighting: A Letter from America. With citations from Saint Augustine and claims to be defending the innocent against evil, the letter was in fact a chilling endorsement of Operation Enduring Freedom, in which tens of thousands of Afghan civilians died from massive US bombings in the last months of 2001 and the beginning of 2002 (not to mention the much larger death toll over the following decade). Berger’s characterization of these “just war” advocates might be the most scathing piece of writing that I’ve read by him. The only reason I’m not naming some of the notables who signed the letter is because Berger chose not to. For they are merely one manifestation of a much wider capitulation to an agenda of American exceptionalism. In 1945 and 2002, the cynical and opportunistic misuse of both language and history for Berger was directly complicit in the perpetuation of violence on a mass scale, in which non-Western peoples are destroyed without remorse and the identity of the victims is irrelevant to the perpetrators or to American consumers of dominant media outlets. And as most of us here know, it’s a question of violence and terror effectively continuous with the horrific US bombings of civilian targets now ongoing in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.
I mentioned a moment ago several themes that run through Berger’s writing of the 1990s and into the new century. Some of this work can be found in the extraordinary collections Hold Everything Dear and The Shape of a Pocket .
What drives many of these essays is less a response to the collapse of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall than it is an understanding of the emergence and spread of a new, more virulent form of global capitalism. Berger concurs with the overview of the Zapatista leader Marcos that the end of the Cold War is the start of the 4th World War, meaning a struggle between a reconfigured field of global agents for markets and resources amid which the logic of financialization is extended to all aspects of life. One of Berger’s key essays here is Against the Great Defeat of the World from 1997 with its extraordinary recuperation of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. And through this painting, he sketches a map of our shattered present: concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the collapsing of distinctions between the billionaire class and global crime networks, systemic violence that produces the uprooting, the forced migration and the homelessness of vast populations. He shows how neoliberalism is facilitated by the degradation of language, the rise of technologies dedicated to misinformation, the crisis of work and of the expropriation of the senses. In a text about Pasolini he writes: “It is not only animal and plant species which are being destroyed or made extinct today but also set after set of our human priorities. These are systematically sprayed not with pesticides but with “ethicides,” agents that kill ethics and therefore any notion of history and justice….. And the ethicides are sprayed day and night by the mass news media.”
I see Berger’s post-1990 writing and activism as a vibrant refutation of the label left-melancholy, which came out of academic circles in the 90s. Using Freudian terminology, the left-melancholy analysis pathologized anyone committed to socialism or revolution as backward looking, paralyzed by loss, and self-punishing. It’s hard to think of another writer on the left in recent decades who is less nostalgic, who deploys the words hope and future so insistently, and who so consistently refuses a diminished agenda of local actions, legislative reforms, and single issue politics as the limit of the possible. Obviously there is memory and fidelity to the struggles and defeats of the past, whether of Che Guevara, Allende, the Black Panthers, the Sandinistas, or the ongoing strivings and setbacks of the Palestinians and many others. But from a longue durée vantage point, he insists that “The whole of history is about hopes being sustained, lost and renewed.”
When asked in 2005 if he is still a Marxist, his unapologetic reply is the following:
“Never before has the devastation caused by the pursuit of profit, as defined by capitalism, been more extensive than it is today.…..how then is it possible not to heed Marx who prophesied and analyzed the devastation?” He was acutely aware of the unbearable levels of despair and immiseration among the global poor and in one essay after another he evokes the poor’s long history of survival and resistance to shifting regimes of domination and dispossession. The question he continues to pose for all of us: How to sustain or restore the social fabric that capitalism fragments or destroys? Survival, he shows, is aided by forms of local culture in which patterns of sharing and mutual support still persist. But he saw clearly how forced urbanization and rapacious resource extraction were destroying local and indigenous culture around the planet. And he persistently honored the ingenuity of survivors and outcasts and their sheer endurance amid desolation, deprivation and war.
Unlike many others after 1991, he continued to insist that the dominant antagonism of our time is still one of class, even if different terminology is used. He pointedly retains the image of a wall to refute the triumphalist inanities that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thirteen years ago, in 2004, he wrote: “The essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls. Concrete, bureaucratic, surveillance, security, racist walls. Everywhere the walls separate the desperate poor from those who hope to stay relatively rich. The walls cross every sphere from crop cultivation to health care. They exist in the most affluent metropolises of the world. The Wall is the front line of what, long ago, was called Class War. On the one side: every armament conceivable, the dream of no body bag wars, the media, plenty, hygiene, many passwords to glamour. On the other, stones, short supplies, feuds, rampant illness, an acceptance of death and an ongoing preoccupation with surviving one more night—perhaps one more week—together. The choice of meaning in the world today is here between the two sides of the wall. The wall is also inside each one of us. Whatever our circumstances, we can choose within ourselves which side of the wall we are attuned to.” Parenthetically, it should be noted that the preceding citation is from an essay on the paintings of Francis Bacon.
One can imagine what must have been Berger’s impatience or irritation with post-modern notions of a borderless rhizomatic global surface of flows and seamless circuits that somehow had leveled established hierarchies and redistributed power to the multitude. The wall, for him, is a figure for the increasingly harsh forms of exclusion and segregation being imposed across the planet, along with more predatory and lethal forms of repression and neglect. Perhaps most important is Berger’s refusal of the enforced invisibility of the immense global underclass, its desperation, and its hopes.
I want to make a few remarks about his affirmation of the continuing importance of Marxism. Berger’s own work was never an application of Marxist theory. Rather, his own experiences and intuitions found confirmation in Marx and others writing in a Marxist tradition. One repeatedly encounters the consonance between Berger’s thinking and crucial sections in the German Ideology and the 1844 Manuscripts. Some of the core ideas of his art writing reverberate with Marx on the estrangement of the human senses under capitalism. For both Marx and Berger, the omnipresent actuality of private property is inseparable from the impoverishment of perception. Looking becomes entangled with ownership, vision becomes the corroboration of possession and having, or looking becomes what incites envy and the bitterness of not having. One of Marx’s conclusions here was: “The transcendence of private property is therefore the emancipation of all human senses.” We can affiliate this with Berger’s declaration that “There is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property…” and he continues with an echo of Blake—-“property must be destroyed before imagination can develop any further.” But for Berger perhaps the worst consequence of the reduction of art to commodity status is that “it eliminates art as a potential model of freedom”
Especially for art after 1850, he shows how social and economic realities make it inevitable that every serious artist comes to be understood in terms of both successes and failures. His remarkable analyses of individual artists detail the difficulty of working and creating between a zone of autonomy on one hand and the often crushing constraints of systemic pressures and inducements on the other. He judges artists on their relation to the shared, lived reality of the world. Either their work points toward a revelatory engagement of this reality or it is an evasion or indifference to it. In his book Permanent Red he poses this challenging formulation: “Imagination is the capacity to disclose that which exists” Like the German artist and writer Peter Weiss, Berger believed in the capacity for resistance that can be rooted in art and in other material forms of human labor. He worked from the premise that some art works are embedded with latent creative powers which, under certain circumstances, can be transformed into living energies. And he demonstrated how the meaning and force of art works from the past could be recovered and rechanneled into the exigencies of the present.
I’ll conclude with one of the many instances in which Berger reclaims a work from the past for its value as an opening onto the chaos of our own time. The essay in question was written on the occasion of the bicentenary Gericault exhibition in 1991. But instead of commenting on the art displayed in the halls of the Grand Palais, he addresses an image reproduced on the poster advertising the exhibition which he saw plastered all over the streets and subways of Paris. The painting on the poster was one of the so-called Portraits of the Insane, specifically the one often identified as the Kleptomaniac, though Berger refers to him the “Man with Tousled Hair.” His essay bypasses all the art-historical, medical, psychological, socio-historical speculation about the work in order to pinpoint what is crucial for him about the painting: it is simply the empathy and pity with which Gericault has looked so hard and long at a damaged human being, crushed by burdens we will never learn, and whose links to a world of shared experience and communication have been broken. Whether we deem him mad or not, we are faced, in our own time,
with far vaster numbers of broken and bereft individuals to whom the world is largely indifferent. Berger here turns to Simone Weil for her avowal that the one of hardest tasks we face is the recognition of affliction, the recognition that the sufferer exists. This is what she calls the highest form of attention. For Berger, what Gericault’s portrait retains for us in the present is simply a trace of the fragile human faculty of compassion. “Compassion,” he writes, “has no place in the natural order of the world which operates on the basis of necessity….compassion opposes this order and is therefore best thought of as being in some way supernatural.”
Typically, his conclusion is charged with threads of hope: “The poster looked down on Paris as might a ghost. Not the ghost of the man with tousled hair, nor Gericault’s, but the ghost of a special form of attention, which for two centuries had been marginalized but which every day now was becoming less obsolete.”
Jonathan Crary, who teaches in the Department of Art History at Columbia, has written extensively on contemporary art and culture for publications including Art in America, Artforum, October, Assemblage, Cahiers du cinéma, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde diplomatique, Politis, Film Comment, GreyRoom, Domus, Adbusters, Village Voice, and Texte zur Kunst. In 1986 he was one of the founders (and continues to be co-editor) of Zone Books, a press now internationally noted for its publications in intellectual history, art theory, politics, anthropology and philosophy, including texts by Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, Georges Bataille, Caroline Bynum, and many others. He is the author of Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (1990) and Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture, the winner of the 2001 Lionel Trilling Book Award. His recent book 24/7 examines the fate of human perception within the operations of global information and communication networks.