By JC Holburn
As the invasion began in Ukraine and all manner of opinions gushed in, I kept wondering— “What would Boris Groys say?” I was reading his latest book, Philosophy of Care (Verso, 2022), which traces the history of care and biopolitics from Plato to Hegel, Heidegger, Bataille, Kojève, Bogdanov, and others. This book is a companion of sorts to Russian Cosmism (2018), a collection Groys edited, in whose introduction he observes that the collective loss of faith in a soul has led to a view of corporeal immortality as a last resort for an afterlife. Groys is an art critic, media theorist and philosopher. He is currently a Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University and Senior Research Fellow at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe, Germany. He is the author of In the Flow (2016) and The Total Art of Stalinism (1992), among other books.
JC Holburn: In Philosophy of Care, you make parallels between the art museum and the hospital, both of which have sublimated the function of the church. You note how care for the soul has been replaced by care for the body. The Bataille chapter implies that good health and public care can be perceived as decadent manifestations of excess and waste. You write: “The conflict between aggressive self-assertion and institutional care is the fundamental characteristic of this culture itself.” Is there a contradiction between self-care and self-assertion? Is self-care simply the right to sovereignty over one’s own body?
Boris Groys: Yes, so it is. I discover my body as a place of needs and desires. I cannot see myself from an outside position as a body in space and time. But only as seen from such an external position can I become an object of care by others—society, state, institutions, etc. That means that to be cared for I have to submit myself to the gaze of the others and their knowledge of my body and its functioning. Now self-care is insistence on my own needs and desires—against the objectification by medical science. Being alive and feeling oneself alive are two different things.
Holburn: In your chapter on Hegel, you write:
“The post-revolutionary fear of death is, therefore, not the same as the pre-revolutionary fear of God. The individual now knows death not as an external danger but as a work of its own freedom….Reason now coincides with the strategy of self-preservation. As a reasonable being, the post-revolutionary, post-historical being has been doomed to become a demobilized, domesticated being.”
Are self-preservation and domestication at odds with freedom and sovereignty? (I’m also thinking of this quote from the Bataille chapter: “Desire for sovereignty turns passive dying into active killing.”)
Groys: Yes, they are. Freedom presupposes readiness to risk your life to achieve or to defend it. In fact, people risk their life all the time. It is the meaning of alpinism, diving, drugs, or drinking. When one risks one’s life, one feels truly alive.
Holburn: Who, in modern times, would correspond to Kojeve’s archetype of the sage? And who would fit his profile of a working master tyrant?
Groys: We are governed by the state and corporate bureaucracies. They function as collective Kojevian Sages—trying to regulate the balance between production and consumption and, thus, to prevent the collapse of the whole.
Holburn: The desire for recognition is coupled with a desire to cultivate what you describe as a sort of surplus or symbolic body, in both an analog and digital afterlife, through books, paintings, and so on. Your final chapter discusses Bogdanov’s Proletkult, a manifestation of Marx’s de-professionalism of art. Extending from Georges Sorel, you write: “The revolution is truly revolutionary only when it opens an unforeseeable future. But the revolution is also not a result of the creative investment of additional energy but rather the decision not to support the existing order, not to care for it anymore.” We haven’t seen a successful revolution in a while. What we have seen is de-professionalization morphing into the art market under the banner of Outsider Art and platforms like Instagram, which allow people to self-exhibit. Do you see any future for a realizable Proletkult in the future?
Groys: All the current forms of self-presentation have a personal success as a goal. They all are made for the public. But art should not necessarily have any public. People can do art simply because they like the process of doing it. Proletkult was based on this principle. It gave people a chance to make art for their own pleasure—maybe also for their relatives and friends.
Holburn: Blockchain technology is supposedly a decentralized system attempting to “transcend” centralized governance…
Groys: This technology is practiced ultimately for money. And money reinscribes one into the existing system—independently of the way in which this money was obtained. Blockchain technology operates on a certain territory, consumes electric energy, etc. But in our world, the “no-man territory” does not exist; electric energy is accessible only if it is produced and made available on a territory that is always a state territory. All this talk about the transcending character of this or other technologies is an idle talk and ideological illusion.
Holburn: Yes, it’s important not to forget that without electricity the blockchain doesn’t exist. Blockchain technology is philosophically pitched as an “immutable” and “trustless” social ledger that cuts out a middle man, which is probably why it thrives in a culture of distrust. And yet, that’s not how it’s transpiring: art galleries glom existing third-party business models onto it: crypto art platforms take commission just as art galleries do. In a way, the blockchain is the next level in the museification of human history into a grand data archive.
Artistic movements of today have been assimilated into meme culture, into the realm of irony and amusement. Is there any potential in humor for transgression, any more than sex or violence?
Groys: It is a question if violence and sex are transgressive. But humor is in no way transgressive. The main principle of American culture is: Be funny! Or in other words: Be happy to lose and to capitulate! If one loses and capitulates, one is supposed to have a sense of humor enough to laugh about oneself.
Holburn: Point taken. NFTs are for entertainment, like trading cards or designer sneakers. Could an NFT ever be beautiful?
Groys: It seems to me that art already long ago rejected the ideal of beauty—and began to be concerned with other things.
Holburn: Do you still go to museums? When was the last time you felt moved by art?
Groys: I have not been in a museum for a long time because of the pandemic. And, of course, I never felt moved by art. But from time to time, I felt that I would like to comment on this or that artwork. One can be moved by a sunset or a mountain view—but not by art. On the other hand, it would be stupid to comment on a sunset.
Holburn: In In the Flow, you write that “Digital metadata creates an aura without an object.” You added elsewhere that the internet carries a promise not of immortality but of a “partial erasure between life and death.” If what creates value is the “drama of sacrifice”, do we lose the element of sacrifice in the digital space?
Groys: If we speak about the internet, there are sites that have millions of followers and then sites with only a few followers. To achieve followers, one has to sacrifice his or her time and energy to self-presentation on the net. The internet is based on the sacrifice of privacy.
Holburn: In Russian Cosmism, you write: “The achievement of immortality is the highest goal for every individual. For that reason, the individual will always remain faithful to society if society makes immortality its goal.” If we remove immortality as an option, what if anything could be a unifying principle for social cohesion?
Groys: In our society, cohesion is based on technology: we are living in the constructed buildings, using public transportation, using electricity, gas, etc. All that connects us. Today, it is difficult to live alone.
Holburn: In Care, you write: “Bogdanov’s analysis explains why in a ‘democratised’ society all the projects aimed at further democratization, horizontality, and plasticity lead nowhere.” What would Bogdanov have perceived as a flexible ideology today? Do you think that democratic systems will ultimately fail?
Groys: Democracy is a vague notion. If we speak about a horizontal system then, for example, the internet is one: no censorship, equal access to the medium, low cost for an individual user. But there are sites with many millions of followers and sites with a couple of dozens of followers. Now let us introduce further equality to the internet and decide that everybody has a right only to a couple of dozens of followers. Will we be satisfied with the decision? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Holburn: I was revisiting The Total Art of Stalinism. Can we believe there is an avant-garde at large in the world today, albeit a highly splintered one? And if so, should we be wary of sharing the Soviet Russian avant-garde’s aspirations to become social magi and technologists of desire?
Groys: No, I do not believe that today the avant-garde is possible. The historic avant-garde believed in the possibility to shape a new reality, to mobilize the huge mass of people for a realization of certain historical goals. Contemporary people are in a different shape. Everybody has one’s own personal project and sees everybody else as competitors. One is ready to obey the public order but cannot be mobilized for any public goals because one always has the feeling that these goals are only camouflage for private interests. Our culture is based on suspicion and distrust. Such a culture is immune against any Utopian promises. It sees in these promises only a trap.
Holburn: One problem with the culture of suspicion and anti-establishment conspiratorial logic is that it doesn’t allow for real information when it emerges. Russia’s invasion in Ukraine is the most mediated war we’ve experienced to date; soldiers and civilians are able to distribute graphic images via smartphones without censorship. The representation of war is no longer solely crafted through TV propaganda but Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter, where it’s almost a gamified spectacle. Has Russia lost the information war or is information itself losing? And do you think this current virtualization of war bears semblance to Baudrillard’s conception of the Gulf War as simulacra?
Groys: Of course, we are spectators in this case—as far as we are not immediately endangered. And we can remain passive and feel protected. But we can also easily imagine that the spectacle of New York City will turn into a spectacle of Mariupol. We have seen enough movies that show this possibility.
Holburn: Other modern figures such as Agamben and Ivan Illich came to mind while reading Care, given their strong opposition to the overmedicalization of life, though I suspect you may have chosen not to mention them for a reason, keeping most reference points to the past. Did their ideas influence you in any way?
Groys: Yes, maybe Agamben. But I was, indeed, more interested in the beginnings and early developments of the post-spiritualistic, post-Idealistic philosophies of life. And in the discovery of the body as the only human reality.
Holburn: Benjamin Bratton (who blurbed Philosophy of Care) has pointed out that Agamben’s position is tied to that of a Boomer Theory that elevates the private “I” as the arena for moral outcomes—as opposed to a commons. Do you share Bratton’s view that philosophy has failed the pandemic because its language of ethics is limited or monopolized by self-regard and not civic duty? (One example you provide in the book, Bogdanov’s blood transfusion experiments, were in part a sacrifice made in the interest of a collective.)
Groys: Hatred of medicine and doctors has a long tradition. One had—and still has—a feeling that one provokes a disease by trying to be protected from it. As I write in my book, to be healthy means not to fear being ill. If I protect myself from an illness, that means that I am already ill. That is an actual ground for rejecting the masks, vaccination, etc.
Holburn: In a recent interview with Liza Lazerson for e-flux, you make a point about Russia in essence canceling itself in its banishment of the West, in pursuit of restoring a divine cultural identity. You add: “Cancel culture is a peacetime notion. We are not in peacetime right now. Another logic has taken effect.” Can you speak more to what you mean by this shift in logic? And while I very much agree with you that Dostoevsky and other cultural giants will certainly survive any canceled university courses, do you think warnings about Russophobia (such as this, if an example is needed) are similarly missing the mark at this time? Is there any room, in other words, for cultural defensiveness in wartime?
Groys: A defense of any kind of culture—not only Russian—is futile. But a Gentleman (and a Lady) always defends the lost cause.
Holburn: Sending weapons and imposing sanctions are the main options the West have engaged so far; taking precedence over peace talks and concessions. As you point out, U. S. sanctions allow Putin to finally evict the West from the Russian world, impose his own sanctions, and fulfill the “pseudo-German” conception of a “restored” Russian identity. Putting Putin’s suicidal pursuit of a lost object of empire aside, Noam Chomsky among others argue that negotiating a settlement with the Kremlin is the only way to solve the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. On the other hand, there have been calls for a more aggressive approach, including a demonstration last month for a no-fly zone initiated by Ukrainian artists in the Guggenheim. I don’t expect you to state whether you think a no-fly zone is a good idea, but where might we look philosophically, whether to a stance of realism (on the Chomsky side of diplomacy and negotiation) or amoral realism (on the side of military victory), or another framework that can guide us in how to care about this situation?
Groys: I would say that it is a strategic and not philosophical question.
Holburn: A feature of Russian Cosmism includes interplanetary occupation. Assuming a human colony reached Mars, the radiation exposure and the resources required just to get there logistically speaking doesn’t seem that dissimilar to Blockchain technology, which impractically drains earthly resources to serve grander schemes of transcending planetary limitations. I am reminded again of what you said in e-flux about the history of mankind as a history of robbery, as during the entire Middle Ages and earlier. What do you make of this dream of mankind’s mission to Mars?
Groys: Men always dream of a new beginning, of coming to the point zero, of starting history instead of simply continuing it. Man is bored and even oppressed by Earth because Earth is too densely populated, too much structure and planning. Mars seems to be a new America, a new frontier.
Holburn: With nuclear threats looming large and the Doomsday Clock set one hundred seconds before midnight for the third year in a row, do you think the end of the world is nigh?
Groys: Probably, not. Some viruses and bacteria remain and will develop again into something reasonable—or, what is the same, something suicidal.