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The Politics of the Signifier II: A Conversation on the "Informe" and the Abject Author(s): Hal Foster, Benjamin

Buchloh, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Denis Hollier, Helen Molesworth Source: October, Vol. 67 (Winter, 1994), pp. 3-21 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 13/05/2011 21:35
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The Politics of the Signifier II: A Conversation on the Informe and the Abject

Hal Foster:Here are a few questions to begin with. The problem of the informe arises in the circle of Georges Bataille. Why does it arise then, and why does it return? What different roles does it play in its various returns? How is the informerelated to the abject, and how are both related to the "scatterological" impulse in contemporary art? Benjamin Buchloh: "Scatterological" points to a discrepancy we should deal with: are these notions about subject or structure? "Scatter" suggests structure, and points to the informe."Scatological" involves the subject, and points to the abject. Are you talking about scattering or the scatological? Foster:I meant the term as a conflation of the two, for that is how they appear in much art today. Rosalind Krauss:The blurring of the distinction between subject and structure can be traced, within the recent theorization of the abject, to Julia Kristeva. In Powersof HorrorKristeva begins by showing that the term "abjection"derives from Bataille. Clearly she would like to see her project allied with his, but I think the two are very different. The notion of the informe,as Bataille enunciates it, is about attacking the very imposition of categories, since they imply that certain forms of action are tied to certain types of objects. But Kristeva's project is all about recuperating certain objects as abject-waste products, filth, body fluids, etc. These objects are given an incantatory power in her text. I think that move to recuperate objects is contrary to Bataille. I realize that my own concern in this discussion is to address the ways that the contemporary annexation of Bataille under the banner of abjection is an illegitimate move. Yve-Alain Bois:In Bataille it is a circulation of objects or substances that perform, in each case, a function in a structural manner. They are not reified as this piece of matter, that bodily fluid; they are objects set up in a situational opposition. So what exactly is under attack in the informe? Foster: Is it a question of form and/or structure, an epistemological problem, or somehow both? And if the informe doesn't have the same affect as the abject, what does it do to the subject?
OCTOBER Instituteof Technology. 67, Winter 1994, pp. 3-21. ? 1994 October Magazine,Ltd. and Massachusetts


Denis Hollier:I want to go back to a point Rosalind raised, the connection between Kristeva and Bataille. I remember my being surprised by her use of his concept of the abject. All the pages Bataille wrote under the heading of abjection were left unfinished; they were textual failures, published posthumously (they appear in the second volume of his collected work, all of which are posthumous texts). I think this status of incompletion is in part what is at stake in the informe. It is bizarre, then, that concepts like the informeand the abject come back today in discourses that are empowered with a strange authority, succeeding in writing Bataille's last word. Krauss:Going back to the question about "scatterological"-about whether the to be structural. I problem is one of subject or structure-I take the informe take it to be a way for Bataille to group a variety of strategies for knocking form off its pedestal. The word coins the notion of a job, a process; it is not merely a way to characterize bodily substances so that the formerly disprivileged becomes the privileged-as is the case now with art that invokes "abjection."That seems a childish move, one Bataille wouldn't support. But the permission to make such a move is there, deep in the heart of Kristeva's project, because her whole effort seems to be about returning to the referent. Buchloh:But might there be another approach between the two you suggestbetween a simple return to the referent (I agree that is a possible reading of her approach) and a reductively structural interpretation of the concepts of the informe and the abject? Krauss: You mean myinterpretation. and the Buchloh:Well, you seem to oppose opening up the concepts of the informe abject to more materialist interpretations, ones that are not necessarily simply referential. Nor are they necessarily infantile celebrations of bodily fluids and excrement. I know that reading is almost inflicted on us today, but it's not the only alternative. Krauss:Let me specify what I think the problems are in Kristeva,and then you tell us what this third way might be. As a precondition for language, Kristeva posits something she calls a "thetic"phase in the development of the child. As the term "thetic"might suggest, she conceives this phase in phenomenological terms, in that it implies there is no way to set up a signifying system without the subject's positing an object. And even what is pre-thetic in the infant-the preverbal, presymbolic stage of what she calls "semiosis"-is itself construed by her as the precondition of the thetic. So in her theorization of language no area of the constitution of the sign remains that is not geared toward a process of naming. One of her examples of the thetic is the child using "woof-woof" as the name of all animals. Compare this example of how a sign comes to be constituted with, say, Roman Jakobson's account. For him "pa"becomes available as a signifier not in relation to an external object but as a function of the construction of the human mouth. What he argues is that the

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stopped-down, voiceless formation of /p/ and the open-mouthed, voiced formation of /a/ represent the maximum binary opposition of which the mouth is capable. This primal sound is thus not mimetic ("woof-woof" says the dog) but combinatory. And once this /pa/ is re-marked through the "papa"-sound is constituted as a repetition of a second /pa/-producing of This notion the signifier. sign emerging structurally around a set of from Kristeva's "thetic" account. In her work, is different very oppositions which pays lip service to structuralism, there is always a slippage that brings us away from signification arising around oppositions to signification being about naming. And that is what I see underpinning the present use of the notion of abjection-the slide to naming certain substances. Given that, what is your third way? Buchloh: I can give one example: Judith Butler's modification of the notion of abjection, clearly derived from Kristeva, to theorize heterosexuality as a principle that needs to position homosexuality in the abject in order to constitute itself. That is, on the one hand, a structural model because it describes a process of differentiation and identification. Yet, on the other hand, it never pretends that all those differentials take place within language or the semiotic system alone. They also take place in the enacting of homophobia, in the material reality of day-to-daysocial behavior. There the concept of abjection gains a complex actuality that a merely structural insistence on the notion cannot attain. And I think it is a productive expansion of the model to recognize that psychosexual and social behavior, even if it is structured around such principles, is enacted in material ways. Foster:Why should we evaluate either notion strictly from the perspective of a structuralism, which Bataille is somehow seen to prepare and from which Kristevais seen to fall away, or a materialism which ... Buchloh: Why not? Foster:Because these notions may be intended to exceed those perspectives, or at least to elaborate them critically. Krauss:I think we shouldevaluate them in those ways. Abjection is now a theoretical Kristevasays that right there with the incest taboo, project. In Powersof Horror fully as universal and as foundational to all symbolic systems, is the problem of pollution. And presumablyJudith Butler would support this notion, if she feels that heterosexuality cannot be constituted without its other, homosexuality. So I think it is important to investigate how these categories are generated. Foster: Fine, but we should do so in terms appropriate to them. Helen Molesworth: I agree that Kristeva uses the abject to reify certain bodily products. Part of Butler's argument engages in a similar kind of reification-that the opposition between self and other is so clear that it can be distinguished in a very early moment, around issues of heterosexuality and homosexuality. As if heterosexuality were a subject in and of itself that could constitute an


other called homosexuality that is also embodied in a subject. Here the notion of abjection becomes hooked up with identity politics. I would lean more toward Bataille, on a notion like the informe that allows for slippagewhere at certain moments you can't tell the difference between an eye and an asshole. Buchloh:But trying to clarify the ideology of homophobia, as Butler does, is a different project from pursuing epistemological oppositions for their own sake. One has to recognize there is a stakein her argument, and this is the attempt to clarify ideology formation on the level of the unconscious. It is not about creating new oppositions called heterosexuality and homosexuality; it is about describing an unconscious formation called homophobia, its origins and functions. And the use of the process of abjection with regard to that formation, as well as to that of racism, seems to me productive. Foster:I think that's right. But I wonder about the primordial nature of abjection as proposed by Kristeva. The problem might be not that this notion is not structural enough, but that it is toostructural, that is to say, too oppositional. It seems to pose an inside-outside model whereby the foundational act of the subject is, paradoxically, to get rid of that which it is not. This suggests that the originary state of the subject is disgust,which is thereby made natural, or again primordial. It is as if there is no way for any subject not to be phobic before figures of alterity-ethnic, sexual, whatever disgust may target. So even as the notion of abjection opens up productive ways to think about racism and homophobia, it threatens to render them innate and endemic. Buchloh: Their historical pervasiveness might almost justify that. That is the big question: when does a formation run so deep as to become Foster: "natural"? My question is smaller: is there a tendency in the notion of abjection to "primordialize"fear and loathing, to "paranoicize"the subject? Despite its own problems, the informe does not carry an inside-outside model with it; it suggests a different relation to the body, to the body-ego image. But then again it is not nearly as useful in analyses of the subjective dimension of ideology. Buchloh:What I just said about the pervasiveness of racism and homophobia was not just flip. What Marxist theory has failed to address is irrationality in ideology formations, which has become one of the most urgent tasks for materialist thinking today. It is in this sense that the historical pervasiveness of racism and homophobia might justify treating them as though they were natural phenomena. The problem I have with the elaboration of abjection by Butler and others Molesworth: is that I am not sure that homophobia and racism areinside-outside problems. I don't see them structured so clearly. Mapping an inside-outside model onto them might solidify boundaries that are in fact more fluid-between races, between sexualities. Butler often presents complicated models of sexuality, but the strictopposition of homo and hetero is not productivefor me.

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Hollier:The concept of abjection should be linked to the order of the performative, and here I agree with aspects of what Benjamin said. It is not simply epistemological; there is essentially a pragmatics of abjection. As far as I remember, this is the weak point of Kristeva'sthematizing approach. When it is linked to specific objects or substances, when it becomes a classificatory problem, the subjective element, the position of the subject in a pragmatic reaction, disappears. Which is ironic, because as I read the development of her work, her deparKrauss: ture from what she must have viewed as old-fashioned structuralism involved, at one and the same time, the positing of a performative dimension as crucial to linguistic analysis and understanding that dimension's subject-of-enunciation in a phenomenological way, which carries her analysis right back into categorizing and naming. Foster: Apart from its status as a theoretical sin in this circle, what is the problem with naming? One problem is that, in a political context, it allows for a referencing of the abject that right and left tend to agree upon today. I mean, both sides tend to name the same names, the same groups. Molesworth: They serve to shore one another up. Take, for instance, the response of the right wing to the "Abject Art" show last summer at the Whitney Museum. In the show, as in Kristeva, there was little attempt to work out the representational act involved in something called "abject art." It is as if the exhibition, the religious right, and Kristevacould all agree thatJohn Miller's sculpture really is a pile of shit. Buchloh:But his sculpture is not a crystal ball either. It makes systematic reference, in texture, structure, morphology, and color, to a substance that is not likely anything else. Helen, you don't have the same trouble with Rauschenberg's use of red and brown in association with blood and excrement. You make the referential model quite valid in your article ["Before Bed," October 63], even though you discredit it right now. And, Rosalind, in your Pollock chapter [in The Optical Unconscious (1993)], which is the most complex poststructuralist reading of his work I know, you too go far into territory that can be called referential.
Krauss: How?

Buchloh:First of all, there is the discussion of the ritual of urination. Krauss:I never discuss it in relation to Pollock himself. Buchloh:But it is brought into the discussion. Krauss:It is brought into the discussion at two levels, the first having to do with the reception of Pollock's drip paintings, both at the time he exhibited them and later in the case of Warhol's interpretive readingof the drips. The second level-invoking the Freudian business about peeing on the fire-has to do with a structure of mimetic rivalry within which I wish to place Pollock. This is a matter of structure; it is never about Pollock actually peeing anywhere-


JacksonPollock.Number 1, 1950. 1950.

Oxidation Painting. Andy Warhol. 1978.

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including in the toilet. That's where I want to distance myself from arguments that literalize such things. Buchloh:But you make reference to the well-known fact that Pollock peed in the fireplace. Krauss:In fact I make no reference whatever to Pollock peeing in the fireplace. And if Warhol invoked peeing in connection to Pollock, I don't think it connected to an act on the part of the biographical Pollock but rather to the nature of the dripped mark. I doubt that Warhol knew anything about the biographical instances. If he interpreted the drip gesture as peeing, as he obviously did, it was to put an ironic spin on morphology, to demote the mark from form to informe. Buchloh:But Warhol is literalizing it. Krauss:No. Buchloh:Well, he's actually urinating on the canvas; that's one way of literalizing it. We should look at the art, as Hal suggested at the beginning, because it is only there that we can tell how referential or structural we must be in order to describe what is actually done. I agree with you thatJohn Miller's sculpture is not a pile of shit... Krauss:But it's not a Mondrian either. Buchloh:It's not even a Richard Serra. To bring in the urethral or the anal in relation to Serra's 1968 splash piece is very difficult, and you would be a fool to do so. But to say that Miller pushes in the direction of the scatological but only in structural terms would be the opposite folly. Isn't there some space between those two readings? That is why I brought in your Pollock chapter. Your discussion of Rene Girard is a move awayfrom structuralterms altogether. Krauss:No, his analysis is totallystructuralist, in that he talks about desire in terms not of its object but as the function of a relationship to a mediator. In his account the structure itself becomes a force field, and one, furthermore, that he explicitly warns against coding too quickly-for example, by claiming homosexuality as its cause. He wants to say that homosexuality is rather more its effect. Buchloh:But the mediator in the particular structure you set up has a name and a history: Picasso. Krauss:Yes. Buchloh:So at what moment does the structure become porous to history? At what moment does the Oedipal enter it, thereby making it not only structural? Krauss: It becomes porous to history and even biography, but it doesn't start there. It suspends for as long as possible the grasping after historical and biographical referents. The structure itself makes certain things possible. Bois: The model of the informein your piece on Pollock is porous to history. Unlike the theme of the abject, the informe performs a job, a task. The reading Warhol makes of Pollock, or Twombly or Morris makes of Pollock, is a debasingone, contrary to the classically formalist reading of Pollock that has



long been standard. The task is structured by the historical situation. For Warhol, Twombly, and Morris it was necessary to read Pollock in ways that directly contradicted the sublimatory reading that engendered someone like Morris Louis. This process has nothing to do with naturalization; it has to do with structural dynamization. Krauss:To go back to the example ofJohn Miller: Benjamin, you say his sculpture is not a crystal ball; but I think he is interested in a structure that implicitly compares the materiality of a ball to its geometry, and thus to its formal Now if you just say it's shit, all the vectors that a structure lets "transparency." him set up in the work-between the huge ball, for example, and the tiny house on top of it-get lost. This vectoring is lacking in a lot of work now championed around the Molesworth: notion of abjection. There is the sense that the abject can only be represented through its most direct referents. That is very different from the 1950s when artists like Pollock and Rauschenberg did not signal so directly. There are complicated screens in their work, screens of fantasy. Today the work that best employs these screens or vectors is installation work, where entire fantasy spaces are created. For instance, in Matthew Barney's work the anxious abject body is pushed through the erotic sieve of football, and in Jessica Stockholder's theatrical, paint-laden detritus constructions, inside-outside questions are projected onto throwaway commodity culture. Buchloh:Yve-Alainreferred to the historical specificity of the dialogical relation of Twombly and others with Pollock-that cuts across direct referentiality. And now Helen mentioned the screen of fantasy as another system of mediation. So you both suggest that the breakdown occurs when people insist on immediacy, on motivated relationships. Does this mean that Twombly was never involved in how repressed homosexuality could be articulated in his work? You suggest he was only interested in how Pollock could be rescued from Clement Greenberg. I have my doubts. Bois: We never said "only." When you look at Twombly's early development, before the graffiti pieces, you see a step-by-step imitation of different Abstract Expressionists. He tries to emulate them but cannot; he realizes that for him it's a fraud. So he gradually moves to a position of parody and dismissal. He then thinks: How can I debase, smear, erase that thing? Buchloh:As did Rauschenberg; it's an almost ritualistic process. But isn't that operation always performed with the intention of redeeming the radicality of the figure one wants to erase-the radicality it has already lost in the process of its acculturation? Pollock is the key figure. He has to be dethroned and debased, but his radicality also has to be reenacted. Bois:Yet when Twombly started, he wasn't trying to imitate Pollock. It was Kline, de Kooning, Motherwell. He gradually moved to Pollock as he became involved in graffiti.


..!.:S: 1 i

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Miller.Untitled. 1988. Above:John Left:MatthewBarney.Drawing Restraint 7. 1993. (Production still: MichaelO'Brien.)



I hate to say it, but the three of you have collaborated on a story that feels Foster: almost as claustrophobic, as hermetic, as the old narrative. Only now, rather than a heroic history of form-givers, we have a heroic history of form-undoers, great debasers of form. But how changed are the names, the Oedipal strucYve-Alainuses the word "debase," ture, the mimetic rivalry, the value system? but in this structuralist reading of Bataille, Pollock, Twombly, and all the the base of rest, the materiality, the bodiliness, the historicity of the informe, the base, all but drops out. "Debasing" here is no more materialist than a move in a board game: Twombly jumps Pollock but crowns him as he goes. And you three survey these moves as necessary after the fact and from above. Krauss: You're saying that we're cleaning it up, making it a clean machine. Yes. Resublimating, but in the guise of desublimating. Foster: Krauss:Well, that gets back to the question Benjamin raised about a third term. I'm having trouble seeing what this third term is. Between the conception of a structure within which to account for choices and this reference to the body and its objects, I much prefer the first, the structuralist position. You say there is third position. Buchloh:The work itself necessitates a type of discussion that does not automatically drop out the physiological, biographical, and performative dimensions. You inscribe all those dimensions into a structure of dialogical relationships, and that doesn't allow you to address certain subjects-like the problem for artists of articulating sexuality in art in, say, 1955. You say it's all about Greenberg; I don't think Twombly-or Johns or Rauschenberg-cared much about Greenberg then. A different motivation generated that work; it was not about criticizing the reception of Pollock. I don't think artists are that interested in criticizing such receptions, let alone in criticizing critics. Krauss:I find that extremely strange coming from you. As a critic you have staked a great deal over the years on the way artists position themselves within the unfolding history of certain artistic paradigms. In this respect you are always stressing the question of artistic belatedness, the need to battle with super-ego-like positions that seem to block the way. And now you suggest all that no longer matters? with where I think Twombly, Rauschenberg, and Johns were obsessed they were entering the artistic discourse, with the problem of who was blocking their aesthetic space, or whether they could join that discourse or had to discredit it or to redeem it. To ignore that is to underrate the artist. But does the story of mimetic rivalrytell all? Foster: Krauss:No, nothing tells all. Foster:And yet for you literalization tells nothing. I am really interested in this horror of literalization. Krauss:Yes, I have that horror. The "body"-as it has increasingly surfaced in current theoretical work-is rapidly becoming my phobic object. Foster:In its literalness? But is the body the literal? One reason the body is an

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obsessional site of critical discourse and artistic practice is its ambiguous status-both constructed and natural, semiotic and referential. And this ambiguity is always treated in different ways. I think we need to be able to think those differences, and I am not sure that either a structuralist account or a naturalist reading of the abject is much help there. of the informe In Powers Kristevarefers to the work of Mary Douglas, in particuof Horror lar Purity and Danger.A foundational concept for Douglas is the status of the body as an image of the social body. It is the different valences of this symIt is a term used in relation bolism that we need to register. Take the informe. to modernist art before Bataille; it is there, for example, in the reception of Manet's Olympia. It doesn't signify or function in the same way in these different contexts. Now even if historicization is not a way out, we need to distinguish such different meanings. We shouldn't lock them all into one structuralist model or one dialogical narrative. Bois: Historicization is not a way out, but it does have the advantage of putting nature in abeyance. Foster:How is the interest in the informein the 1950s and '60s different from that in the 1920s and '30s? You mentioned Serra ... Krauss:I want to ask Benjamin a somewhat perverse question about Serra. You said that his splash pieces can't be related to abjection or anality. What about his Hand Catching Lead (1968)? There you have an action which is analogous to the operations of the sphincter on the one hand and the glottis on the other. That is the domain of the semiotic for Kristeva where, before language ever appears, the body is digitalized-in a kind of off-on, off-onin relation to the drives and to pleasure. Isn't that a way of talking about Hand CatchingLead? Buchloh:We are reversing roles here; you are posing a question I should have asked. I was puzzled when you said it, and then I thought of another film that probably makes your point even better, which is Serra's Hands Scraping (1968). There the two hands are trying to scrape the lead off the floor and this activity of scrounging generates associations of the kind you just mentioned. Krauss:I think that's an interesting way into that film. Buchloh:Yes, but then you open it up to a discussion of the bodily dimension as a referential dimension. Krauss:But the reason I've set up this example is that in Serra's film it's not given a referential dimension; the film operates to hold off the referent, as well as the kind of thematics it would imply. Surely you wouldn't just say that Serra's hand is his sphincter? Buchloh:No, but we aresaying that the reference it establishes to bodily experience is different from an emphasis on structure in and of itself. Now we are saying there's another dimension, one that gives the film its haunting quality... Krauss:That helps to explain its affect...

RichardSerra.Hand Catching Lead. 1968.

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Buchloh:Which is grounded in the body, in early bodily experience. That gives the work a dimension I would call referential. Krauss:But Serra's film is not literalizing the body by a long way, and that is its brilliance, for in that distance a sort of layering occurs. You begin to think about relationships of one piece of matter to another, one act to another, one type of articulation to another, one kind of time to another. That is what I am arguing for: the layering that occurs within that distance. I am not arguing to keep the body out. Keep it in, but in a kind of process. Buchloh: Yet there is a repressive impulse here-for example, when Yve-Alain implores us to keep nature at bay, or when you say, even facetiously, that the body is a phobic object. There is a certain push to keep it out as long as possible. Krauss:There is a reason for that. The richness of Serra's film ... Buchloh:Is its sublimatory achievement. Bois:No, it has nothing to do with sublimation. Nature is alwaysprompt as an antihistorical, foundational base, and once you are trapped there you can't move. That is my problem with Kristeva. Krauss:In setting up her category of the "subject in process," Kristevawants to tap into the poetic possibility of those deeply ambiguous signifiers that allow the bodily to slip through the linguistic stream-glossolalia, for example. And Serra's film may be involved in a similar kind of process. I mean it puts the body into a signifying system, but not in a literalist way. Bois:One of Kristeva'sheroes is Ivan Fonagy, a linguist influenced by psychoanalysis who wrote a book-length essay called Les basespulsionellesde la phonation. He argued that the sequences of phonemes selected by the infant child relate to secret sexual impulses. They comprise a sort of dictionary that might eventually be decoded. We are back in a kind of fundamentalist theory, with the same kind of universal claims that Freud criticized so harshly in Jung: this symbol equals that meaning. Kristeva does not do that, but it's significant that Fonagy is an important figure for her. Because of her reliance on Fonagy, she does not keep nature at bay (to use once more the expression that struck Benjamin), and once you build a transcendental world of references and themes, you are stuck. Krauss:That gets back to what Helen said about the space of fantasy, which really depends on slippage. You can't have a dictionary of pleasure. Molesworth: At the risk of contradicting myself, and in trying to put Hal's points back on the table, I think holding nature at bay is now quite different from what it was in the 1960s and '70s. In a sense, holding nature at bay now means holding HIV and AIDS at bay. The notion of what is abject now and where the boundaries lie are very different from what they once were. Things have emerged in a literal way now. Critiques of "constructed identity" become problematic when you're on the street doing AIDS activism. It's hard to feel "constructed" at that moment; you're enacting a body you feel you must claim as your own. There is a real stake, and those stakes are



different at different moments. We have to figure out a way to account for those differences. Bois: I don't think holding nature at bay means holding HIV at bay. On the contrary, holding HIV at bay would be holding historyat bay. I'm simply reaffirming here the old Marxist (and structuralist) opposition: nature versus history. Clearly we are in a historical situation where HIV and AIDS are a very important part of any social manifestation. Krauss: Will AIDS determine how we theorize issues of representation? Buchloh:I think it has, in this sense. One can evoke the work of Serra, but after twenty-fiveyears one recognizes the degree of universality it propounded, its lack of specificity. What he did in 1968 to reintroduce the body cannot serve as a model for how the body might be reinscribed in artistic production under present social circumstances. Krauss:And does Andres Serrano reinscribe the body through AIDS? Because I think what he is doing is very interesting. It seems that AIDS is one fantasy screen that exists now. I don't think Molesworth: blood can be seen without the valence of HIV. The fact that blood, sperm, and anality are the most charged terms of abjection now has to be understood in relation to HIV. Krauss:I have a lot of problems with this kind of decision that representation is alwaysattached to specific, politicized referential fields. When is representation not a politicized field? The question is not if it is, Foster: but how to understand it and to act in it. And here there is not much to choose, methodologically or tactically, between an iconography of certain themes and a structure of pure oppositions. Neither is satisfactory. Krauss: What would satisfyyou? Foster:There is always a network of signifiers of the body. That network changes, is a big mistake. and that has to be historicized. To dismiss it all as "referential" as signifiers not invoked are Krauss:In the recent cases we're talking about, they the That's of the body; I think they are used as signifieds. problem. Hollier:Why can't they be moved into the position of the signifier? Krauss:That involves some work. Serra, with that hand, is producing a signifier of the body. Hollier:A signified can always be a signifier. What you say about Serra can also be said of a work that that looks literal. The literalness is not in the object, in the sign, but in its reception. There is nothing that ties you to a literal reading. Buchloh: Can I illustrate this with an example? The photograph of Robert Mapplethorpe sticking a bullwhip up his anus is not necessarily more referential than Cy Twombly making little drawings of anuses in 1956. That it becomes literal does not mean that it becomes referential. Krauss:I don't agree. It's not so obvious that Twombly is making drawingsof anuses. There is a constant sliding in the field of his art. His graffiti in particular are not only perversely polymorphous; they are also polysemic. The positive

Self-Portrait. Left:Robert Mapplethorpe. 1978. Below: AndresSerrano. Piss Christ. 1987.



identification of what he is drawing is held off in a structure of endless possibilities. I don't think Mapplethorpe's image has the same polysemic energy. Buchloh:But the step from Pollock to Twombly required a degree of literalization that you probably received at the time as a similar kind of impoverishment. Krauss:In the mid-1960s I was under the intellectual thumb of Greenberg, and I hated Twombly's work. Buchloh:Can you recall why? Krauss:Because it wasn't properly sublimatory, because it had a material quality that kept it there on the chalkboard, in the schoolroom, with all those awful Art Brut connotations. Buchloh:So the sexual explicitness was not part of what repelled you? Krauss:I didn't see it. Hollier:I have the feeling that what wasjust said somehow produced the abject on the table. I mean the reaction here to Mapplethorpe and the repulsion from Twombly. I agree. Benjamin used the word "impoverishment," and I have the Molesworth: sense of an impoverished moment in the present. This could be an effect of projecting a deep richness onto the past that never existed, but there is a sense in which abjection is alwayspart of your response to your own time. I feel this polymorphous richness of meaning that we have set up acts as a new kind of modernism against which contemporary work can never match up. The abject becomes the insufficiency of your own present. Hollier:Bataille's abject is not about the polymorphous; it arises as a refusalof the polymorphous or at least the polysemic. It is utopian, but he wanted to get rid of metaphor, of transposition. Krauss:But is polysemy the same as metaphoricity? Hollier:What we have been attacking as literal is what he had in mind when he was talking about abjection. That is Bataille's Rousseauism-to think that there can be a language without metaphor and transposition. Krauss:That's at odds with Kristeva'sinvocation of semiosis as a bodily field within which the play of metaphor is at work. Since every orifice becomes digitalized into open versus shut, on versus off, taken together they set up a transpositional field through which each can be seen as a metaphor of the other. This field then becomes the terrain through which the primary processes of condensation and displacement can work. As a theoretical object that pulsional field would, then, be alien to Bataille. Hollier:Yes, as I said, it is strange to see the discourse of Kristevaput in the same batch with that of Bataille. Buchloh:But would Bataille have contested referentiality to the same degree that he battled metaphoricity? From what I know there is not an antireferential dimension in his work. Bois: No, but the referent in Bataille has a transgressive function. The problem

The Politics of the Signifier II


Untitled. 1964. CyTwombly.



with abjection is that the referent is given as an origin. In Bataille it is more like a crachatdans la soupe.It alwayshas a situational quality. Buchloh:Your example of spitting in the soup is exact: the informeis both bodily and social. It's breaking rules, rupturing conventions, and situating that rupture. There's the body and there's the soup-the two have to be connected in order to make the informe.Spitting in the soup is not simply an epistemological project. Bois:No, you have to spit accurately, in the right soup. Hollier:All these concepts in Bataille are tied to a problem that is subjective as well: it is the subjectthat is abject. That is where his attack on metaphoricity comes in. If you die, you die; you can't have a substitute. What can't be substituted is what binds subject and abject together. It can't simply be a substance. It has to be a substance that addresses a subject, that puts the subject at risk, in a position from which it cannot move away. Krauss:Take the article where Bataille addresses "the language of flowers."Society considers flowers beautiful, but something happens to those flowers that produces them as abject, outside the system of beauty... Hollier:That is the story of desire meeting its object and suddenly realizing it is repulsive. But consider the reverse: when I saw the "AbjectArt" show at the Whitney, I thought, What is abject about it? Everything was very neat; the objects were clearly art works. They were on the side of the victor. This is very different from the young Bataille's dark utopianism and his obsession with the abjection of the defeated, with the fact that the abject, resisting metaphoricization and displacement, can never be put on display. The real focus of the essay on the language of flowers is the reference to "the impossible vision of the roots." The abject cannot be shown; it cannot be told either, because of the ineradicable metaphoricity of language. Buchloh: But the struggle against metaphoricity is not enough to differentiate Bataille from his modernist contemporaries. That struggle is a key operation within modernist practices since 1915 at least. Hollier:There are two sides of this struggle. One is the abject, which we have discussed. The other is the subject, its experience, its desiring position, as absolutely singular. And that is why the informemust always be linked to some kind of pragmatics, to a performative gesture that ties subject and abject together. contradiction. Foster: It seems to me we have come full circle, that is, into complete from the be derived cannot First, Rosalind argued that the Kristevan abject in which the an us And now Denis Bataillean informe. abject is in informe gives not that is is at stake-an the simply a question informe subject play because of form or structure or referentiality. So which is it? Hollier:I go back to my first remark regarding their difference: Can there be a discourse of the victor about the abject? Bataille's discourse of the abject is a defeatist discourse.

ThePoliticsof theSignifierII


Buchloh:The victor being the museum? Hollier:Or a strong academic voice like Kristeva's. Hal, in your book Compulsive Beauty you talk about the difficulty of the death drive for the surrealists. Today I think there is a strange institutionalization of the beyond of the pleasure principle. And I think the fascination with the abject is involved. Molesworth: But the question we haven't answered is why. Why do artists want to make objects that are abject? What kind of desire is in play there? In what ways are they frustrated about particular aspects of visuality, about the spaces of the museum and the gallery? Bois:What you say reminds me of the enormous concern in the 1960s about recuperation. I have the feeling that is a major issue again. It has to do with finding the threshold of museability-to invent things that cannot be taken in. I sometimes think this rush to the referent comes from that sense: since the object will be eaten up by the museum anyway, it should be made as shocking as possible. And yet that shock can't quite dispel the feeling that the museum is nontransgressible. Foster:But is it really about recuperation? It seems more paradoxical to me. For there is a certain authority in the idea of the abject, as Denis suggested, a certain power in its position. That is a point Mary Douglas makes too: the site of pollution is also a generative one, and it is feared as such. Surely that power, that anxiety, exceeds the space of the museum. I agree. I don't think recuperation is such a problem for contemporary Molesworth: artists and critics. We krrow that all cultural production is equally and ultimately available for such a fate. It seems to me the best that can be hoped for is that such work, abject or informe, might point to some transgressive place or practice-in a way that might, however momentarily, disturb the status quo. September 12, 1993