Platform1Democracy 2001

Unrealized Democracy and a Posthumanist Art


Unrealized Democracy and a Posthumanist Art

lain Chambers

The work of art allows us to glimpse, for an instance,
the there in the here, the always in the now.

Octavio Paz1


How should citizenship and its accompanying political and cultural agency be conceptualized in the present-day context of transnational economies and international global framing? And what has art got to do with it? Out beyond the pleas for solidarity, ecological responsibility, and the recognition of a global multicultural heritage, the world is riven by local wars and planetary poverty. The brutal historical discrepancy between a rich, overdeveloped, minority and a poor, underprivileged and underrepresented, majority persists.

I commence from this cruel benchmark. For neither a profound structural redistribution nor ethical sea change able to challenge a narrowing horizon of expectation seems imminent. No one is giving up what they have. Yet how then does one speak of citizenship, with its associated individual freedom for future action and freedom from immediate want, in a world where, for the majority, the concept crumbles into rhetorical dust before the implacable insistence of simply surviving? Or, rather, and this would be altogether more disquieting to consider: the demand for civic freedoms and justice from the fields and sweatshops of the rural and urban poor perhaps exceeds the classic sense of citizenship, peculiar to the property and propriety of urban modernity, that we are accustomed to employ.

The world, as the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said notes, is full of “undocumented people," both in the bureaucratic and historical sense.2 This, he continues, is the noncosmopolitan mass that exists beyond art, subjectivity, and political and cultural representation. This is the reverse side, the dark side, of Benedict Anderson's noted insistence on the anonymous state of nationhood.3 Such peoples are "exiled" in many ways; not only, and most obviously, in the form of physical and material dislocation, but also economically, politically, and culturally excluded from the agenda that dictates global development and "progress." But if the overdeveloped world requires the rest of the planet for economic and material resources, not to speak of the persistent presence of an abjected alterity that cruelly mirrors and measures its own privileged identity, it also manufactures a dramatic counter-space from where such an identity comes necessarily to be critically and dramatically reassessed. A state of powerlessness reveals potential powers. Of course, nothing is encountered or lived in such stark black-and-white terms. Worldly configurations and locations are altogether more complex and hybrid in their formation and articulation. No one simply occupies a single category, destined to respect its premises forever. Yet we surely live in a time, simultaneously characterized by globalization and crises, when it is necessary to return to the sobering structures in which political change and cultural transformation occur. Here it is important to recognize in the increasingly creolized conditions of metropolitan life not only the enrichment of the First World, but also the charged demands of other worlds that continue to exist far beyond the superficial grasp of a beneficial domestication.

Film still: Iain Chambers, Platform1 (2001)
© documenta archiv / Video: documenta und Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs-GmbH


Here, rendered vulnerable by proximity and the intersection of my world by the worlds of others, my identity is both contested and reconfigured in the reply to such "intrusions." The countervailing excursion of other identities into "my" world, induced by the breaking open and scattering of a previous locality, is invariably explained in terms of the radical configuration of late modernity. This is a historical moment that has been irreversibly invested by the interactive economic, social, cultural, and political procedures of "globalization." Yet my identity formation also invokes deeper historical currents. I am carried back at least to that instance in which the West and the "world" are recognized and institutionalized as stable conceptual frames of reference in a particular period, place, and population.

The instance the West identifies itself and simultaneously establishes the world in its image is clearly the historical moment when a certain intellectual and cultural formation confidently brings all under a single point of view, subject to a unique and unilateral perspective. Fears and desires are objectified, a sense of "home" and "abroad," of the domestic scene and "otherness," firmly established. What today is experienced as a "loss" is surely the taken-for-granted security of such premises. If this "world picture" (Heidegger)4 is an integral part of the initial disposition of occidental modernity, of its powers and the subsequent mapping of itself on the rest of the globe, then its contemporary interrogation, displacement, dislocation, perhaps alerts us to a potential epochal shift?

Notwithstanding the sociological understanding of symbolic interactionism and its notion of identity emerging in the relationship between self and society, here we encounter an already more complex historical, cultural, and psychic configuration in which there emerges a historically elaborated self rather than a stable essence who is subsequently stitched or sutured into external political and cultural structures and processes. The "out there" is also "in here," the portal is porous, and whatever is repressed outlines the representation. This is to propose not merely a commonwealth of identification, but also an uncomfortable understanding of identity, including its deepest psychic recesses, being formed, articulated, extended, and explored as a "way in the world."5 This passage has precise historical, political, and philosophical contours and configurations. Such is the space, and the limits, of modern, occidental identity.

In the opening sequences of Werner Herzog's film Cobra Verde (1988), itself based on Bruce Chatwin's The Viceroy of Ouidah,6 there occurs a discussion between a Brazilian plantation owner and Francisco Manoel da Silva, the future slave trader portrayed by Klaus Kinski. It goes like this:

I've another forty sugar plantations just like this one. I alone produce … 120,000 tons per year, and all of it goes to England. They've abolished the slave trade. They seize our ships, and yet without us they wouldn't have any sugar. Look at the way they buy the sugar, you'd think our rivers were overflowing with the stuff. It's grotesque.

In the "progress" that the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott justly calls "history's dirty joke,"7 here in the mid-19th century we encounter an abolitionist Great Britain that since 1833 patrols the high seas, seizing vessels involved in the slave trade, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of slave labor in the cotton that dresses its citizens and the sugar that goes into the tea cups on domestic breakfast tables.

This suggests that the much-quoted process of "globalization" is not simply a contemporary phenomenon, but is rather integral to the making of occidental modernity from the beginning. It was inaugurated with the possibility of reducing the world to a single map or "world picture," to a unique point of view representing the interests and desires of the occidental observer. In this picture, the forced black diaspora out of Africa into slavery, the systematic exploitation and genocide of the Americas, emerge as central, not peripheral, to the global making of the modern Western world. Within this modernity, the specific geopolitical location of the observer assumes a universal relevance: occidental subjectivity and objectivity become one. This, of course, is humanism, and it helps us to understand the political significance of a proposed "posthumanism" as the reinscription of locality and limits into the point of view, the voice, the knowledge, that now finds itself speaking in the interstices of a heterogeneous, rather than homogeneous, world; a world, as Paul Gilroy consistently reminds us, that was historically constructed in terror as well as in reason.


It is impossible to free oneself from a past that has brought us to where and how we inhabit today. A citizenship, a democracy, historically formed in and through the structural inequalities that configured modernity, is not an abstract moral category, but a historical process realized in regimes of power. Here, again, lies the centrality, proposed by C. L. R James and recently reiterated by Paul Gilroy, of slavery to the making of Atlantic democracies.8 The expansion of commerce and civil rights is intertwined and directly inscribed in the stipulation of the American Constitution by a slave-owning plantocracy. Further, it is the exploitation of the New World that contextualizes the political demands of the rising European bourgeoisie and the French Revolution, not to speak of its subsequent and paradoxical inspiration for the slave rebellion of its richest colony: Saint Dominique, later Haiti.

Such an altogether more undecided and heterogeneous understanding of modernity, composed of a series of always incomplete "projects," serves to remind us of paths not taken, of possibilities blocked in blood and repression, of processes and procedures that, even if they have disappeared, recall the irreducible quality of the world and its multiple kind. The "archaic," the repressed, and the unruly lace modernity, forcing the latter to register its transformation, its transit, its accidental quality and potential loss of control, no matter how powerful the appeal to the homogeneous prospect of "progress." In this there lies a freedom, frequently unrealized, but awaiting, in which we, too, are invited to participate.

To insist on the historically contingent is also to insist on the travel and elaboration of identity, subjectivity, and "citizenship" in language, where history encounters a reply that exceeds its institutionalized grammar. It is where the prosaic and the poetic exceed and interrogate inherited political identifications. It is where, to repeat Okvvui Enwezor's observation, "we are moved to question whether the notion of democracy can still be sustained only within the philosophical grounds of Western epistemology."9 Here the "I" moves through the translated and translating space of the world, becoming a subject for whom knowledge, sense, and truth are irreducible to a unique point of view. Such a subject exists besides and beyond occidental humanism. Opposed to the abstract, patriarchal universalism that humanism once proposed, this is a subject that registers the diversification of centers and yet paradoxically is precisely more human in recognizing its own specific limits and location. This sense of one's self proposes a less assured and altogether more unguarded appropriation of where we come from (tradition, memory, nostalgia), as well as of the historical, political, and cultural structures and institutions in which we come to identify our passage through the world.


In the last two decades it has been, above all, the interruption of postcolonial studies that has sought to critically articulate such a situation. Here there emerges the insistent reply of diverse worlds that are no longer separated, out there, at a distance, but which emerge in insistent border crossings that simultaneously register, resist, and reroute the passage of transnational capital. From elsewhere arrive the "them" who refuse to remain "them," but who at the same time refuse simply to become "us"; that is, who refuse to negate either the c, ,,roots" or the "routes" that render a "there" also a "here."

The social, cultural, and political import of this reconfiguration of "here" and "there" perennially echoes in the necessary and disquieting alterity of art: the aesthetics (and ethics) of disturbance that reveals a gap, an interval in the world, that signals a limit and establishes a transit, a passage elsewhere. It is in this space — historically nominated with such terms as the sublime, the uncanny, alterity — that the pedagogical languages of institutional identity, busily seeking to legitimate the narration of nation, citizenship, and cultural subjectivity, are interceded and deviated by what refuses to make sense or speak in that prescribed way. What this understanding of art holds out is the promise of interrupting such an order, of punctuating the homogeneous, historical time of "progress" that the West considers itself to represent. The art of the interruption, art as interruption, both brings to light our prescribed state — its limits and location in time and place — while also opening out on to the possibility of revisiting, reciting (in the sense of reworking), and resiting (in the sense of transporting) those languages elsewhere. Here the prescribed is overtaken by the inscription, by the event, both artistic and ontological, that exceeds the syntax of expectancy and the semantics of institutional sense.

Here I would like to offer an example from popular metropolitan culture (although in this perspective the distinction between popular and elite cultures and art is of little significance) to underline how the space of the same city, of urban and youth culture, of music and the languages of identity, are translated and transformed to reveal other histories, cultures, and identities within the same scene. In Gurinder Chadha's short film British But ... (1990), we see a band of Asian musicians playing Bhangra music on a rooftop in Southall, London. Whether deliberate or not, this image recalls the scene of another group playing on a rooftop in London some twenty years previously: the Beatles performing "Get Back." In the repetition and doubling of the same metropolitan space and its associated languages, there emerges the use of the same languages — musical, metropolitan, and mediafied — to propose two different places. The former is that of Beatlemania, "swinging London," and public white youth culture, the second is that of the diasporic music, culture, and identity of Bhangra. What comes home in this comparison is not merely the articulation of cultural and historical difference taking up residence in the same space. The later Bhangra formation is not so much something imported from the elsewhere of the Punjab but is rather a particular and local urban elaboration, springing out of the same complex historical and cultural locality as the earlier metropolitan Britain represented by the Beatles.

Art revisits and reworks the conceptual language that contains us. It is art, according to the "postmodern primitive," Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham, that is "looking for connections that cannot, may be, should not, be made."10 In art's insistence on the ontological event of language — as what occurs in the transitory configuration of sound, language, structure, and vision: of our being in language and of our language in being — ideas about ourselves, about our democracy, our citizenship, our identity, are historically radicalized and transmuted into temporal processes. Here they are rendered open-ended and vulnerable to the journey of interpretation, to the interruption of an ongoing, worldly interrogation.

In this altogether more fractured perspective, we meet the broken narratives of an elsewhere that refuse to fit into the unfolding of our lives. Any narrative, any accounting of the world, that is willing to receive and offer hospitality to the disturbance that uproots the domus and invites us not to feel at home at home (to quote Adorno)11 renders the universal story many of us think we are living, more localized, limited, unsettled.

In the poetic power of languages to reconfigure space in a diverse understanding of place, location, and identity, "home" is rendered an altogether more open-ended and vulnerable habitat. The latter provides less the comfort and consolation of an eventual homecoming and more the perpetual point of departure for a journey destined to render uninhabitable previous understandings. This is why ideas of institutionalized multiculturalism and "tolerance" are ethically and historically insufficient. As the links between language, land, and identity are inhabited by other histories and subsequently stretched to breaking point, it becomes possible, and urgently necessary, to envisage a diverse worlding of the cultural, historical, and political languages that represent us, and in which we represent ourselves.

Here, if the world is rendered less provincial, it is, above all a West, so used to self-confirmation in every corner of the planet, that is deprovincialized. This propels us to acknowledge Dipesh Chakrabarty's important announcement of c'provincializing Europe."12 Or, more paradoxically, given that it is the habit of provincialism to consider itself always at the center, it brings us to deprovincialize Europe. It is in this context that a certain failure or "weakening" of thought and theory, proposed by the contemporary Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo,13 references the conclusion of the universal singularity of the occidental view (teoria) of the world, leading to a subsequent opening provoked by the journey of its languages beyond previous borders and orders.

Film still: Iain Chambers, Platform1 (2001)
© documenta archiv / Video: documenta und Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs-GmbH

In breaching the confines of the local and the familiar in order to travel in a space authorized by language itself, the ethical and the aesthetic are radically reconfigured. In the shift of language into a posthumanist landscape where no single subject, history, or culture is able to authorize the narration, or the interpretation, there occurs a marked displacement from questions of property, origin, and identity to more transitory differentiations in the heterogeneous becoming of the world. In this shift from the unilateral optics of representation (invariably concentrated in the subject-centered pragmatics of realism and the ideology that truth lies in visual transparency) to the altogether less guaranteed reception of poetic disturbance and interrogation, there emerges the potential of a cultural politics that exceeds both instrumental rationality and institutional arrest.

Borrowing from the observations and annotations that constitute Walter Benjamin's Arcades project,14 there here emerges the idea of collecting the refuse of the city, the fragments of the histories and languages of modernity that are found, as it were, casually in the streets, in order to evoke an unexpected critical mix. Like a DJ revisiting and reelaborating existing rhythms and riffs, this operation carries us toward a new horizon of sense. Using the inherited languages and quotidian details in which we are enveloped in order to articulate a reply is to invest the prescribed with the inscribed, the pedagogical with the performative. In this manner, language is carried elsewhere into another, often unsuspected, configuration. In the "scratch," in the "mix," the borrowed, recycled, and spontaneous but necessary practices of translation and bricolage provide a decisive critical metaphor for a more extensive understanding of contemporary cultural forms and forces. As Karen Tranberg Hansen insists in her study of the secondhand West that dresses Zambia, everything acquires a "second life," a further meaning.15

 In this particular configuration, open to histories, memories, and possibilities that arrive from elsewhere, identities cannot be lived in a state of understanding that is already fully established and realized. Identities become a point of departure, an opening on to the continual elaboration of becoming. This is to dispute a sense of modernity which, as Friedrich Nietzsche noted, attains the peak of nihilism in reducing the multiplicity of life to the metaphysical singularity represented by the presumed sovereignty of individual identity.16 Rather, it is the case that the rationalist productivity of modernity, striving to harness and homogenize the world, is continually interrupted by its own languages transporting it elsewhere. Here unilateral desires and powers are deviated in a dissemination in which no one place can claim to own the language in which it appears and speaks. This is to insist on a limited sense of a world that is always susceptible to translation but cannot be transcended. The seemingly limitless reach of a unique and homogeneous understanding of technology and economy, of citizenship and political rights, of aesthetics and ethics, today the globe, tomorrow ... comes to be arrested, brought up short, in the excess of language and history custodized by art. From this unsuspected, often unwelcomed, supplement emerges the promise of the questions that continue to question.

Iain Chambers. Unrealized Democracy and a Posthuman Art. In: Okwui Enwezor, Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, Octavio Zaya (ed.): Democracy Unrealized. Documenta11_Platform1. Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern-Ruit. 2002, pp. 169-176.



Octavio Paz, "Pintado en Mexico," El Pais, November 7, 1983.


Edward W. Said, "The Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile," Harper's (September 1984).


Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).


Martin Heidegger, "The Age of the World Picture," in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Levitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).


V. S. Naipaul, A Way in the World (London: Minerva, 1995).


Bruce Chatwin, The Viceroy of Ouidah (London: Picador, 1982).


Derek Walcott, "The Schooner Flight," in Collected Poems 1948-1984 (London: Faber & Faber, 1992), p. 356.


C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Muverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: Allison & Busby, 1980); Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).


Okwui Enwezor, "Democracy Unrealized," in Platform1_Documenta11: Democracy Unrealized (brochure/conference program) (Kassel: Documentall, 2001), p. 4.


Jimmie Durham, The East London Coelacanth (video) (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1993).


Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: New Left Books, 1979).


Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).


Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Post-modern Culture, trans. Jon R. Snyder (Oxford: Polity Press, 1988).


Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).


Karen Tranberg Hansen, Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000).


Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973).

About the Platforms

In the course of our research and preparation for Documenta11 in 2002 the curatorial team discussed the possibility of organising a sixth platform. It would feature the voices of artists, curators, critics and intellectuals formed by the experience of Documenta11 and its various platforms. The spirit of the event should be that of “reculer pour mieux sauter”, looking back to look forward, using the event to reformulate the issues most urgent to our practices just as Documenta11 itself enabled us to rethink our political, cultural and aesthetic engagements.

Documenta11 team members Ute Meta Bauer, Angelika Nollert and myself visited Okwui in Munich where he was confined by illness but where he continued to work on his Haus der Kunst and critical and curatorial projects.

Introduction by Mark Nash, Ute Meta Bauer and Angelika Nollert

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