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In 2006, Sonic Youth brought out a record titled The Destroyed Room, which featured eleven songs that until then had only appeared on vinyl, or had been otherwise extremely hard to find. Around the same time, one could see on the band’s website a photograph of a destroyed room: it showed a bed turned on its side, its mattress gashed diagonally, with the filling spilling out into the room. An avalanche of clothes slid into view on the left-hand side of the image. The room’s back wall was broken up, revealing the orange insulation inside. Because of the colors of the image as well as its composition, one gathered that one was not really dealing with a destroyed room here, but with a carefully composed work of art.

Sonic Youth fans familiar with the work of Jeff Wall (there was a retrospective at the MOMA in New York in 2007) would recognize the image on the band’s site: Wall made it in 1978. It is a photograph of a scene he constructed in his studio. The chaotic destruction of the image is thus not so much chaotic destruction, but a careful construction of chaotic destruction. It testifies not so much to chaos and destruction, but to the careful ways in which Wall constructs his images. Take, for example, his more recent photograph In Front of a Nightclub. Although the nightclub that is featured in the image actually exists, what is represented in the photograph is Wall’s reconstructed version of the nightclub’s façade; the people in the photograph are not the club’s regular clientele, but actors and art students. Here also, the night that we witness is actually carefully constructed—a night that is night in an entirely different way.

What is at stake for Wall in these images? Wall was often criticized because his work did not follow the Godard-like conventions that were dominant during the 1960s. He was fed up with the jump cuts of the nouvelle vague: instead, he aimed for another kind of art, one that would bring the exteriority of the cut within the work of art as the internal/ external tension of an emergency, a crisis, or an exception. Wall does not make art that destroys itself. Instead, he brings destruction within the image in an entirely different way: not through the destruction of the jump cut, but by representing destruction in a highly normalized way. It is, therefore, the very absence of the jump cut’s destruction that undermines the artificiality of the work of art—and without actually destroying it. One gets instead a profoundly tense, metastable image that breaks with the avant-garde’s law-making law breaking. Isn’t this precisely what Sonic Youth achieves with noise in their carefully constructed compositions?

References: Sonic Youth, The Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities (Geffen, 2006); Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room, 1978; Jeff Wall, In Front of a Nightclub, 2006; “Interview: Arielle Pelenc in Correspondence with Jeff Wall”. In: Duve, Thierry de, Arielle Pelenc, Boris Groys, and Jean-François Chevrier. Jeff Wall. London: Phaidon, 2002. Image: Willem Weismann, Cosy Catastrophe, 180 x 225 cm, 2010.

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Art Spiegelman has written two major graphic novels: the two volumes of Maus, which revolve around his father’s survival of the holocaust; and In the Shadow of No Towers, a book that relates Spiegelman’s experiences in New York on September 11 and after. The second book explicitly refers back to the first, with Art reminiscing about his father “trying to remember what the smoke in Auschwitz smelled like”. “The closest he got was telling me it was… ‘indescribable’”. There follows a frame in which Art silently continues to smoke his cigarette. Then, in the next frame, the reflection continues: “That’s exactly what the air in Lower Manhattan smelled like after Sept. 11!” The sequence, like so many in this book, is brilliant–first of all because of how it plays with the term “indescribable” (it interrupts the flow of words, but not of images). But its brilliance also lies in the fact that it is in this negative term—in this determinate indeterminacy—that Auschwitz and September 11 are compared. The two events find each other in the limits they pose to representation.

On the page, this comparison between Auschwitz and September 11 is also captured in other ways. The most explicit visual way in which it is established is the fact that Art, in the frames that I have just discussed, is represented as a mouse, a transformation that goes back to Spiegelman’s Maus-volumes, in which the Jews are represented as mice. Much has been said about this representation already. Why did Spiegelman decide to represent the Jews as mice? Doesn’t this play into anti-semitic rhetoric? Shouldn’t he have represented them as “human”, rather, in order to counter the violence to which the Jews fell victim? One could read Spiegelman’s aesthetic choice in response to the motto with which Maus begins: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human” (Adolf Hitler). How does Spiegelman respond to this statement? Not by insisting that the Jews are human. His novel represents the Jews as mice; the Germans are cats, the Poles pigs, the French frogs, and so on. It’s as if Spiegelman is saying to Hitler: fine, we are not human; but you’re not human either. The very category of the human in the name of which Hitler is making his statement, undergoes a radical deconstruction. Rather than insisting on the human—an insistence that would have made Spiegelman complicit with Hitler, because one can only assert such a category over and against an other that is inhuman–, Spiegelman claims the label of the inhuman as a site of great aesthetic, ethical, and political possibilities. It is with this claim that Maus begins.

Spiegelman’s message has lost none of its power in the post-9/11 era. Today, it is still “us” who lay claim to the human, and “them” who are labeled inhuman. Anything can be done to those who fall outside of the category of the human: that is where human rights run into their limits and limitations, and encounter Guantánamo.

References: Spiegelman, Art. In the Shadow of No Towers. New York: Pantheon, 2004; Spiegelman, Art. Maus I and II. New York: Pantheon, 1973-1991. Image: Willem Weismann, Urban Archaeology, 160 x 210 cm, 2010.

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I. Democracy is caught up between two leviathans. One is Paul Auster’s novel entitled Leviathan, which is about a man called Benjamin Sachs who travels across the United States in order to blow up replicas of the Statue of Liberty in protest against the war in Vietnam. The other is Thomas Hobbes’ theory of sovereignty, which has the same title.

It is not unlikely that Auster, in a novel dedicated to Don DeLillo, and with an epigraph by Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Every actual State is corrupt”), had Hobbes’ book in mind when he wrote the opening sentences of the novel: “Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin. There were no witnesses, but it appears that he was sitting on the grass next to his parked car when the bomb he was building accidentally went off. According to the forensic reports that have just been published, the man was killed instantly. His body burst into dozens of small pieces, and fragments of his corpse were found as far as fifty feet away from the site of the explosion”. This image of a body blown to pieces undoes the political move that Hobbes, in his Leviathan, is making and that is captured most forcefully in the frontispiece of the book’s 1651 edition: his aim is to construct one sovereign body that represents all, that is made up by the bodies of all, and that thus acts with everyone’s interests at heart.

Whereas Auster’s novel begins with fragmentation, Hobbes’ project is to unify; his aim is not to fracture, but to bring together. If both texts present their readers with a political body, these bodies are thus opposed to each other: one–that of Hobbes–presents us with absolute, indivisible sovereignty; the other–Auster’s–with the anarchist/terrorist disintegration of that body into barely recognizable pieces.

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II. But one should, perhaps, not judge too quickly. For it would be worthwhile to reflect on how the writing of both authors relates to these two bodies and to the opposing political projects that I am suggesting they present.

The project of Auster’s narrator, Peter Aaron, is precisely to reconstruct the life of Benjamin Sachs, to reconstitute the body that was blown into pieces. Literature thus comes to the aid of the various instances–the FBI, the local police, and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms–that do not “have any idea who the dead man was”. Although Hobbes rages against metaphor and literary language throughout his book, he will take recourse to every single trick in the writerly trade in order to make his theory of sovereignty real–in order to convince his readers that the union of the members of the sovereign body that he describes “is more than consent, or concord; it is a real unity of them all, in one and the same person”. The creaturely body that, in the frontispiece of his book, spectrally rises above the territory that it is supposed to protect is not a projection of the imagination; it is real. Sovereignty is a metaphor of which Hobbes is asking us to forget that it is a metaphor.

But Hobbes’ literary language, the fact that he takes recourse to the very type of language he rejects in order to get his theory of sovereignty across, undermines this appeal, and instead exposes Hobbes’ Leviathan as literary-political tour de force–as a political text infused with a literariness that undermines the unity that Hobbes wants to pass off as real. In Auster’s fiction as well, the biographical project ultimately fails, and the enigma of Sachs remains largely unresolved.

Thus, Hobbes might be closer to Auster, and Auster closer to Hobbes, than an all too easy juxtaposition of their Leviathans at first sight might make it appear. Both their Leviathans, and thus both their political visions, are with the Sphinx rather than with Oedipus.

References: Auster, Paul. Leviathan. London: Faber and Faber, 1992; Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Images: Dan Davis, Power to the People, oil on canvas, 180 cm x 134 cm, 2007; Dan Davis, Arpanet Nightdrive, oil on canvas, 25 cm x 35 cm, 2009.