- Postmodernist Purity
Craig Owens was a critic/theorist of contemporary art, best known for his essays in October and Art in America, who died of complications stemming from AIDS in 1990. Just about everything he ever published—plus the syllabi and bibliographies for courses he taught on postmodern art, on critical theory, and on visualizing AIDS—has been collected in the volume under review. It makes for sad reading, not just because Owens should still be among us, but also because the shifting yet intractable aporias of a certain postmodernist discourse haunt this work. Owens’s intellectual trajectory—from Derrida to Foucault to Lacan as the major influence on his work—follows that of much of his (and my) generation in this country. From an aestheticist, textual rejection of modernist pieties inspired by Derrida, Owens moved to a political analysis of modernism that focused on relations of power and from there to a cultural critique of the construction of gender identities and of desire (sexual and social) itself. In the process, Derrida and Foucault do not completely disappear, but the prevalence of psychoanalysis in much feminist thought had shaped Owens’s discourse in a particularly distinctive way by the mid-eighties.
The thread that runs through these various sub-periods in Owens’s work is the problematic of representation. An early (1979) essay on Derrida’s critique of classical aesthetics ends with the enigmatic statement from which the editors of this volume take its title:
If in ‘The Parergon’ Derrida offers us no alternative theory of art, it is because the theoretical investigation of works of art according to philosophical principles is what is deconstructed. Still, ‘The Parergon” signals a necessity: not of a renovated aesthetics, but of transforming the object, the work of art, beyond recognition.”(38)
What is the nature of the “necessity” here? Necessary for what and to whom? And how would we know (if) something (was) beyond recognition? A few years later (1982), Foucault has led Owens to be more willing to name names, to suggest why an escape from representation, from recognition, might be desirable. He calls our attention to “the ways in which domination and subjugation are inscribed within the representational systems of the West. Representation, then, is not—nor can it be—neutral; it is an act—indeed, the founding act—of power in our culture” (91). The wholesale condemnation of the West’s representational systems is retained in this shift from Derrida to Foucault, but now Owens can at least specify particular harmful effects of powerful representations and the groups most likely to suffer those harms.
Three years later (1985) Owens criticizes Foucault for only telling “half the story”; what “Foucault would excise” is the half “that concerned desire and representation” (204). Here we need Lacan, who teaches us to “regard all human sexuality as masquerade” (214), as a representation of presence/plenitude/identity over the absence/lack that is castration. Appropriately enough, the Lacanian essay on “Posing” brings Owens full circle. He ends with a quote from Derrida. “If the alterity of the other is posed, that is simply posed, doesn’t it amount to the same . . . . From this point of view I would even go so far as to say that the alterity of the other inscribes something on the relation which can in no way be posed” (215).
The critique of representation, then, keeps coming back to the desire for that which exceeds representation, which cannot be represented. I use the word “desire” deliberately here because, while fascinated by the inscription, formation, and constraints of conventional desire, Owens follows his models in never thinking through his own desire to question and disrupt the conventional. This postmodern discourse adopts without question a certain oppositional posture traditionally associated with the avant-garde. This blind spot is particularly irritating because Owens recognizes that the avant-garde was never the revolutionary force it set itself up as and that contemporary re-runs of avant-garde movements are the farcical versions that follow tragedy in Marx’s version...