Hidden Agents of Power

There is an ancient Taoist story entitled ‘Scented Essays’ that talks about an old, blind monk asked by a young and inspiring philosopher to judge the quality of his essay. Not being able to read it, the old monk did not have time to listen to all two-thousand words, so he asked the young man to burn the essay and he would judge it according to smell. The young man did what the old master asked him to, and from the first burnt paragraph, he advised the young man to work more on his ideas because the smell did not please him. As a way to test his judging ability, the young man then burned paragraphs of a famous old philosopher - the old monk was in ecstasy; he asked for more and more. The young man left ashamed after the old monk said he would get very sick if he were to smell some more of his text.

When Immanuel sent his first letter inviting me to write about his work on the letters of Michel Foucault, I did not think long before I said “Yes.” From all the authors studied at the university, Foucault made the deepest and most personal impact on me of them all. Nevertheless, my only attempt a couple of years ago to express my thoughts on the works written under Foucault’s name ended in failure. According to my mentor, this was the worst essay I had ever written and had only escaped to fail the course by pure luck. This initial failure did not prevent me from persistently admiring Foucault, but it did make me refuse to write a single word about his work for many years to come. I left this task for the moment when I would reach the level of wisdom and maturity to appreciate the legacy of his philosophy. By accepting Immanuel’s invitation, I have broken my promise and have interrupted my decision to wait for the moment when some of my future mentors will congratulate me on my mastery of Foucault, giving me the license to read, interpret, and understand him. In essence, this invitation forced me to confront my own limitations once again. I began reading Foucault again, and the philosopher was smiling back at me from the page.

According to Foucault, maturity has nothing to do with age; maturity consists in not only a heroic ability to face up to moments of crisis, but also in an ironic stance toward one’s present situation. In Immanuel’s case, this idea of maturity means facing the question of being a “young artist,” and confronting the temporary crisis he faces when trying to initiate collaboration with the art institutions that will exhibit his work and turn him into an “established artist.” He plays this game with an ironic stance. Before I share more of my reflections on Immanuel’s work, it is necessary to stress some facts about the body of work about which I was invited to discuss. My role in this text is of an interpreter of an archive, of someone trying to construct a narrative that will help a reader create an image; a “smell” composed of the ashes of the envelopes and letters signed by the name, Michel Foucault. He exchanged these correspondents with numerous art institutions in Europe and North America. The archive is incomplete, but consists of material chosen and censored by an authority standing behind it, as every archive always already is.[1] The narrative I will create on the basis of its archived elements will just seemingly bring me to the position of being able to master it, to understand it in its totality, because every historic narrative hides in the cracks of the archive, its discontinuities, and in all the contradictions that might destroy the beauty of a perfect narrative. Therefore, this narrative is just one possible “truth” that can be constructed from the material from which I have read, based on the elements I have (un)consciously noticed, disregarding all blind spots of which I remain unaware.

If I were to place myself in the hypothetical position of being an imaginary researcher in this archive in the year 2308, what would I conclude from the material I have encountered? First, I would be able to claim that there seems to be a man with the name Michel Foucault who lived three centuries ago. He appeared to be an admirer of contemporary art and was an official “member” of many art institutions. Derived from the fact that these letters have been “archived,” I could also conclude that this man might have been an “important person.” The relation Mr. Foucault had with the contacted art institutions seemed to have been mutually enthusiastic and warm as they all responded to his desire to join their membership. They warmly welcomed his monetary contributions and delightfully invited him to visit them as often as he could. Nevertheless, in his letters written to those art institutions, Mr. Foucault shared some of his elaborate thoughts about their programs. According to the archived material, only one gallery replied with a sentence that acknowledged this part of his letters. As it turned out, most of the art institutions replied with templates whose only sign of a human hand behind them was a handwritten signature at the bottom of the page. Mr. Foucault was welcome to be a member of their official family, but all communication with creative exchange between him and the art institution on this level was over. The secret agents of power stayed hidden behind the names of the art institution they represent, their names imaginary persons that probably never made their faces known.

What would probably stay hidden from me in this archive is the fact that those letters were sent by an artist who had decided to turn his exploration of the functioning of the art system into a larger project, signing his letters with the name that coincidentally designates one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th Century discourse on power. Would this fact be important for the narrative in the imaginary future I would create on the ashes of this archive? Yes and no. From a conceptual point of view, this fact would not really matter – it does not change much if the “author” of those letters had a physical body at all, one identity, or unique manuscript. What would matter here is how the process revealed itself, the sequence of steps in the procedure those art institutions followed. For the imaginary researcher of power dynamics between art galleries and their members, the conclusions would be clear enough, following the conclusions from the previous paragraph when the initiated communication over letters stopped after the acceptance of a new member and his donation.

From the other side, if I were a future historian trying to prove historical accuracy and correspondence of the names in the letters with the actual persons, this fact would become important. The discovery that the name Michel Foucault stands for Kevin Immanuel’s project would further force me to focus on deciphering the artist’s intentions. The fact that he had chosen the particular name Michel Foucault would be another trace left for me to follow, a track that is more than a simple coincidence. After going back to Michel Foucault’s writings and his many theoretical discourses, I would have more clues for the formulation of the wisdoms the artist left behind through his art.

If the artist were interested in researching and testing the actual awareness of the art institutions and the power discourse in which they are (re)producing and participating, his decision to contact them would seem justified, accepting the rules set by them on how an outsider can become part of their inner circle, their valuable member. What finally made Mr. Foucault their member was not his understanding of their program or his appreciation of exhibited artworks, but by the monetary exchange that ensued. As it seems, the language those institutions prefer to speak is the one of materialistic exchange: for your contribution, you will get a proof of your membership. They do not care much about the impact of the exhibited works of art on your conceptual development, they are happy if you were to stay a passive receiver. Any critical position, whether positive or negative, is something they acknowledge but with which they do not know how to deal. What this exchange initiated by the artist made visible is the automatism behind these institutions, how they speak and where they stay silent. Following Foucault, discourses are objects of appropriation. In that light, Immanuel’s intervening in the existing discourse has resulted in the institution’s move of taking the discourse back and pursuing communication on the basis of established rules of the language the institution has created.

To what Immanuel’s work possibly refers is Foucault’s lesson on the importance of the bodily, physical experience of reality and its significance for theoretical abstractions. What impresses upon me the most is Foucault’s ability to cross to the “other side” of limit experiences, from madness to physical pain, without being trapped inside them. He teaches us again about the necessity of the “ironic stance” in any position we might find ourselves, within any role given to us to play. Following this, the young artist has taken over the task of experiencing art, of total immersion into the products offered by art institutions. In other words, he took their mission seriously. Nevertheless, what seems to be the break-up in their communication actually testifies to something else. If, following Foucault, there is no power without resistances, the point of resistance we can notice here is the one coming from the institution: the institution rejects all attempts to become part of a different discourse, to begin to speak a different language. This discovery leads us further to quite optimistic conclusions: the proof of the existence of another discourse, created by an individual, constructed by the artist. Hence, it points out the possibility to formulate one’s own voice, one’s own positions, one’s own practice – one’s own discourse. Although being an artist whose only way of being recognized is to collaborate with contemporary art institutions, Immanuel’s work reminds us of some other possible ways. The state of permanent maturity, therefore permanent facing of the moments of crisis, is something that has to be turned into a creative act, an act of one’s constant reinvention of the Self through art.

At the end of the Taoist story, we read that the young man’s essay actually made him a successful and famous man. When asked about this, the old master said that he was asked to give his opinion on the quality of the text and not on the destiny of the young man. In a similar way, the narrative I have constructed in the archive of Immanuel’s letters is just a sketch of my attempt to interpret his practice within the framework of a larger theoretical framework. What makes me optimistic is the fact that the game he started is not over yet, and that he had chosen a great master of the discourse of power to follow.

 [1] I was given a selection of documents by the artist, building my interpretation and formulating the narrative on the basis of “censored” or filtered material, not having insight into other parts of the archive that might contradict or even obliterate my conclusions.

Published in Kevin Immanuel, The Foucault Letters, Dutch Art Institute, Enschede, 2009