Red Iconoclasm, Then and Now

[Talk delivered at the Marxist Literary Group Institute for Culture and Society, Vancouver, 25-29 June 2012]

In the context of some have taken to call the contemporary ‘image wars’ – many of them intensely mediated and manipulated corollaries to contemporary geopolitical and ‘religious’ conflicts – a discourse has surfaced linking the age-old theological aesthetics of image-breaking, banning and concealing with the fate of critical thought. Among the most distinctive aspects of the theoretical framing provided by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel to their 2002 exhibition catalogue Iconoclash was indeed the declaration that time has come to pacify the wars of and against images that threaten to tear any foreseeable democratic compact andsimultaneouslyto bring the age of critique to a close. For Weibel, new aesthetic practices emerging after the ‘crisis of representation’ and the supposed end of art signal that ‘iconoclasm as axiom of modern art comes to an end’, and we can indeed bid farewell to the idea of modernism. For his co-curator Bruno Latour, who some time ago famously declared that we have never been modern, the aim of Iconoclash was to investigate the uses of images in Western culture to grasp and to neutralise the origins of hatred, nihilism, fanaticism and critique. Along with the work of their erstwhile collaborator, the German pop-philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, Latour and Weibel’s texts testify to a widespread trend – very ably investigated by Benjamin Noys in The Persistence of the Negative – to have done with the negativity and destructiveness haunting the politics and aesthetics of the twentieth century, and to affirm in its stead an ethics or even a therapy of images and statements, founded on irreducible complexity, difference, and multiplicity as both ontologically foundational and ethically valued.


For Latour, to step beyond iconoclasm is also to produce an ‘archaeology of fanaticism’. The return of this term of intellectual opprobrium, whose staggered history I have tried to explore elsewhere, is very symptomatic. One of the notable features of this stigmatizing idea, and a source of its abiding attraction to liberals and conservatives steeled against sundry extremisms, was indeed its applicability to both ‘barbarians’ and ‘rationalists’, to those who persist in their inassimilable particularity as well as to those who affirm an uncompromising universality. Backwards intolerance and excessive reason both have fallen under the accusation of fanaticism, and the equation of critical negativity with religious zealotry, once again proposed by Latour, has a long and distinguished pedigree in the counter-revolutionary writings of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, exemplarily so in the work of Edmund Burke. Like Burke juxtaposing the carefully tended and differentiating customs of England to the geometrical levellings of the French revolutionaries, Latour homes in on the need to defend fragile mediations against abrupt reduction and negation as the stakes of what he calls an economy of images, or, for short, ‘civilisation’. Here it may worth recalling that Burke allegorized the evils of equality in the destruction of aristocratic buildings and their transformation into revolutionary nitre,1 echoing the Lyonnais radicals who spoke of the “beautiful effect of a perfect equality” in mixing destroyed monuments with dust. 

An ecumenical approach to the myriad images that populate our worlds, and to the elaborate dispositifs that keep them in existence would thus serve as an antidote against the destructive legacies of iconoclastic monotheism, carried over or secularized into the political religions of the twentieth century. This new instantiation of the early Enlightenment’s struggle between tolerance and fanaticism, now enriched by science studies, anthropology, and art history, would thus serve to have done with the iconoclasm of the radical or revolutionary Enlightenment in its Kantian, Hegelian and Marxian guises. Tellingly, the notion of mediation is here removed from its association with notions of negation and totality, with the former, negation, relayed by a fundamentally additive ontology and the latter, totality, dispersed by iterations of the idea of network.


Egalitarianism in general, and communism in particular have long been associated with iconoclasm, in the specific sense of the demolition or profanation of the symbols and edifices of power. The ‘age of extremes’ is book-ended by the drawing and quartering of the Tsar’s massive monuments, as immortalised in Eisenstein’s October, and the felling of legions of Lenins in 1989 and after – a theme nicely investigated in Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis’s documentary Disgraced Monuments or Buck-Morss’s Dreamworld and Catastrophe. But to counter the reiteration of anti-fanatical discourse by Latour and his ilk, which takes place at the level of a repudiation of the totalising negativity of ‘critique’, it is worth turning our attention to the question of iconoclasm conceived not as an act of desecrating vandalism, but as a question of the aesthetics and politics of theory – more specifically, as the crucial hinge between the theory of capital’s reproduction and that of communism’s production.

The Marxian critique of political economy has been deemed, alongside Freudian psychoanalysis, to be a modern inheritor of the Hebraic ban on graven images, the war on pagan illusions (and consequently also to share a complex affinity with Kant’s iconoclastic theory of the sublime – such that we could conceive of both capital and communism as both dynamically and mathematically sublime). In Les Iconoclastes Jean-Joseph Goux argued that Marx’s critique of transcendent illusions had shifted Feuerbach’s humanist critique of the imaginary projection of the subject’s capacity onto divine idols, to the investigation into the symbolic alienation which sees human capacities invested in and inverted by money as the general equivalent. Both Marx and Freud, ‘translate the iconic enigma of the hieroglyph into a new language, the abstract language of the concept’. While saluting the suspicion of appearances in Marx, Goux chastises him for the utopian turn taken by his iconoclasm, embodied in the drive, already present in Thomas More, to abolish – in the guise of money – the very idea of a symbolic third, of mediation (a theme also noted by Jameson in ‘The Desire Called Utopia’ and Representing Capital). As he observes, ‘the utopian republic is a society without money and without concepts’. Having identified a critical dimension of Marxian theory, namely its standing as a theory of the constituent role of invisible real abstractions in capitalism, that is of capitalism as a kind of actually-existing metaphysics, Goux then shifts into the familiar terrain of Marxism as a theory haunted by social transparency, the end of mediation, or, to sum it all up, totalitarianism. The result of Goux’s take on Marx’s iconoclasm is thus separate two dimensions, theoretical and political of Marx’s work – an iconoclastic deconstruction of illusions from an iconoclastic destruction of mediations. And the upshot is that the iconoclastic critique of illusions seems to underwrite the eternity of mediation, the eternity of the money-form as that ‘intermediary’, which ‘delegates value, sundering use and exchange, opening up substitution and representation, inhibiting the community of life’.

Important in its own regard as an attempt to articulate the isomorphies between monetary, linguistic and philosophical abstractions – though ultimately failing to consider the specificity of the real and determinate abstraction of capital – Goux’s discussion of iconoclams indicates an interesting avenue for considering the ‘aesthetic’ dimensions of contemporary connections between capital and communism. For it is perhaps increasingly the case that those theories which underscore the character of capital as abstract domination are also those which see communism as a movement of negation that cannot be crystallised into any images or mediations. Thus we read, in a recent article on communisation:

‘We don’t know, we cannot know, and therefore we do not seek to concretely describe, what communism will be like. We only know how it will be in the negative, through the abolition of capitalist social forms. Communism is a world without money, without value, without the state, without social classes, without domination and without hierarchy – which required the overcoming of the old forms of domination integrated in the very functioning of capitalism, such as patriarchy, and also the joint overcoming of both the male and the female condition. It is obvious too that any form of communitarian, ethnic, racial or other division is equally impossible in communism, which is global from the very start. If we cannot foresee and decide how the concrete forms of communism will be, the reason is that social relations do not arise fully fledged from a unique brain, however brilliant, but can only be the result of a massive and generalised social practice. It is this practice that we call communisation. Communisation is not an aim, it is not a project. It is nothing else than a path. But in communism the goal is the path, the means is the end. Revolution is precisely the moment when one gets out of the categories of the capitalist mode of production. This exit is already prefigured in present struggles but doesn’t really exist in them, insofar as only a massive exit that destroys everything in its passage is an exit’ (Leon de Mattis, ‘What is Communisation?’, SIC 1, p. 27). Communism as a world without, without the very forms that structure what we’ve come to inhabit as a social world, is thus perhaps resonant with that messianic quotation from the Zohar, invoked by Goux: ‘The messianic world will be a world without images, in which it will no longer be possible to compare an image and what it represents’.

If by iconoclasm we conceive of a theory founded on a critical suspicion of appearances, especially inasmuch that the latter involve the treatment of relations as things, then the critique of political economy fits the bill. It is a materialist theory whose building blocks are to be found in the categories of the idealist dialectic, whose object (capital) is a relational reality nowhere to be encountered ‘in the flesh’ – as memorably encapsulated in a vignette from Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labour: ‘Money is an abstract thing, a paradox in itself – a thing that performs its socially synthetic function without any human understanding. And yet no animal can ever grasp the meaning of money; it is accessible only to man.Take your dog with you to the butcher and watch how much he understands of the goings on when you purchase your meal. It is a great deal and even includes a keen sense of property which will make him snap at stranger’s hand daring to come near the meat his master has obtained and which he will be allowed to carry home in his mouth. But when you have to tell him “Wait, doggy, I haven’t paid yet!” his understanding is at an end. The pieces of metal or paper which he watches you hand over, and which carry your scent, he knows, of course; he has seen them before. But their function as money lies outside the animal range’ (Intellectual and Manual Labour, p. 45).


Accordingly, as Althusser noted in his remarkable essay on Cremonini, that painter of the real abstract, of the capital-relation: ‘The structure which controls the concrete existence of men, i.e. which informs the lived ideology of the relations between men and objects and between objects and men, this structure, as a structure, can never be depicted by its presence, in person, positively, in relief, but only by traces and effects, negatively, by indices of absence, in intaglio (en creux)’. Or, in the terms of Reading Capital, the preoccupation of theory is with ‘an invisible necessary relation between the field of the visible and the field of the invisible’.

Similarly, the definition of communism as a movement undoing those social relations which have their form in the real abstractions of capitalism is also marked by a negative iconoclasm. And yet we should be wary of an excessively clear link between a theory of mediation based on real abstractions and a theory of emancipation based on the end of mediations. Communism is not the end of social forms altogether, but rather the end of those equivalential forms specific to capitalism, for the sake of social mediations that would, inasmuch as they regulate the relationship between differences and singularities without a common measure, of necessity require formidable complexity – a complexity which, tied to the capacity to control economic life ‘from below’ is one of the interesting meanings that could be ascribed to the notion of transparency – as Perry Anderson noted in a 1962 article on Swedish Social Democracy: ‘Transparency is one of the crucial defining characteristics of socialism: a community in which all the multiple mediations between our public and private existence are visible, where each social event can be seen right back to its source, and legible human intentions read everywhere on the face of the world.’ What is more, we should also be cautious about an iconoclasm regarding mediations which mistakes the destruction of capital’s forms of appearance for the undoing of its mediations. In this sense the profanation of money and gold, from Lenin’s plan to turn gold into communist urinals2 to the cash flushed down the toilet of Haneke’s Seventh Continent, from More’s abolition of money to its current epigones, can perhaps turn out to be a way of tackling abstract things while not grasping the real abstractions that animate them, destroying money as representation without traversing capital as totality.

The aesthetic danger, which is also political, is to treat the struggle against capital’s abstract domination, the domination over human beings of capital as an automatic subject, of social forms that are as invisible as they are ubiquitous, as a struggle for concrete community, a movement from the supersensible to the sensible. But communism is not a mere negation of abstraction, form and invisibility, rather it is their refunctioning. In this sense it is a determinate negation of a society traversed, in the form of the commodity, by sensuously supersensible things. The point though, is not to abrogate this aesthetic ambivalence of real abstractions, for some abstract, nostalgic desire for concrete community. It is to experiment with forms of social organisation which, necessarily combining the sensuous and the supersensible, will not do so through forms of equivalence founded on the abstract commensurability of labour, time and life. It is perhaps in this light that we can turn back to that enigmatic junction of communism, iconoclasm and abstraction that made El Lissitsky propose what to do with red squares (the iconoclasm of communism) and black squares (the iconoclasm of capital): “Let the overthrow of the old world of arts be marked out on the palms of your hands. Wear the black square as a mark of the world economy. Draw the red square in your workshops as a mark of the revolution in the arts. Clear the areas in the wide world of the whole chaos that prevails in it.”

1Their geographers and geometricians have been some time out of practice. It is some time since they have divided their own country into squares. That figure has lost the charms of its novelty. They want new lands for new trials. It is not only the geometricians of the republic that find him a good subject, the chemists have bespoke him after the geometricians have done with him. As the first set have an eye on his Grace’s lands, the chemists are not less taken with his buildings. They consider mortar as a very anti-revolutionary invention in its present state, but, properly employed, an admirable material for overturning all establishments. They have found that the gunpowder of ruins is far the fittest for making other ruins, and so ad infinitum. … Churches, playhouses, coffeehouses, all alike are destined to be add mingled and equalized and blended into one common rubbish; and well-sifted and lixiviated to crystallize into true, democratic, explosive, insurrectionary niter. [They] have computed that the brave ‘sans-culottes’ may make war on all the aristocracy of Europe for a twelvemonth out of the rubbish of the Duke of Bedford’s buildings.

2 ‘When we are victorious on a world scale I think we shall use gold for the purpose of building public lavatories in the streets of some of the largest cities of the world. This would be the most “just” and most educational way of utilising gold for the benefit of these generations which have not forgotten how, for the sake of gold, ten million men were killed and thirty million maimed in the “great war for freedom”, the war of 1914-18, the war that was waged to decide the great question of which peace was the worst, that of Brest or that of Versailles; and how, for the sake of this same gold, they certainly intend to kill twenty million men and to maim sixty million in a war, say, in 1925, or 1928, between, say, Japan and the U.S.A., or between Britain and the U.S.A., or something like that. But however “just”, useful, or humane it would be to utilise gold for this purpose, we nevertheless say that we must work for another decade or two with the same intensity and with the same success as in the 1917-21 period, only in a much wider field, in order to reach this state.’ (Lenin, ‘The Importance of Gold Now and After the Complete Victory of Socialism’); In his Memoirs, Nikita Khruschev, recalling a dinner with American capitalists in New York, returns to Lenin’s concrete and (e)sc(h)atological utopia, clearly rejoicing in the ease with which he can profane the yankee religion: ‘One old man, who was quite decrepit, but who was very wealthy and influential, as I was told, kept asking how much gold we produced and why we didn’t trade with America for gold. … I said: “Mr. So-and-So (I don’t remember his name), I will answer your question about gold. Are you familiar with the statement made at one time by our leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that we should hold onto our gold for the time being? At a certain stage of development of human society [Lenin said] gold will lose its value, and therefore gold should be kept in reserve, to make public toilets out of. That’s what we’re keeping our gold for, and when the time comes and communist society has been established, gold will lose its value as a means of exchange, and then, to carry out Lenin’s testament, we will use gold to decorate the public toilets under communist society. That’s why we’re holding on to our gold.’ (Nikita Khruschev, Memoirs of Nikita Khruschev, volume 3: Statesman [1953-1964], edited by Sergei Khruschev, Penn State Press, 2007, pp. 178-9.) Similarly, Preobrazhensky, in Paper Money during the Proletarian Dictatorship writing in praise of inflation, referring to the printing press of the USSR as “that machine gun which attacked the bourgeois regime in its rear” (258)

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