Declarations (by Arne De Boever)

Although the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall’s “The Storyteller” and the tension between modern and pre-modern times that it stages recalls of course the German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same title, Wall’s staged depiction in the bottom left-hand corner of the photograph of a scene of storytelling also reminds one of the opening lines of an essay by Jean-Luc Nancy entitled “Myth Interrupted”:

We know the scene: there is a gathering, and someone is telling a story. We do not know yet whether these people gathered together form an assembly, if they are a horde or a tribe. But we call them brothers and sisters because they are gathered together and because they are listening to the same story.

We do not know yet whether the one speaking is from among them or if he is an outsider. We say that he is one of them, but different from them because he has the gift, or simply the right – or else it is his duty – to tell the story.

They were not assembled like this before the story; the recitation has brought them together. Before, they were dispersed (at least this is what the story tells us at times), shoulder to shoulder, working with and confronting one another without recognizing one another. But one day, one of them stood still, or perhaps he turned up, as though returning from a long absence or a mysterious exile. He stopped at a particular place, to the side of but in view of the others, on a hillock or by a tree that had been struck by lightning, and the started the narrative that brought together the others. (IC 43)

As will be clear, Nancy’s subject here is not simply storytelling but the kind of storytelling that one could call declarative because it constitutes a society and ultimately also a political community. It is from the telling of stories, and from the continuous repetition of these stories (sometimes with modifications) that our societies derive. Nancy calls such declarative stories “myths”: “The scene that we know so well is the scene of myth, the scene of its invention, of its recital and its transmission” (IC 44).

In Julia Prezewowsky’s “Declarations,” the audience is witnessing not simply a scene of storytelling, but a scene of the declarative storytelling or myth-making that lies at the origin of our societies. In this sense, “Declarations” performs the impossible: like the primal scene in Sigmund Freud’s case-study “The Wolf Man,” this scene of origin must remain forever inaccessible, and can only be witnessed across an unsurpassable separation. As a staging of such an impossible scene, “Declarations” thus participates in the mythical. It reveals that the theory according to which our societies derive from myth-making is itself mythical, and by this revelation it propels any and all accounts of society and its origins further down into the abyss, into the mise-en-abîme of myth. If “Declarations” can be called a foundation myth because it archives (from the Greek archè) the impossible scene that it stages, this impossibility also affects such a foundation because it undermines both the beginning (archè) that it provides and the rule (archè) that it inaugurates. In this way, “Declarations” throws the audience – and not only the audience, but also the storyteller, and the artist herself – into a kind of “before” that no longer exists, that more than likely never even existed, but that nevertheless suddenly emerges as an impossible possibility “next to” the societies in which we live.

“We know the scene” as for example the political theorist Thomas Hobbes tells it in Leviathan (1651): it began with a world in which there raged a war of all against all, human beings were like wolves to each other, and people’s lives were bound to be solitary, poor, brutish, nasty, and short (as Hobbes famously put it). In order to overcome this “state of nature,” people gathered and closed a contract that inaugurated society and allowed them to overcome the state of nature into a legal and political community in which the human animal could realize itself to the fullest. In order to ensure the contract and preserve the continuation of the peace – in order to prevent the state of nature from returning and war from breaking out once again – the people needed to select a sovereign (an individual or a collective) that would by divine right rule over this newborn community. This sovereign is figured in the title of Hobbes’s book as the monstrous Leviathan. But what if the sovereign fails, and the state of nature returns? Can one still call it the state of nature? How to describe this state that exists not as chronologically prior to the legal order but as the result of its disintegration and dissolution? Today, critics and theorists such as for example the Italian professor of aesthetics Giorgio Agamben are using the jurisprudential notion of “the state of exception” to describe this situation. After the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, this notion has been used to refer not only to the ways in which US government in the aftermath of this attack suspended national and international law in the name of a national emergency or national security, but also in a more general way to describe a mode of government they consider to be typical of the modern age and to be exemplified by the concentration camps of the Second World War. Controversial as this thesis may be, one can still find a grain of truth in it when one considers excesses such as the US Patriot Acts or the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The paradoxical situation in which we find ourselves today is that although this “state of exception” represents a situation in which human life is extremely vulnerable, this possibility of life’s negation is close to being negated itself, because the state of exception exposes life in its radical disjunction from the legal and political order. The state of exception is the closest we can get to society’s primal scene, to the origins of the legal and political orders in which we live.

In order for this negation and the true freedom that it holds to come about, however, we are in need of forms in which it can be experienced. “Declarations” provides such a form by throwing audience, storyteller, and artist into a state of exception which does not kill or keep alive to the point of death but provides refuge for the impossible and traumatic scene of society’s origins. Split between Berlin and Helsinki, it performs the very limit to subjective mastery that trauma represents. Unlike in the case of trauma, however, this limit does not lead into paralysis but becomes the starting point for a creative “working through” of an origin that is always prosthetic (as Jacques Derrida knew), and haunts us in the double-edged form of an exception. From exception to refuge: this is the timely psycho-analytic and political transition that “Declarations” performs.

Arne De Boever did his doctoral studies at Columbia University in New York and is currently Assistant Profeesor of American studies in the School of Critical Studies and the Graduate Program in Aesthetics and Politics at the California Institute of the Arts