Groys, Phenomenology, Confusion

I’ve just made a dent in my summer reading. I’ve finished Boris Groys’ Under Suspicion, and I’m not entirely sure what to do with it.

I have recently been enthralled with the use of phenomenology in film criticism, the work of film theorist Vivian Sobchack figuring heavily into my undergraduate thesis. I went into Groys’ work expecting the sort of applied theory that Sobchack deals in, only to find his work to be much more abstract. This is not to say I was disappointed, just caught off guard. Groys instead presents a theory of all media and mediums.

The first half of the book is dedicated to the articulation and implications of what Groys calls submedial space. Submedial space is, for Groys, that which lurks beneath the medial surface, be it the “hidden” meanings of a painting or film, or the inner thoughts of a human being. Groys then goes on to argue that the natural attitude towards this submedial space is one of suspicion: we, by default, believe we’re being lied to by the medial surface. Within this schema, the task of the medial is the production of sincerity, that is, the production of the moment when we believe we have encountered what lies beneath the medial surface. It is the moment the medial reveals its true self. Groys is in no way sentimental about this sincerity, his choice of illustration being the Alien films. The truth of the submedial is not encountered subjectively, on 1 to 1 basis, but simply bursts forth as the alien bursts out of its victims’ chests. We become subject to its whimsical violence.

That being said, Groys insists that the production of sincerity is not a static thing. Sincerity exists within an economy of suspicion, its value waxing and waning in the constant exchange of symbols and meanings. Groys views this deeper level of symbolic exchange and suspicion as the pre-existing economy upon which all other economies are built. He then explores five thinkers and concepts that contribute to his theory of an economy of suspicion. He starts with Marcel Mauss’ analysis of the gift, and how the procedures for giving and receiving provide the baseline for a symbolic economy. He moves to Claude Levi-Strauss to articulate the accumulation of value in an economy, specifically Levi-Strauss’ articulation of mana, that undefinable source of meaning that saturates some signs and divests in others. The third part is a matter of regulation and excess, and here Groys turns to Georges Bataille’s theory that all human action within all of time is based on mankind’s reaction to the literal excess of solar energy, the gifts of the sun. In Bataille’s model, the only proper response is to enter into, in Groys’ words, a potlatch with the sun. This concept is based on the actions of ancient chieftains who would destroy gifts they had been given, causing others to do so and thus alter the symbolic value of those gifts. In the case of the sun, this terrible excess can only be met with destruction. Human life, according to Bataille, should be oriented towards waste, a symbolic rebuke of the sun’s power over us. For Groys, this illustrates the terrible excess of a symbolic economy, in which signs signify and will continue to signify for all time, outliving all human persons.  Next Groys takes on Derrida to further elucidate the effect of time on signs and the flows of mana that shift their meaning. I must admit to not fully understanding this part. Groys ends this section with a critique of Lyotard’s notion of the avant-garde in postmodernism. It seems Lyotard sees the avant-garde’s function to be the encounter with the sublime, a series of shocks that causes the viewer to encounter directly her own finitude. In light of Groys’ economy of suspicion, he views the avant-garde’s function in this manner to be an utter failure. Rather than the sublime, Groys argues that the avant-garde serves as a means to sincerity, to proclaim the message of a given medium and therefore regulate or change value within a symbolic economy.

Overall, I’m not sure what to do with Groys. His arguments are expansive and convincing, but my pragmatic, applied-theory tendencies leave me sort of lost. I simply don’t know what to do with an economy of suspicion and its flows of mana that give and take meaning from signs and media over time. Part of that is my oddly ethical stance towards media and some need for a solid grounding in something. Though I’m a bit frustrated at the moment, I don’t think I’ll be throwing Boris Groys under the bus anytime soon.

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