What is it like to be on the threshold of a generalized lack of confidence in the sign? This question is Malevich’s question. To begin at the zero, or otherwise at the undecidable Black Square.
His take on the crisis of the sign is unique. It informs some of my sympathies in its utopianism. Beyond advantage and difference: this is where Malevich thought that new signs could be found, out there where “everything is now the same.”
This old argument about the relation between art and life comes down to an underlining aspiration of both to make their tasks easier, or of having both art and life be relived of being answerable. It is easier to live without taking art into consideration, and it is definitely easier to create art without answering for life. Where does life stand in relation to the art of Malevich? “Go and stop culture,” he murmured in his text God is Not Cast Down, and he continues,
“It is easier for culture to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a camel; because culture tries with its wit, its consciousness and its sense to go through something that has no consciousness, no wit and no sense. However witty and brilliant it may be, it will never get inside that which is senseless.”
Malevich seems to have wanted both art and life to stop in their tracks at the moment of non-objectivity. And so it goes onward into his other texts, like Concerning the Ego and the Collective. And what is at bottom? – A fierce commitment to the material world, but this isn’t a naive materialism that takes the world to be there, to be ‘hard’ stuff, since it is caught up in a frantic dialectic meditation between different modes: the dematerialization of the material. What else is at bottom? Perhaps of having this belief of seeing the world as a whole, but this possible totalization in Malevich is precisely not one: it is a totality that comes to Nothing. This goes also for the individual’s attempts at reconciling their projections, since in Malevich there is not even really dialectical solution: the materialism spoken of is of an excitation into the unknowable, and from there all of what is art or life ceases to be familiar. In the end there is an admission (made explicit with his 0) that perhaps it was possible to totalize out of the precise condition that one admits an utter lack of connection to a ‘world’ and thus of a simultaneous movement of de-totalization. A dream of totality coming to nothing, for every textual materialism there is another influence – one that rips through the “lampshade of the sky” or a White or White.
It is one thing to say that the truth of this world is that it is nothing, but it is yet another to have that be fixed into a making-of-a-world (through art) that undoes itself. In this encounter with the other, even judgement and reason are all too shallow, all too confined.
His insight extends into material relations. There is a significant connection between the order of representation called capitalism and the assumption that representation is a system of difference: exchange values induced through relations of a signifying system are how the system functions. The materiality of a sign system was of interest to the avant-garde, irrespctive of Malevich’s efforts, inasmuch as it belongs to material production/reproduction. But Malevich knew that art is one thing and actual social practice is yet another. What art can do is make apparent a particular language-game, and possibly reveal the determinations of material place. Even still, the realm of necessity seems pined out by the enclosed circuit of the fantasy of meanings encouraged under those relations and forces of symbolic production. Malevich’s answer? Get rid of the particulars.
Malevich’s zero reveals a significant fact about the signification regimes: particularly that the apparatus is determined by the symbol managers, and it is only in acute crisis that lack of confidence sets in or suspicions arise, and thus art searches for the other. This is what Malevich and others thought they were doing in and around 1920. You can’t blame them for thinking this way – in the midst of social crisis, civil war, the aftermath of the Great War, rapid inflation, starvation. Why it is relevant today is that again we are in the midst of a collapse between two eras because we live in a time when the old order is running on fumes and a new one has yet to manifest itself.
So it begins that the stuff of the interiority is so much of a superfluous concept – this is why Malevich is still relevant to our times, since he points to an effort to better visualize our connectivity to each other. Malevich’s great metaphors were escape and elevation, so escape from what and elevation towards what? Escape from the old language games into another materialization entirely, expressing the dynamic condition of forms outside the lure of representations. Elevation out of the projection, Feuerbach is in the room somewhere?, that Nature can be totalized. Its truth is emptiness and excitation. That is also our truth.
So allow one to go to the zero of the circuit and possibly there one could exit the old symbolic regimes and enter another one entirely – perhaps it could be one that undoes itself? It would have it that the sign and the meaning be isomorphic or equivalents: that presentation of the symbol would be meaning, not just a referring snippet. It would be given all at once as in a flash. It would be stripped of the languages of tribes. Its language game would be a transition outward so that it would have painting come across the motiveless condition of the universe, confirming and refuting its totality simultaneously. It would be an ebb and flow of the painting’s elements as a means of getting at the otherness to the world, or of having its presentness as an entity shine forth from the materialized physical stuff as opening past its limitations onto the “unknowable energy-states.” In short, it would be messianic.
“God is not cast down.” In the case of revolutionizing symbolic systems, art breaks with an order when it becomes a historicity that recognizes itself. It is when it teeters on the edge of disappearing, like God itself…