In Boris Groys’s book, On the New, Groys argues against the idea that in postmodernism, there is nothing new. In fact, paradoxically, he states that there is plenty of new in postmodernism because postmodernism is pretty much modernism part II (“neo”-modernism). For Groys, in “modernism, the proclamation of the new is, as a rule, ideologically associated with the hope of calling a halt to the march of time,” that modernism is “in the grip of an extra-ideological compulsion to innovate.” Groys defines postmodernism as more of the same, except for the halt of time: “That one must seek newness for newness’ sake is a law that prevails in postmodernism as well” as “all hopes for a new revelation of hidden or goal-oriented progress have been abandoned.” And yet here we are, reading Groys book, perhaps looking for new revelation. And what of this revelation? Why would we bother?
We bother because we want to know what’s going on. For Groys, culture is the actual topography. Culture is to Groys what the symbolic is to Lacan in that for both thinkers, the Real is the only other. In order to reproduce this distinction of culture and real (for we are never outside of culture), Groys must divide culture into two parts. He calls the real in culture the profane, and signs of culture the valorized, that which culture values and holds separate. This double layer of dichotomies forces Groys into engaging in plenty of dialectical arguments, complete with reversals and parallaxes. To suture the profane and the valorized, and to keep the implicit order so that culture maintains itself as culture, Groys introduces the new. This interplay of the valorized with the profane through the new presents us with a kind of Hegelian challenge, as this weaving of difference mirrors Derrida’s work on logocentricism and differance, Marx’s material historicism and Heidegger’s Being.
For Groys, each theorist seeks to illuminate the way in which culture and the profane interact.
Marx describes the way reality engenders ideological illusions in consciousness so that [ideology] may go unrecognized and pursue the dark business of exploitation of man by man. [. . .] Heidegger describes the struggle between culture and the profane, which he calls being, in which being conceals itself precisely at the moment of its concealment [. . .]. According to Derrida, writing follows similar—and even more complicated twists and turns. [. . .] Yet all this, too, stems from the boundary between culture and its valorized values on the one hand and the profane on the other. It is only thanks to this boundary that culture and the other endlessly succeed one another, doffing and donning disguises in a complicated game as they do.
By including such broad distinctions, Groys solidifies his point about critical theory while finding something new in these thinkers, to meld them together as subsets of his own theory. Towards the end of the book, rather than allow us to rest on our laurels, Groys throws us a last dialectical twist:
Every time, culture and its other are distinguished anew. There exists no stable, natural difference between them. [. . .] Every time, we try to mediate between the two and overcome this split. And, every time, the boundary between culture and the profane shifts as a result of this attempt at mediation, without [. . .] being effaced. The profane is conceived of, and aestheticized, as a prolongation of the cultural tradition itself. Our thinking does indeed attain the profane each time; yet, every time, precisely because it does, it modifies reality and leaves [the profane] behind in a state different from what it was when our thought thought it.
While this passage seems to contradict the entirety of Groys book, if you read closely you’ll see that Groys is highlighting the profane and culture as meta-categories independent of signification. Signs inherent within culture may shift between being profane or valorized but the structure of culture maintains itself because changing signification highlights the position of valorization.
In a way, Groys is answering the question: what is change? How does reality change and yet remain the same? If we think of the past decades within the last 100 years, and how they were characterized by radically different material, social and cultural forces when compared to the past 500 years, or even 1000 years, we can understand that the valorization changes all the time, more so recently, destroying each decade’s culture and remaking it anew as different values are created through material expression.
Material production is how both Marx, through commodity fetishism, and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, through advertising, understand that culture in capitalism creates values in order to drive capitalism. In fact, Galbraith in his book The Affluent Society writes that after mastery of basic human needs such as clothing, food and shelter, capitalism explodes via the creation of excessive productivity. Post-industrial nations like the United States may worship productivity, but endless productivity can only create temporary values as valorization requires new values to be introduced constantly in order to keep demand high so surplus value can be extracted. The key to this, Galbraith notes, is in advertising: “[The consumer] is subject to the forces of advertising and emulation by which production creates its own demand.” (And of course, as a culture we don’t advertise for products that we can’t produce.) It’s significant to note that emulation, as Galbraith calls it, serves a special purpose for Groys, as the masses attempt to become cultured through copying the elite. In this relationship, the masses try to buy what the elites have, by adopting affectations, forming what Marx would call the petty bourgeois. What also maintains the elite, or as Galbraith writes creates inequality, is the extraction of surplus value from the population. As Marx noted in his book Capital, surplus value isn’t dependent on labor alone but on the interplay of the nexus of goods that are related in relative value to one another and the pool of available labor. Surplus value is extracted when the population must buy back its goods and services for more than they were paid to produce those goods and services. Although not a Marxist, Galbraith notes that this condition leads to a snowballing of wealth inequality. And although Groys mentions economics, production and value – value form, although Groys doesn’t call value such – Groys is pretty much mainly interested in examining in-depth a particular expression of cultural value. Groys isn’t too interested in discussing material production (99 cent store wares, Walmart specials, sexy lingerie to name a few kinds of products Galbraith finds objectionable due to their waste). For someone who quotes Marx on ideology and commodity fetishism, it may be surprising that Groys limits mentioning capital or money as a zero sum signifier, a marker of pure of value.
Instead, for Groys, value is best expressed on the level of critical theory and the avant-garde. Agreeing with Galbraith, Groys says often that the production of culture is how the elite distinguish themselves as being elite. The new (and the avant-garde in producing one kind of new) works to appropriate the profane in order to highlight how the elite lack the contingency of the profane. There is a bit of dialectical footwork here, but Groys argues that in order to keep their eliteness fresh, the elite constantly select new aspects from the profane. This has the effect of highlighting the “banality, ineptitude, indigence, and primitiveness” of the profane, “depriv[ing] the public of the cherished illusion that it can close the distance between itself and [the] coveted valorized culture, graphically demonstrating that public’s lack of success on this path.” One can recall John Waters’s masterpiece Female Trouble in which an alienated teenager, Dawn Davenport, played by the awesome Divine aka Harris Glenn Milstead, is seduced by a more alienated but wealthy couple called the Dashers, who find Davenport’s grotesque burlesque behavior to be sublime. Davenport, of course, wants to be sophisticated and refined like them so she does whatever they approve of. With their patronage, Davenport debases herself to the point of disfigurement, ultimately losing basis with what is profane and what is cultured. With unconditional valorization, Davenport debases herself beyond the point of social acceptability. She kills her own daughter before a show, and during the show rubs dead fish on her body, exaggerating her role in various crimes. She then produces a gun that she shoots into the audience, asking them “Who wants to be famous? Who wants to die for art?”
Reality enters the movie in the form of a police chase, where we see Davenport from a distance, living in a tent in her dirty ballroom gown in the woods. The stillness of the camera and the woods allows us to witness the frantic and clumsy failure of Davenport to escape. Ultimately, the Dashers discard Davenport, blaming her for everything at trial. What’s obvious is that while the Dashers exacerbate Davenport’s actions, leading her to lose her mind to die in the electric chair, the Dashers are quick to extricate themselves from being her kind of profane. They are elite, cultured, valorized. We can add that Groys writes that the “elite opts for the profane and so wins back its exclusive status.” And in this way, the elite Dashers, by framing Davenport as crazy, outdo her in terms of debasing themselves. Paradoxically, they maintain their elite status by being more profane than our audience’s sense of justice can handle. (Paradoxically, the TV shows like Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty work in the same way. Critics of Honey Boo Boo say the show is exploitation of a family that doesn’t realize it is exploited and yet this valorizes the position of TLC or A&E and the TV shows’ producers as having the power of tastemakers in cultural exchange.)
This sense of profane, sublime and abjection all roll together at the crossing of culture’s borders as the new, especially in art. Curiously, this same crossing of the border of valorization occurred multiple times with Duchamp’s readymade urinal. The first time, of course, occurs when the urinal is not urinal, but a work of art. Redeploying the urinal isn’t just a turning of the urinal on its side, but turn of art on its side so as to include a manufactured pissing funnel as highest of art. Groys analyzes this as a case for valorization of the profane.
We can add to this analysis a Cabinet article, “Readymade remade”. Leland de la Durantaye writes how one Pierre Pinoncelli made a big splash by pissing in one of Duchamp’s readymade urinals. This is the second valorization of the readymade urinal. Pinoncelli’s argument for doing so was that he was bringing history and value to the urinal. While the French government did not agree with Pinoncelli at all, especially after he pissed in the same urinal again in 2006, the article decidedly agrees with Pinoncelli. Durantaye smartly cites Duchamp himself as the authority—Duchamp, after “defacing” the Mona Lisa, claims that his Mona Lisa is not a readymade. Rather, this remade Mona Lisa is an “assisted readymade.” By taking mass-produced art and introducing “a unique commentary,” Duchamp means to bring this item back into the spectrum of art. Groys agrees with this reading, adding, “Duchamp’s blasphemous profanation of the Mona Lisa was first interpreted as the end of valuable art and the irruption of profane, valueless non-art.” This was only at first. While Groys calls Duchamp’s assisted readymade “trash” several times throughout his book, he ultimately includes the assisted readymade as art:
The newness of these comparisons [of the two Mona Lisas] resides in the fact that, thanks to them, two things ordinarily assigned different values [. . .] are situated at the same level. After the comparison, [. . .] it will of course necessarily appear that they are just different and that there exists no procedure that might justify the superiority, in terms of hierarchy and value, of one over the other. Ultimately, we will prove unsuccessful even in the often gleeful undertaken attempt to show that the mutilated reproduction is in fact more valuable than the Mona Lisa, because it represents more ‘real life’ more authentically.
With this re-inclusion of the trashed Mona Lisa into art by Duchamp, Durantaye implies that Pinoncelli is correct. Yet, should the French government pay Pinoncelli? After all, Pinoncelli’s “unique commentary” has increased the value of this French treasure by taking a mass produced readymade that has “lost [its] readymade authenticity, [its] unique identity, and [. . .] dynamically infus[ing] one of the replicas with [authenticity].” After all, the British have recognized that this urinal’s invisible stain (I assume that they had someone clean the readymade urinal!) adds value.
Of course, Groys understands why the Dashers get away and why the readymade urinal only becomes more valuable. He writes that while the profane can become valorized, the valorized can never be profaned. After all, what if the French government admitted that Pinoncelli had made a valuable contribution to their museum piece? Would they then not have to pay him? And if they did, would they then not invite the masses to enter their museum in the hopes of creating readymade money? Is not money the appropriate match, for something that sits higher on seat of valorization?
We can add to this George W. H. Bush Senior’s failed attempt to “be one of the common folks.” Following Bill Clinton’s successful media stunt of eating at McDonald’s, Bush Senior goes to a supermarket and is bewildered by the presence of the common barcode-scanning equipment used at the supermarket. While Democrats gleefully noted that this was a stunt, since Bush Senior hadn’t been in a supermarket since the 70s, this did not detract from his position, for the Republicans already knew he was one of the elite and not a common folk. His valorization was not turned profane by his inability to prove his non-cultured status. The implicit conclusion, valorization can only fade away, not be made away.
No surprise then that we can also understand as well, a third time, in which Duchamp’s readymade urinal was re-valorized. This time, more recently, an article by Julian Spalding and Gyln Thompson called “Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?” came out, asserting that Duchamp most likely stole the readymade urinal concept from a “German Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.”
While this article casts Freytag-Loringhoven as a woman fighting for recognition in a sexist world, it notes that in German, the named scribbled on the urinal R. Mutt:
is used in common phrases to mean ‘poverty,’ and in some contexts ‘intellectual poverty.’ Elsa’s submission was a double-pronged attack. The [Society of Independent Artists] was hoisted by its own petard, for in accepting the entry it would demonstrate its inability to distinguish a work of art from an everyday object, but in rejecting it, it would break its own rule that the definition of what was art should be left to the submitting artist. Hence, the “intellectual poverty” of its stance.
Perhaps, as well, a sideways urinal could also be a gesture about the male tool. Spalding and Thomspon write that the urinal is “Elsa’s declaration of war against a man’s war – an extraordinary visual assault on all that men stood for.” They might have ended on this note, an anti-phallic push, but they continue on, to valorize Elsa’s urinal even more so: “As a sculpture of a transformed everyday object, [the urinal] deserves to rank alongside Picasso’s Bullhead, 1942, made of bicycle handlebars and a saddle, and Dali’s Lobster Telephone, 1936.” No mention of Duchamp. In a way, this article dismisses Duchamp in order to make way for Elsa. And in this way, the readymade urinal becomes valorized once again.
We can extend Elsa’s declaration of war as an antinome of art and not-art, as Groys does. So how does this valorization work? Money is a zero sum signifier for value form as money determines the field as being one of a capitalist exchange value system. In capitalism all things are money, but only money is itself. Slavoj Zizek in Less than Nothing explains
This [zero sum] signifier is “a symbol in its pure state”: lacking any determinate meaning, it stands for the presence of meaning as such in contrast to its absence; in a further dialectical twist, the mode of appearance of this supplementary signifier which stands for meaning as such is non-sense.
Thus, the readymade urinal evades the profane, by refusing to fade into the indeterminacy of the real. Groys adds that valorization isn’t simply a position in culture, valorization actually exceeds culture as “absolutely privileged position” that “becomes the universal equivalent for the comparison of anything with anything else.” Through the valorization of art, “[t]he boundaries between the valuable and valueless disappear; they are abolished” as the valorized sign “transcends value.” In this way, we see something more in some art, or in money, or in theory that is more than its material affect and therefore is not content in culture, but a zero sum signifier of itself. This is also why items of great valorization are “priceless.”
For Groys, every sign has two “value levels that never fuse” as every sign has what is discarded, and what is valorized. For example, with the readymade urinal in the museum, we discard the urinal, leaving behind something outside of culture itself in an “absolutely privileged position”. Groys argues that for modern or post-modern art, this split is especially pronounced. In fact this split is what makes art pieces art.
The fact that modern art requires explanation has often been decried as a defeat; critics repeatedly demand that we just look at art and enjoy an immediate experience of it. However, an immediate experience of that sort remains without effect, since what is visible in the work is usually, in its external profanity, already familiar to the observer. Without the tension between the visible and the commentary, the work does not function at all.
So how does this split work to transcend value? The things we value come from the profane, so much so that we are not sure what it means. So we need an explanation. The incongruity of the explanation from material affect allows us to see that valorization for Groys is at a level beyond metaphysics in the same way that the jarring valorizations of the readymade urinal is at odds with our expectations of what it should be (a urinal, or art)? Valorization occurs to things that are incongruous with cultural meaning.
A valuable object of culture is meaningful [bedeutend], important, and on prominent display. It is not, however, meaningful because it has a meaning in the semiotic sense, that is, because it designates something extra-cultural. Having a significant meaning is not the reason something is meaningful. The opposite is the case: when an object is valuable and meaningful, we ascribe a ‘deep’ or ‘lofty’ signifying [signifikativ] function to it. In terms of signification, however, meaning is not a distinction of any particular importance: to designate something is utterly trivial, banal, and profane. Valuable, truly meaningful cultural things actually designate nothing at all – they possess a value of their own. And profane texts or things are often valorized precisely because they are nonsensical, absurd and meaningless in the semiotic sense.
This seems pretty harsh; but we get the destruction of the explanation of the material experience of art inasmuch as the material experience of art interferes with our lofty explanations accompanying art. This is where Groys includes critical theory on par with urine soaked material.
Recall Galbraith’s use of the emulation. This term can also be understood more tactically, as not just copying the elite, but also as simulation. In particular, simulation and simulacra. As Groys expands, “For Baudrillard, the exchange of the simulacra,” between the positions of profane and valorized, “is all-inclusive and does not admit of a distinction between reality and simulation, or culture, with the result that innovative exchange,” namely the process of the new, “here and again becomes part of this generalized exchange of simulacra.” How does this exchange happen? For the conservative French Government, as for Groys, the categories of profane and valorization stand apart. Both avoid understanding valorization in terms of the material practice (such as, Pinoncelli simulating the readymade as a urinal in order to simulate the new in art). Groys emphasizes
For textuality or simulation are structured like culture and are profane because they are material. It has [. . .] been shown that the culturally valorized and the profane cannot be brought into one-to-one relation with metaphysical oppositions such as consciousness vs. the unconscious, sign vs. matter, inside vs. outside, or signifier vs. signified. The revaluation of metaphysical values means simply that cultural value boundaries have been displayed, not definitively overcome or dissolved.
With this, Groys dismisses both critical theory and material stuff. Understanding that the relationship structuring culture as this universal difference between profane and valorization allows Groys to make a leap into proclaiming that meaning is not a material affect produced by culture but rather an inherently artificial and arbitrary structural support necessarily immanent to culture.
In this way, Groys recasts culture and the profane as another form of subject-object dialectic. The production of the new is the production of culture. Culture is metastable as theory’s role is to maintain culture as the horizon of what we can conceive of. By making the position of valorization and the profane independent of specific content, Groys signs up as a metaphysician. While on the one hand, he claims that all these major thinkers highlight the interaction between culture and the profane by playing with the boundary of culture and its other, on the other hand, his book, which is also obviously about culture and the profane, is different because “it spawns no new mythology.” But isn’t his work a “revaluation of metaphysical values” or is his work “overcome[ing and] dissolv[ing]” the “cultural value boundaries”? A closer reading yields that his dismissal of other thinkers as a kind of mythology relies on a misrecognition of the inherent tension in each work. By valuing parts of their theory and then dismissing other parts, isn’t Groys actually valorizing those theorists, according to his definition of art? After all, don’t these other theories create a material textual expression that is in tension with the “absurd commentary” (in part, provided by Groys and others) on their works? By making his own work more coherent, Groys is actually casting other theorists as being less coherent (more absurd), thus helping them escape the indeterminacy of the profane in the same way that Elsa and Pinoncelli help the readymade urinal escape being forgotten.
With this we can see that the tie between capitalism and conceptual theory becomes even more pronounced. For Groys, the apex of the destruction of traditional culture is through its institutionalization is where valorization and the profane become indistinguishable.
One encounters the same names everywhere in today’s world, in museums, at conferences, in concert halls. The really existing inequality in culture, which goes hand in hand with the worldwide integration of archivization and dissemination by the media, is steadily increasing. At the same time, many theorists describe the culture of the present [. . .] as egalitarian, utterly pluralistic, and interchangeable. It would be hard to imagine a stronger contradiction.
We can claim this is due to media, that dissemination of centralist points is difficult, for once a position is established as valorized, the most elite, like the Dashers, must rush to adopt a different position entirely and discard the old one: Zizek writes several books a year, to avoid being (dis)placed by all the other theorists around him. Likewise, the readymade urinal takes a life of its own, discarding Duchamp and aligning with a female sculptor, one who was so underground as to be beyond the public’s notice–until now. Elsa’s authenticity as a struggling female artist, who was almost forgotten (merging with other anonymous cultural signs of the profane), allows us to incorporate feminist critiques into the readymade urinal’s already impressive nest of theory, creating even further complexity so as to force the readymade urinal to avoid becoming indeterminate as a sign (profane) to become indeterminate as a signified (valorized). Both Elsa and the readymade are valorized together, so that their signified indeterminacy (we are not necessarily sure what they mean as a total sign) allows us to connect disparate cultural affects under the same cultural horizon: through a packed sign, like the figure of the readymade urinal, we can speak even more about anything. Including Elsa in with the rest of the immense amount of text surrounding the readymade lets us now comment through the field of feminism, as well. Likewise, Groy’s line that comes after the quote above adds that a successful theory overcodes other economies of value exchange with its own horizon through a
sharp [. . .] break between the manifest appearance and the theoretical description of reality [which] usually appears when an author [or public] is so bewitched by a single theoretical argument that [he/we can] blindly draws every conceivable conclusion from it.
Again, we have a repeat of modern art, with the profane material experience and its metaphysical commentary as escaping determinate meaning. But is this also not a description of Groys’s own position? That only when one is bewitched by a single theoretical argument that this argument must be meaningless, as it supports “every conceivable conclusion”? An argument that accounts for nothing in particular is an argument for nothing in particular. This ultimate affirmation draws parallels with Deleuzian plateaus in which new logics reterritorialize on their own order, in the order of the new. We can draw a line of flight directly into the plane of immanence. Groys expresses this jump into a new order through a Russian writer, Andrei Patonov, who
exposes the basic error of avant-garde thought. In his novel Chevengur, [Patonov] describes a group of revolutionaries who take power in a small town during the civil war and try to bring the new communist society into existence by shooting different population groups one after the other, since they are contaminated by traditional, hierarchical cultural notions. The new society is consequently formed, not with the town’s surviving inhabitants, but foreign immigrants. It creates a new hierarchy of its own, which is itself threatened with destruction and has to be culturally preserved.
Despite Groys’ criticism of modernism, doesn’t this story illustrate what Groys does? Groys discards in Derrida what does not apply to cultural differance in terms of valorizing the new at the expense of the other. Also, doesn’t Groys do this to Marx as well, ignoring aspects such as the material dialectic in favor of ideological support of the bourgeois? And hasn’t Groys, in selecting for aspects of philosophers who agree with him, in effect ejected what doesn’t agree with him, naming their ejection as mythologies? After all, Groys’s decontextualization of those said philosophers, allows us to re-read their configurations of meaning and textuality anew as we may read the readymade urinal anew with each additional valorization so that the readymade urinal or the new support a completely new village that is a repetition of the same. In this way, Groys also creates “a new hierarchy [. . .] which is itself threatened [. . .] and has to be culturally preserved.”
In other words, only with new commentary (or any commentary, including Groys, after all, meaning is not meaningful in its specificity) can Marx, or Heidegger or Derrida be read anew, as new commentary contrasts with their textual materialism, creating tension. This highlights the central role that theory plays in establishing culture as a unity. Only without any new commentary or theoretical lens do we have a problem of relating philosophers to each other, or even parts in culture. Theory, for Groys, is another zero sum value form, like money and like valorized art. To avoid being duped and losing one’s meaninglessness when a new commentary comes out, best then, as Groys writes, that we adopt “ascetic renunciation of traditional values.” After all, “the profane is [just] a process of innovate exchange.” He elaborates that such an “ascetic renunciation need by no means be the prelude to some useful activity in order to create new values. [. . .] However, for the cultural and, consequently, commercial value of a thing to increase, it is altogether sufficient that a culturally valorized tradition be sacrificed for its sake.” (Then perhaps, as a dig at Derrida, Groys adds, “[s]upplementary productive efforts are not called for here.”)
Yet after taking this position that we should, without attachment, let go of the traditional in favor of the new, Groys ends his book with a chapter about the author. Perhaps in reference to this book of his, Groys writes that “the personal nature of innovative exchange is probably its central moment” as “the author, here, acts as a mediator.” And while the author must balance the profane with valorization, the tradition with the new, if an author’s work is to be valorized as new, ultimately the work must have a tension that “depends on where the boundary between the culturally valuable and the profane lies at any given moment,” something “no author can see in all its aspects or fully control.” We can recall here, Dawn Davenport, performing her Cavalacade of Filth, trying to keep things interesting and yet at the mercy of an audience that only wants her as long as she amuses them. And so Groys ends, claiming no agency for himself in writing this piece, “no skill, no knowledge, and no social privilege” to guarantee his success. “An author finds herself bound hand and foot to cultural-economic logic, and quite helpless indeed in the face of it.” In this same way, did Davenport find herself strapped to the electric chair, ready to die for her art, for her audience, of the Dashers and the Aunt of the lover she de-handed. The basic tension of Female Trouble’s end was that while Davenport was surely on death row as an insane inmate, convinced of her infamy for all eternity, and yet, here was her tiny audience in full participation. Was her audience insane, or was she? Were they both delusional? And if so, how could either of them be so? Or perhaps as Groys had noted, only those who survive, like the Dashers and the Aunt are the ones who renounce all values. Groys turns out to be more correct than he realizes. When he dismisses other theorists as creating mythologies, he is dismissing the very personal mediation of each of those authors, a mediation which “classical philosophy was never willing to acknowledge: the personal, purely human nature of every theoretical discourse.” Like the insanity of Davenport, authors and theorists like Groys and company struggle to speak as themselves in the impersonal language of “socialization [Vergesellschaftigung],” another name for innovative exchange, how society develops as a series of rational interests, as explicated by Max Weber. In other words, their participation in culture creates the very difference they seek to elucidate. In this way culture needs one who can perform an “ascetic renunciation” of values in order to make room for the new. So of course Groys wants to extend this idea of the new beyond his book, to allow his new spin of the dialectic inflection to reify itself in all sectors of society, so that his theory becomes a zero sum signifier that connects all other theoretical manifestations. Groys writes: “That is why cultural innovation, precisely, represents the most consistent manifestation of that logic, which operates just as mercilessly, but in secret, in other spheres of life” just as the new is “commercialized in all too comprehensible a way.”
Since Groys does not address material production of the new very much, to flush out how to address the new as a “commericaliz[ation]” let us turn to Galbraith. For Galbraith, both production and advertisement are parallax affects of culture’s ability to materially create both new kinds of new and enumerations of the traditionally acknowledged novelties anew, as expressions of the value form as split by the market place: Production on the side of suppliers and advertisement on the side of demand. Galbraith cites how this parallax expression of cultural newness through materiality impacts conventional wisdom.
In our society, the increased production of goods—privately produced goods—is, as we have seen, a basic measure of social achievement. [. . .] However, it is a reasonable assumption that most people pressed to explain our concern for production [. . .] would be content to suggest that it serves the happiness of most men and women. [. . .]
The pursuit of happiness is admirable as a goal. But the notion of happiness lacks philosophical exactitude [. . .]. Any direct onslaught on the identification of goods with happiness would have had another drawback. Scholarly discourse, like bullfighting and the classical ballet, has its deeper rules and they must be respected. In this arena, nothing counts so heavily against a man as to be found attacking the values of the public at large and seeking to substitute his own.
We can substitute happiness with values for goods as the two are synonymous. If, however, we were to accept the value form as synonymous with value itself as in the case of economics or Marxism, we would have to accept a materialist reading of discourse and cultural production, not an ideal one as material production is cultural production. This is a position Groys does not share, as such material production can never explain the positions of valorization and the profane. Through Galbraith, by focusing on a difference inherent only between products, the new itself, Galbraith outlines how Groys produces metaphysical ideation, producing a mythology he himself does not see, because like Davenport, he (though perhaps not blindly) “draws every conceivable conclusion from [that mythology of metaphysical difference],” even though Galbraith in many other respects is compatible with Groys.
Thus we are now caught between two expressions of the new, a material value form and a theoretical tension. Perhaps it’s an impossible task to decide which to take, since for Groys “every system of thought lacks an external guarantee.” Thus, whatever decision we make becomes wholly our own responsibility. So should we, as Groys suggests, jump for endless new in the dialectical reversals of the profane and valorization or should we, as Galbraith suggests, determine first what we want to be new before we jump into material production? Of course, this becomes a choice of a “personal nature,” where we act as a mediator to our “central moment” despite having an inability to “see in all its aspects.”
Now we come to answer our first question again. This is why we should bother: Determining what culture is to be like, determines reality and its negative, what is real. Because the profane is also “indeterminate” we lose what we first understand to be when valorized signs become “anonymous cultural sign[s].” In this way, reality is simply the catch-all field of indeterminacy that guarantees our position in the world of reality, as a zero sum signification. In these terms, valorization is an extraction from reality, when an aspect of something becomes what it is, leaving behind a material shadow in the profane. Groys adds:
Although, in culture, diverse sign systems, such as ideologies, languages, artistic systems, and worldviews ceaselessly replace one another, the ‘world’ or ‘reality’ always remains the same, or ceaselessly eludes us. Reality, however, itself constantly changes, in that it is exchanged for cultural signs. The sign’s duality stems from the fact that it has a culturally valorized dimension, [. . .] designat[ing] something, and [. . .] at the same time, a profane thing, [. . .] desgnat[ing] nothing. [. . .] For poststructuralist theory, the sign is always still a sign—even when that which it designates eludes us. However, a signifier that has lost its signified simply becomes a profane thing. It no longer designates anything, or to put it another way, it becomes reality.
And thus, from this gap, material items can become signs of the new. And when we lose that sign, it is returned to the void from whence it came, leaving behind a profane thing. Thus, what’s at stake, isn’t what reality changes, since like the profane, reality is always an indeterminate thing, a unity that cannot be divided (the profane, the real) but rather, what we have to describe and understand to be changes as we discover and forget signs. So while it’s less important to understand Galbraith and Groys in terms of (material) production of happiness or ascetic renunciation, since these are merely technical stances, it is far more important to understand Galbraith and Groys as an attitudinal choice: Should we define what we want before we involve ourselves in endless production or should we sit back and wait for culture to valorize whatever we put forward?
In other words, what’s at stake is how we should deploy the new: do we have agency to act on culture, or does culture have agency to act on me?