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Foreword Afterall Journal Issue 25

The notion of authenticity doesn’t have much critical currency today, neither in art nor in politics. It is true that claims to authenticity are often made in relation to artists’ work, in discussions of citizenship and nationality and in connection with ethical issues in general. Such claims are one of the basic mechanisms through which the art system creates and maintains its value, and they further fuel institutional arguments and sometimes policies. But, associated with essentialist positions and dogmatic approaches, with closing
down critique rather than opening up to it, authenticity doesn’t appear the argument of choice when defending artistic or political practices that prioritise equality, critique, enquiry or change.

This wasn’t always the case. While Theodor Adorno dismissed the jargon of authenticity in 1964 – in existentialism in general and Martin Heidegger’s writing in particular – as complicit with fascism,01 before this rejection, and before the use of authenticity by Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and earlier Søren Kierkegaard, the concept was discussed by Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And just a few years after Adorno’s dismissal, Marshall Berman tried to bring back that discussion, and through it to recuperate what he identified as a key emancipatory tool. Berman traced in his book The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society (1970) the emergence of the notion of authenticity in the work of those two early thinkers of the new, modern world, through the basic thesis that the search for
authenticity is, in modern times, ‘bound up with a radical rejection of things as they are’, that ‘the social and political structures men live in are keeping the self stifled, chained down, locked up’.02 The notion of the authentic in relation to the self, Berman writes, serves as a trigger for a critique of a status quo that is systematically unequal and for an impulse to disrupt, change or transform unjust social structures. Seen in this way, authenticity is arguably at the origin of every ideological construction that has proposed reform or
revolution and, on this basis, at the core of the history of political emancipation for the last 300 years.

Authenticity, as Berman finds it in Montesquieu and Rousseau, is a response to the new climate of modernity – a climate that ‘threatens the tree of man with mutilation or destruction’ but that at the same time ‘holds out a promise of unprecedented fruitfulness’.03 This response is not a rejection of the modern in favour of a pre-modern human nature, but an embrace of the complexities of modernity that cannot but reflect them through a series of tensions and contradictions. A few years later Berman offered a detailed and captivating book-length elaboration on how this modernity is experienced, in All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982):

to be modern … is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one’s world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air. 04

The ‘melting’ of the title is then the result of a dynamic process of creation and destruction within which the individual can never find a stable position. In the face of this situation – and if we conflate Berman’s two books – to be modern is to be authentic, where this means being able to change and also to resist, to embrace and take advantage of the creative force of modernity and to fight against being annihilated by it.

In the editorial meeting in early spring 2009 that shaped this issue of Afterall, we pictured today’s situation in quite different terms from Berman’s: we also shared at that time the impression that all that was solid had melted, but that melting we saw as a blurring of differences and a loss of horizons and certainties. After the end in 1989 of Real Socialism as an alternative to the liberal capitalist system, and with the collapse of that system as it became apparent almost two decades later in the autumn of 2008, a certain void of power opened up, one that made it hard to find referents – either positive or negative. This conversation was partly triggered by Afterall’s involvement in FORMER WEST, a research, education, publishing and exhibition project that aims to reflect upon the changes affecting the world, and within it the so-called West, since 1989.05 But reading, a year, later the essays we commissioned as a follow up to that discussion – after several debt crises, widespread austerity measures and some changes of government – that impression has vanished. Certainly Berman’s rhetorical ability is partly to blame for this change in perspective, but the ‘softness’, the blurring we discussed in our editorial meeting has dissipated and instead what comes across is a brutal, partial dialectic of modernity, in which movements of creation have been anaesthetised, and only the destructive impulse remains.

From that frame of reference, the selection of artists and issues that we have gathered here offer less some means of orientation in a pervading fog and rather a series of strategies for resisting the destructive impulses coming from a market that has slipped out of any past reins or from a politics that not only exerts control but also a raw violence. In relation to these two sources of destructive impulses, a distinction may be made between the four artists featured. The work by two of the artists – Judith Hopf and Zoe Leonard – can be
seen to focus on exposing the homogenising force of the neoliberal market, and its undoing of communities like those established in Berlin in the 1990s or New York’s Lower East Side in the 1980s. In this, they could be said to be re-enacting the struggle for New York City during the 1950s and 60s that Berman recounts in All That Is Solid Melts into Air: that between the city of cars, highways, tunnels and flyovers as associated with Robert Moses and the city of neighbourhoods and communities that Jane Jacobs championed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).

The work of Rabih Mroué and Želimir Žilnik, by contrast, seems to stem from a focus on the other factor: the destructive violence of politics. They show how, as a result of Lebanon’s civil conflicts (Mroué) and of the social structures in former Yugoslavia and Germany (Žilnik), a local system of positions, roles and hierarchies is established in a manner that forces the individual inhabiting these societies into very specific modes of visibility, or even disappearance. But the destructive force of the market also appears in their work, as does that of politics in Hopf’s and Leonard’s.

In the end, what these projects suggest is that a rearrangement of the social body might be necessary in order to make possible the emergence of forms of individuality that are emancipatory. However, even in the current circumstances, it is possible to perhaps give shape to such forms, through the appropriation and collaging of visual and linguistic forms (as shown by Karl Holmqvist in his performances or his 2009 book What’s My Name?, also discussed in this issue) or through the positing of an I that is perhaps fictional, perhaps not (as stressed by Mroué in his recent exhibition at BAK, Utrecht, titled ‘Rabih Mroué: I, the
Undersigned’). 06

That said, it would be imprudent to leave the argument here, for it would be wrong to conclude that the project of emancipation can only be conducted through the sheltering and development of the figure of the individual. The relationship between the individual and the collective is key to the development of the modern project, and the emergence of the mass as a political subject is perhaps as important for this project as the notion of authenticity is according to Berman. The emergence of the urban world he pictures in his 1982 book brings with it the emergence of a new type of politics, allowed, simply, by a mass of people coming together in the same place at the same time. At least since John Locke, political theory, and later sociology, has insisted on characterising that mass in terms of irrationality, disorder, lack of discipline and even criminality. 07 But Elias Canetti’s crowd, or Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde’s foule, even if necessarily short-lived, impulsive, paranoid, driven by emotions and in constant need of discharge, is also the modern political subject – one that comes together in a specific context and as a response to a specific situation, in order to actually change it.08 The crowd is one of the few instances in which differences disappear, and, as Canetti writes in Crowds and Power (1960), within it, at a certain point, all who are part of it feel equal.09

The two contextual essays printed in this issue discuss examples of group activity that show how this collective political subject can form and operate. Marion von Osten’s essay on the ‘project exhibition’ examines new forms of interdisciplinary exhibition practice that consolidated during the 1990s and which might shift our understanding of work within the artistic and, by extension, cultural arena.10 That moment of equality that Canetti points towards is perhaps most radically present in the essay that opens this issue, in which Ana
Longoni examines the visual strategies adopted by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and other human rights groups in Argentina in their fight to raise awareness about the crimes committed by the dictatorship in power during the 1970s and early 80s, and to reclaim the return of those who had disappeared during those years. The activist groups that emerged during that time and which continued once a democratic system was reinstated – a system that for many years failed to recognise the crimes of the military regime – were formed
as a response to a political system of annihilation of dissent or resistance. The Mothers and those around them reactivated that resistance through visual strategies that encapsulated the modern tension between the recognition of the individual (the missing person, through the passport or family photograph) and his or her incorporation within the mass acting together as a body of political significance. In their actions, the Mothers embraced that ideal of authenticity that, as Berman writes, articulates men and women’s ‘deepest
responses to the modern world and their most intense hopes for a new life in it’. 11


  • See Theodor W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity (trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.
  • Marshall Berman, The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society, London and New York, Verso, 2009, p.xxvii.
  • Ibid., p.168.
  • M. Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, London and New York: Verso, 1983, pp.345-46.
  • As part of this involvement, Afterall will be publishing for the next three years a series of texts in the journal and in Afterall Online elaborating on the motifs and findings of the project. For more information on FORMER WEST, see (last accessed on 31 August 2010).
  • ‘Rabih Mroué: I, the Undersigned’, BAK – basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, 21 May-1 July 2010.
  • Louis Chevalier, in Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses à Paris pendant la moitié du XIX siècle (Paris: Editions Perrin, 1958), maintains that there is such a similarity between the dangerous classes and the working classes that it is difficult to tell them apart.
  • See Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984; Gustave Le Bon, Psychologie des foules, Paris: Quadrige/Presses Universitaires de France, 1963; and Gabriel Tarde, L’Opinion et la foule, Paris: Éditions du Sandre, 2008.
  • E. Canetti, Crowds and Power, op. cit., p.17.
  • This essay is also the first of the series of texts that Afterall will be commissioning during the next three years as a contribution to the FORMER WEST project.
  • This essay is also the first of the series of texts that Afterall will be commissioning during the next three years as a contribution to the FORMER WEST project.