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The Optical Unconscious.

The first sentence of this book begins with a conjunction--"And what about little John Ruskin . . . and his fixed stare?"--as if introducing a relevant new topic into an ongoing discussion with implied readers. One of these, a few pages later, is imagined asking if it is possible to think of Ruskin "in the same universe as modernism," thus revealing the discussion's topic. The answer explains the reference to the "fixed stare" in that Ruskin cannot take his eyes from the "sea" and "the sea is a special kind of medium for modernism." How so, the implied reader wants to know, and the answer is that the sea is "a visual plenitude that is somehow heightened and pure, both a limitless expanse and a sameness, flattening it into nothing, the no-space of sensory deprivation." So the sea is a sort of ready-made monochrome, or perhaps a natural analogue to an all over blue painting, or perhaps to the oblong luminosities of what Rosalind Krauss elsewhere designates "The California Sublime." Or in any case for what she designates here as "the optical and its limits," where a certain kind of positive nothingness is in fact what one sees. Then, by an abrupt remembered association, the author recalls being "inducted" by Michael Fried "onto the team" of '60s modernism, when Captain Clem Greenberg pointed his heavy hitters in the direction of a "utopian modernism" in which each discipline, but paradigmatically the discipline of painting, withdraws into what is unique to it--in the case of painting, into the optical--and through renunciation of everything extrinsic to the purely optical finds something positive: like the positive negativity of the sea. And now the text makes a swift transit through a description given by Joseph Conrad of the sea under threat of storm, commented upon by Fredric Jameson, and we make a landfall in Holland with the plus-and-minus paintings of Piet Mondrian. Eleven pages into the book and we have traversed critics, painters, writers, scientists, and we understand that we are being guided toward a way of construing Modernism in painting as optically defined, like the sight of the sea, which she is going to redefine ("my modernism") and then begin to dismantle from the direction of what Modernism represses ("the optical unconscious").

Krauss is concerned to present Modernism less in terms of its history than its structure, which she seeks to represent by means of a kind of diagram: "It |is~ more interesting to think of modernism as a graph or table than a history." The "table" is a square with diagonally connected corners, of the kind most likely to be familiar to readers as the Square of Opposition, found in elementary logic texts since the mid-19th century. The square, as Krauss sees it, defines a kind of idealized space "within which to work out unbearable contradictions produced within the real field of history." This she calls, using the inevitable gallicism, "the site of Jameson's Political Unconscious" and then, in art, the optical unconscious, which consists of what Utopian Modernism had to kick downstairs, to repress, to "evacuate . . . from its field."

Greenberg identified an idealized history of disciplinary purity, which meant that painting, famously, had to expel--she will use the term "repress"--whatever does not belong to the optical essence of art. In this book, Krauss identifies a "counterhistory" which she speculates perhaps began with Marcel Duchamp, but which "pointed to the way the foundations of modernism were mined by a thousand pockets of darkness, the blind, irrational space of the labyrinth." So "the problem of this book will be to show that the depths are there, to show that the graph's transparency is only seeming: that it masks what is beneath it, or to use a stronger term, represses it."

The book is a series of extremely lyrical explorations of artists whom Modernism would just as soon consign to oblivion outside its triumphal narrative. Among its dark heroes are the Surrealists, whom Greenberg tirelessly attacked for repudiating the antipictorial (read: antifigure/ground) teachings of Cubism, as well as artists like Jackson Pollock, whose achievement Greenberg was obliged to distort in order to claim him for Modernism. Her figures are Duchamp (of course), Max Ernst, the Surrealist photographers, Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso, a Pollock restored to full stature, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Eva Hesse.

Repression is a key notion in this history. Krauss cites a passage from Walter Benjamin's "Small History of Photography" (1931): "It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis." Perhaps Benjamin was referring to the fact that when we examine a daguerreotype under magnification, we see details of which the eye would otherwise be unconscious. Or, in slow motion photography, we find intermediate images of which we would not be conscious when viewing the action at regular speed. And these might correspond to those stages in the optical systems' processing of visual information of which we have no consciousness at all. It is a nice thought, but none of this could be considered repressed, any more than could the unconscious process of metabolism. So Krauss is right in saying that her use of the expression (optical unconscious) "is thus at an angle to Benjamin's." But repression is exactly the term to use, even if in particular instances it will need defending, for art that the narratives of Modernism have no way of fitting in. All stories have to exclude, but repression is a more active procedure, and ultimately, as with the UCS System of Freud, bound to cause trouble, since the contradictions expelled from conscious historical life remain unresolved and continue to raise problems. The optical unconscious is thus ultimately subversive: Hesse's "process elaborate|s~ the space of painting with its modernist laws, only to sap it from its very center: yet one more avatar of the optical unconscious." With that sentence the book ends.

This is, I think it fair to say, a book like no other. It is filled with fascinating bits of art-historical scholarship, and written, often, with a literary flair and urgency that one might have expected from a poet. Krauss' way to the optical unconscious is through a sort of free association, writing down what is suggested to her by what she has written down, moving from Ruskin to Fried to Conrad to Jameson to Mondrian to . . . to. . . . So the book is inherently allusive and, one might say, adjunctive, rather than logical and narrational. But it is original, fascinating, personal, often brilliant, combative. Its premise is a kind of metaphor from psychoanalytic theory that less inspired scholars may be able to write out in the uninflected language of historical explanation.

Arthur Danto is art critic for The Nation and a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, New York.
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Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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