Democracy, Affect, and “Enter-activity” in Zoe Strauss

The first of these ideas is the concept of antagonism. Laclau and Mouffe argue that a fully functioning democratic society is not one in which all antagonisms have disappeared, but one in which new political frontiers are constantly being drawn and brought into debate — in other words, a democratic society is one in which relations of conflict are sustained, not erased. Without antagonism there is only the imposed consensus of authoritarian order—a total suppression of debate and discussion, which is inimical to democracy.

Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics – Claire Bishop

It is always a truly peculiar situation. The tension residing in the interstices between the one and the other. The stark juxtaposition between percept and affect. The grinding in between.  The antagonism we reference above is resultant of one being thrown amongst the detritus of society. Those forgotten. That’s how it begins.  A violence that confronts the somnambulist as they are awakened from their complacent, passive, acceptance of the world about. The attempt to striate the miasma, to diffuse the smell, to relegate and delineate roles and responsibility, has created a zone of possibility where finally . . . finally, the representative becomes expressive. This I believe was the goal and intent of a Ms. Zoe Strauss. An utterance that could finally be discerned from the constructed milieu of an art world, of a home, of a people. One that resounded “don’t forget us”.

Zoe Strauss’ exhibit, located throughout the city of Philadelphia as billboards with her work strategically positioned in neighborhoods and business districts as well as in the Philadelphia Art Museum, is a materialization of these utterances and the memories of those left along the margins of our society. The identity of these individuals, as just that, individuals, via this display, has created a psycho-geography of sorts out of the cityscape as their stories inscribe their-story (as opposed to his-story) along billboards that dot the sky. The contrast of these images can be jarring as you pass the hopes and dreams of these individuals and the falling out of those same dreams against the progressive utopic skyline of a area betting everything on becoming “America’s next great city”. Zoe is calling for a reading of the lives of the individuals she documents – people she has lived with and befriended – to disturb those walking by. To wake them up. Calling attention to the artistry of these people and the environment that many blindly walk through as these people, trembling and hungry, stand to make up the foundation of our society. Kafka’s melancholic style, resultant of the hyper industrialization of the times he lived in makes plenty of commentary on these facts. His Hunger Artist is evocative of his resentment of the times. “When . . . some leisurely passer-by stopped . . . and spoke of cheating, that was in its way the stupidest lie ever invented by indifference and inborn malice, since it was not the hunger artist who was cheating, he was working honestly, but the world was cheating him of his reward”[1]. Zoe attempts to show the failings of this society in a very human way. To show that society has cheated that which it was meant to protect and afford the right to live. For isn’t the mainstay of our culture supposed to be the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Most importantly to life?

The role of identity within these images – the expressive gestures finally enunciated by those who were subjected to alterity in our society – begs to action not only from the reader of these works but from the subjects documented themselves. In a process of individuation, their identity moves from that of negation to a bellowing affirmation of self. As me because I am me. In truth it was hard to hear these voices at first. The space was filled not with shock and awe but with what Gilles Deleuze would state from his analysis of the works of Francis Bacon, a scream where the source was nowhere to be found. The residue of an attempt to codify and define, to striate the subjects and the subject matter within these pieces. A violent disorientation was the end goal. Screams to the tune of “that’s disgusting” . . . “do people live this way” . . . “this is so random” were ever apparent as they were said by the reader’s of the exhibit.  It was angering, however, this violent disorientation was required of myself as well. Amidst the sounds of laughter, disgust, awe, “don’t go in there . . . don’t look”, was a beautifully tragic project. Tragic in the Greek sense of the hero falling at the expense of what they love or those closest. This story however was re-invented. Zoe’s attempt to give voice to these situations were not about heroicizing problems or vilifying the people’s stories displayed by her works but to vivify their memory. To add a thickness and intensity that contributed to the materialization of their memory. Not as an epithet or effigy but to in-liven their faces.

The soundscape that accompanied the experience of these works added to the working assemblage of constructing their meaning.  The juxtaposition of the well off, high middle class and the open display of the lower rungs of society and the resultant reactions were a jarring reminder of the socio-political landscape that we occupy in our contemporary urban landscape.  “Images without sound are powerless to express horror”. [2] The exegesis of this horror is essential to begin a process of constituting the subject and the individual within this environment of the exhibition space. Allowing for an affective re-constitution that transforms both agents within this assemblage of meaning. There is a rebellious duty to disturb that is evident in each piece by Strauss. Art is meant to disturb and disrupt the status quo. In other words to question.

Zoe Strauss (source:

Identity really becomes material as one traverses the landscape of the exhibit. The promise of photography as a medium is its ability to record difference and time. Difference becomes innate and identity is not constituted through a negation of an other. It becomes a process.  The idea of the subject becoming an individual breaks with a historical trajectory that has tried to demarcate the boundaries of humanity and those included within its purview. The other and their existence, their minor status within the social, have been shown to be a conscious construct of those (regardless of number) who have ascertained power in relation to those subjected to it. “One ever feels his twoness . . . two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”[3] One ever feels their status and the status that has been imposed on them. DuBois would go further to say that “[i]t is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” The work of Zoe Strauss is an attempt to reconfigure the image of those with this double consciousness. Those that are subjected to the discursive laws of society and made to feel a “twoness” as the result of the unity of the multiple forces that constitute their identity being torn between two ends or points in the landscape that make up or social-hierarchical structure. To render the invisible not merely as a form of representation but to begin the process of expressing the identity of those within the photographs at that particular instance in history.

Zoe, with an allusion to Bergson and his notions of concrete and abstract time, tries to render the forces within our social terrain visible and remove the confusion that Bergson would constantly refer to in his ideas on time, matter, and memory.  Strauss wants the viewers of these pieces to be realized and to know that they are existent because they truly are. The viewers experiences juxtaposed with those in the photographs renders this distinction more real.  For the viewer, they become a part of this coming into existence as they travel through the spatial enunciation of this identity recorded in a visually material literature. A material language that is read through their active participation in the construction of these spaces meaning and recording in history. To turn this image on its head and give voice to those who in society were told that their voice could only be validated through certain schema or blocks in the social terrain of human experience.

In the case of antagonism, argue Laclau and Mouffe, ‘we are confronted with a different situation: the presence of the ‘Other’ prevents me from being totally myself. The relation arises not from full totalities, but from the impossibility of their constitution.’ 40 In other words, the presence of what is not me renders my identity precarious and vulnerable, and the threat that the other represents transforms my own sense of self into something questionable. When played out on a social level, antagonism can be viewed as the limits of society’s ability to fully constitute itself. Whatever is at the boundary of the social (and of identity), seeking to define it also destroys its ambition to constitute a full presence: ‘As conditions of possibility for the existence of a pluralist democracy, conflicts and antagonisms constitute at the same time the condition of impossibility of its final achievement.’[4] We must push to the edges of those boundaries and burst through. To invent through the openings that have been created via the intense accumulation of otherness on the fringes of society. “Antagonism is discursively constituted”[5] and was made evident through the conversation surrounding each piece within the art gallery and the pieces throughout the city as well.

The process of individuation and democracy must be exhausted as these terms – democracy, interactivity, agency, etc. – are blindly wielded in not only the art world but also the world theater at large. How is a sense of agency, empowerment, or democracy within these theaters even possible based on certain superficial or superimposed ideals glazed over agents and bodies in society? Identity must be valid within one’s self. If unity is multiplicity, as discussed by Nietzsche or even Spinoza, we cannot solely rely on a constituted subject as the result of a derogatory machine that works, subjugates and “reposes on a double identity: of the thinking subject, and of the concepts it creates and to which it lends its own presumed attributes of sameness and constancy . . . In thought its end is truth, in action justice. The weapons it wields in their pursuit are limitive distribution (the determination of the exclusive set of properties possessed by each term in contradistinction to the others: logos, law) and hierarchical ranking (the measurement of the degree of perfection of a term’s self-resemblance in relation to a supreme standard, man, god, or gold: value, morality). The modus operandi is negation: x = x = not y. Identity, resemblance, truth, justice, and negation . . . The end product would be ‘a fully legitimated subject of knowledge and society’ . . . endlessly reproduced and disseminated at every level of the social fabric.” [6] An X = X not because X is not equal to Y but because X is X. This demarcates an indiscernible zone of autonomy within the social landscape that allows for identity to stand in and of itself. A zone that is relationally and affectively interconnected with its milieu. Zoe herself is emblematic of this concept as she still lives within the environments and personally interacts with all of those in her work. The question now becomes how, in these “indiscernible” zones of autonomy, do we truly identify the subject and give it voice? How do we release it from the territorialzed confines of society at large? How do we allow for it’s becoming?

The subject, identity, and/or the individual is realized through a spatial/relational orientation with its milieu. This is an affective relationship. One that allows for all parties involved to enact change on each other. Without this relationship constituted in this way, nothing can occur within the modernist or postmodernist ideal as we have defined it (if we can truly say that it is something that can be defined). Interactivity occurs within the encounter and experience derived of actively perceiving these images that afford us the opportunity to think outside given frameworks. There is no cause and effect type of relationship here as these perceptions and the subsequent meaning – created, not derived – from them occur in the instantaneous moments which we perceive as we “enter-act” (as opposed to merely interact) with pieces. They are created in praesenti. As Hume would note, cause and effect is inferred – it is not given. It is a construction that humanity uses to make the world sensible or intelligible and occurs a posteriori. Hindsight is always 20/20. Thus is logic and causality. Our knowledge and meaning emerges in that miraculous duration of attentive tinkering we call perception. “ . . . The emergence of both individual and milieu – following a course [devenir] in which preliminary tensions are resolved but also preserved . . . the conservation of being through becoming”[7]. Any democratic notions inherent within these works are upheld through this tension. This tension is the creative force, in the in-between (mediation or medius in its pure etymological sense), that materializes the memories and stories told through the interaction one enters into with the photography in the exhibit and billboards displayed throughout the city.

Memory and perception are the apparatus by which we construct a narrative through perceiving these works. Along with Bergson (In his Matter and Memory), the inventive capacity of our cognition, our action in thinking, lies within our ability to forget – our short term memory – which in turn forces us to invent. Henri Bergson defines memory itself as an image that intervenes in active perceptions as we experience the world. Memories become the residual of our affective experience of the world about. These memories are “materially” perceived. By attaching memory and consciousness to a physical process of perception, I believe Bergson allows for the materialization of not only matter but identity itself to be rendered comprehensible even in art. “Matter can be impressed with a form, and the source of ontogenesis can be derived from this matter – form relation. Indeed, if haecceities were not somehow inherent within the atom, or matter, or indeed form, it would be impossible to find a principle of individuation in any . . . realities. To seek the principle of individuation in something that preexists this same individuation is tantamount to reducing individuation to nothing more than ontogenesis. The principle of individuation here is the source of haecceity”[8]. This formation of matter is the beginning of our material perception of our milieu and the beginning of how we can enter into interactivity with the world and in this case this exhibit. Our memory (in the long-term) can no longer be perceived as a latent vegetative contemplation or “image”. “In truth, it no longer represents our past to us, it acts it; and if it still deserves the name of memory, it is not because it conserves bygone images, but because it prolongs their useful effect into the present moment”.[9] This expressive transformation of memory as images and its becoming active in the present is exactly what Zoe’s aim becomes as she spatially gives voice to those within her photographs throughout the city and the art gallery. Our perception of these elements, interwoven into the social fabric of the urban landscape, and the socio-political and economic landscape of the art gallery, allow for a prolonging, and vivification of our experiences long gone but brought to the for.

Zoe Strauss Billoard Project Map
(source: Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The first records, in the form of memory-images, all the events of our daily life as they occur in time; it neglects no detail; it leaves to each fact, to each gesture, its place and date. Regardless of utility or of practical application, it stores up the past by the mere necessity of its own nature. By this memory is made possible the intelligent, or rather intellectual, recognition of a perception already experienced; in it we take refuge every time that, in the search for a particular image, we remount the slope of our past. But every perception is prolonged into a nascent action; and while the images are taking their place and order in this memory, the movements which continue them modify the organism, and create in the body new dispositions towards action.

Matter and Memory – Henri Bergson

These new dispositions allow for a transformative change that in a present, immanent, world of relationality we gain agency in our autonomy as a becoming individual. Agency can no longer be relegated to something that is bequeathed to subjects which in turn subjectifies and indebts them once more to the one who gave this all-too-wonderful gift. These changes can be read as we, as well as our milieu, come into existence in a symbiosis of in-volution. These changes can be read across many different mediums.

This is the primary reason why, in this essay, we have referred to the viewers of these works as readers. This in-volution calls for a new form of literacy in how we interact and navigate an environment such as the one we have been describing in gallery space housing Zoe’s exhibit. A form of literacy that in many ways has been devalued as it cannot be controlled or has been subjugated to other forms of knowledge construction so that it can be. For are not words microcosms of difference that are physically and psychically read due to their innate and minute differences in their constitution and how they’re juxtaposed against open space? Are they not read by the scanning of even the most infinitesimal differences in the assemblage of their visual components? Do we not hold them in contrast to the plane from which they emerge (their environment/milieu)? Essentially, a poetic (and by poetic we mean in the greek sense of creation) attempt to striate, territorialize, and demarcate areas of space to construct systematic meanings from a smooth, indiscernible plane? This action in and of itself, and the illocution or statements that elicit performative acts is exactly what constitutes a language (especially when it comes to art and materially based linguistic systems), otherwise, what is the point? “[T]he performative itself is explained by the illocutionary . . . and the illocutionary is in turn explained by collective assemblages of enunciation”[10].

It is in these assemblages that we are truly interested in order to ascertain a new image of what it means to read these newly re-constituted spaces. What begins to define these territories are these becomings of expression, the enunciated utterances mediated through the words represented by the works placed throughout the city and the gallery space. “ . . . [T]his moment: the becoming-expressive . . . the emergence of expressive proper qualities, the formation of matters of expression that develop into motifs and counterpoints . . . [is] the essential thing. . . [T]he disjunction noticeable between the code and the territory”[11]. The coding of these territorialized spaces are due expressively to this “disjunction”, juxstaposition, or difference in contrast to the milieu these objects are embedded in. In other words, a psycho-geographical rendering of urban space that we consciously perceive and begin to read. And finally beginning to construct knowledge and meaning based on their collective force in expressing their identity. These codes are not predetermined, a priori, determinations of meaning but are derivative of experience and experimentation (as Hume would lay out on his artifice of thought). Through Zoe’s works, it becomes apparent that we enter into these assemblages of meaning not by choice or rationale, but by a necessity to make sense of it all. An affective, symbiotic, relationship that interconnects bodies, modalities, or these indiscernible zones of being to one another. As stated before, if left to logic and ratiocinicity, there would be no room for readers to perceive the variance or chromaticism innate within these pieces. We would be confined to the same functive, normalizing lingual games that we continually impose on environments to derive sense from them after the fact. Meaning can no longer unfold and we are taken out of the immanent and immediate environment in which we conceptualize and communicate the beauty in the world. We must be inventive and through our collective assemblages of meaning and affective (instead of effective) interaction with each other we can communicate this ontogenetic, engendering knowledge. For a new image of language, “[t]he organization of qualified marks into motifs and counterpoints necessarily entails a taking on of consistency, or a capture of the marks of another quality, a mutual branching of . . . colors-gestures . . . Consistency necessarily occurs between heterogeneities, not because it is the birth of a differentiation, but because heterogeneities that were formerly content to coexist or succeed one another become bound up with one another through the ‘consolidation’ of their coexistence and succession”[12]. This consolidation of expression begins to constitute our new image of language, the word itself, and move toward the valorization of lingual systems that are not primarily representative.

This capacity is found in art and is exemplified by the work of Zoe Strauss in her 10 years exhibit and billboard project. Zoe’s work, “produces an active solidarity in spite of skepticism; and if the writer is in the margins or completely outside his or her fragile community, this situation allows the writer all the more the possibility to express another possible community and to forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility”[13]. An act of solidarity bellowing out from the margins of society and captured in Zoe’s photography.

Victor Peterson 


Zoe Strauss: 10 Years Exhibit – Philadelphia Museum of Art

Zoe Strauss Billboard Project in Philadelphia

[1] Kafka, Franz. A Hunger Artist. CreateSpace , 2010. Print.

[2] Toussaint, Jean-Philipe. The Bathroom. Dalkey Archive Press, 1985. Print.

[3] DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls Of Black Folk. Penguin Classics, 1996. Print.

[4] Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2004): 51-79. Print.

[5] Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony And Socialist Strategy, Towards A Radical Democratic Politics. Verso Books, 2001. (P. 168)

[6] Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism And Schizophrenia. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.

[7] Simmondon, Gilbert. The Birth of the Individual. J. Crary and S. Kwinter. Zone Books, 1992. Print.

[8] Simmondon p. 298. A Haecceity encompasses the discreet qualities, innate to a body or entity. Difference is at the root of all identity.

[9] Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. , 2004. Print.

[10] Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism And Schizophrenia. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print. (p. 78).

[11] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p 322.

[12] Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus, p. 330.

[13] Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guatarri. “Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.” Theory and History of Literature. Volume 30. (1986) Print.

6 Responses to “Democracy, Affect, and “Enter-activity” in Zoe Strauss”

  1. Brittany Paris Says:

    Interesting post, Victor. I have a couple of comments.

    1) I think you are on point when you claim Strauss’ work is an example of what Claire Bishop is calling for in Antagonism in Relational Aesthetics–art as democratic experience that is not just all-inclusive, but pushes people to confront uncomfortable realities. This presents itself in an interesting way in her billboards which have caused quite a ruckus. Billboards are an example of media that is traditionally used for capitalist purposes and repurposed, in a way, (albeit by the PMA to promote its show) to present these uncomfortable realities in a more all-inclusive way.

    2) I was interested in your linking the idea that memories are perceptions that become material in the mind and that identities can be perceived or understood in a similar way through art. I understand that you are trying to validate your claim with Simondon’s idea of the process of individuation and its relation or lack thereof to ontogenesis, pushing the idea of the virtual and the actual along with substance and process. If identity is a process then art also plays a part in this process.

    B. Paris

  2. Brittany Paris Says:

    Correction: It seems Strauss contacted Clear Channel who donated the billboards all over the Philadelphia for her city-wide art project. She must have given a dazzling proposal.

    B. Paris

  3. CLAT…

    […]Democracy, Affect, and “Enter-activity” in Zoe Strauss « Immanent Terrain[…]…

  4. immanentterrain2 Says:

    Hey Victor, I really enjoyed reading this post. Throughout, I couldn’t stop thinking about D.H. Lawrence’s observation, “Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was” (16). If we think about man in the natural state, he was free because he did everything himself and had no one to compare himself to. He didn’t worry about the future because he couldn’t conceive of it and he didn’t worry about other people because he didn’t know of their existence. While man is certainly no longer in the state of nature, routines and lives have been carved out and certain aspects of the American landscape have been tossed to the wayside. I agree with you that Zoe Strauss’s art is meant to confront and disturb us.

    Your comments on causation and perception made me think back to Rousseau and his conception of pitié and amour-propre. With pitié, man acknowledged that there were other people and that he should try hard not to hurt them (while still putting himself first, of course). With amour-propre, self-love (in relation to others), man becomes concerned with how other people see him and how he measures up against them. When you love or care about someone, you also care about how they perceive you. While nothing sounds overtly negative about these two types of love, Rousseau says that they are the first types of subjugation and basically, that no one can escape them. For example, “Rich, he needs their services; poor, he needs their help, and even being of average wealth does not enable him to do without them” (from Discourse on the Origin of Inequality). Even if a person somehow manages to have freedom, if he doesn’t feel happy, have self-esteem, or feels alienated, it doesn’t matter. Rousseau’s main problem with society is that it ruins man psychologically, by creating in him all sorts of dissatisfactions, by making him dependent on things out of his control, by taking away from him the power of making decisions for himself.

    So I guess what I’m saying (in a very long-winded way) is that what Strauss does is lull men out of their false sense of freedom. Her artwork reminds us of our subjugation because it forces us to think of all of the people that we can’t help but compare ourselves to – we might overlook them or pretend that they’re non-existent, but they do exist and can’t be erased. These billboards also got me thinking about what art would be like for a person who either a) remembered everything or b) remembered nothing? What if you could remember being in your mother’s womb, being born, existing in the world without the ability to speak and directly communicate? Or what if you had no memory, short or long-term? If you had no memory, you wouldn’t be able to infer causality. How would Strauss’s artwork be perceived by these people (a and b)?

    – Kilgore Trout

  5. immanentterrain2 Says:

    * the first quote that I used comes from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature

    – KT

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