Impersonal Narcissism and Relational Aesthetics

Lynda Benglis. Blatt, 1969.

How would our lives be better if human relations were something other than the collusion of ego-identities, if the shared project was not the consolidation of selfhood, but its dissolution?

   – Leo Bersani & Adam Philips in Intimacies

In Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction, Todd May starts by asking the question of “how might one live?”A sub-question of  May’s question could be “how might we relate to each other?” or “what might we love others for?” and these would be valid ones, since our relationalities with each other and with the world we inhabit are important aspects of our being, which could lead to new possibilities. It involves a discussion of subjectification and ethics, since they define how we choose to relate or not to relate, with whom or what. The relational aesthetics artists and their pieces, which Nicolas Bourriaud discusses in Relational Aesthetics, are seeking these new modes of relationality, at least, they are assumed to be experimenting with. However, the dynamics behind subjectification and our habitual modes of relationality among ourselves and with the world might need to be reconsidered if we want to assess the success of these pieces in terms of their ability to create new relational modes.

Deleuze and Guattari discuss how our being gets striated and territorialized through various devices such as the family, the church and the State, leading to a modernist notion of individualism. The modern subject forms a sense of self through these devices available to her/him, and it proceeds by differentiating between the self and the Other. According to the psychoanalytic theory, the individual sees the outer world as a threat to her/his own existence, therefore, something to be mastered. The individual gets a pleasure through the satisfaction of her/his aggression toward this outer world to the extent she/he masters it. This requires a solid formation of a sense of self and an ego, which immediately creates a strong sense of the Other, in the case of the other humans, animals or the world. To give an example, the current schema of masculinity needs a differentiation from the feminine or from ambiguous sexualities – queer identities. To the extent he differentiates himself from a woman, he becomes more Man. The biological differences may not be enough for him; further differentiation becomes necessary, which results in the distinct binary codes of femininity and masculinity in terms of cosmetics, fashion or gestures, to name a few. Moreover, queer subjectivities become a threat to the masculine subject, because they are the embodiment of the other possibilities the male body is capable of, signaling a dismantling of the hard-won, hard-formed masculine identity, a reminder of the fictitiousness of their particular sense of self, causing the formation of homophobia. This rigid formation of a self-identity has two options when it faces an encounter, unless it remains indifferent. It is either “I love you, I am taking you in”, or “I hate you, you are an Other which is a threat to my identity”. The dual extremities of the possible reactions become a habit, a reaffirmed truth as one has more idea about who one is, narrowing down the range of the possibilities that have not yet been. The encounter results with a choice of binarities that lacks the possible transformation of the self in the equation.  Sometimes these relations are regulated through the State’s rules, and the Church’s values or by the family’s customs and traditions. But most of the time, the paradigm according to which the actions of the subjects are judged or valued is that of an ethics which requires a strong formulation of the individual subject, which, then proceeds by identifying the allies and the enemies, the sameness and the difference, a differentiation between the Self and the Other. However, this is in contrast with what Deleuze understands of ethics, an ethics of immanence, which considers the affective nature of an encounter, following a Spinozist approach. An encounter, a relationality would be good for Deleuze if it increases the capacity to affect and to get affected; new relational modes that foster becomings that require a change in the current notions of subjectification and ethics, since their current states do not leave room for becomings.

The modern subjects have a problematic relationship with each other when they live in a civilized society. The reaffirmed sense of self, which proceeds by differentiating between the self and the Other, thus, seeing the other as something to be mastered, faces a major contradiction when s/he lives in a civilized society, which operate within the ethics of “Love thy neighbor”.  In their collaborative book, Intimacies (2008), in which they discuss the possibilities of new ways of relationality, Leo Bersani and Adam Philips argue, “Nothing is more absurd, Freud asserts in Civilization and Its Discontents, that what is perhaps the most cherished biblical commandment: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ This commandment, revered as one of the ideal demand of civilized society, is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man which Freud claims dictates not that we love our neighbors, but rather that we exploit them, rob them, rape them, murder them”. (Bersani, Philips 60) It is easy to love your neighbors in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s dinners, but that does not mean we have experimented with our ways of relating; as Bishop shows, the antagonism is not sustained but erased, and “without antagonism there is only the imposed consensus of authoritarian order – a total suppression of debate and discussion which is inimical to democracy”. (Bishop 2004 66) Without the friction created by antagonism, it is hardly a new mode of relationality, but something that falls back into our comfortable and habitual ways of relating to each other.

To find other modes of relationality, loss of the modern sense of self or a “shattering of ego” might be necessary, leading to becomings and new subjectivities. It is possible to draw a parallelism between deterritorializations of this kind and “impersonal narcissism”, a notion Leo Bersani offers. In Intimacies, Bersani elaborates on how a loss of self, through a shattering of the ego, opens new territories for an intimacy of a different nature; a new way of relating to others. For him, intimacy is in trouble if it is not rethought as a mode of being with, rather than a mode of knowing about. He considers the love between the mother and the baby of this kind of intimacy. It is narcissistic, because it assumes a self-love, which is also the case for the current relationalities that sees the Other as a threat. However it doesn’t proceed by differentiating between the self-love and the hate for others. It is “impersonal”, because it proceeds by seeing the self in the Other, seeing the other not as a threat to oneself, but as a new channel through which the self can transgress itself, forming new subjectivities or singularities. In every relationship, what the individual looks for is not a reaffirmation of her/his sense of self, but new formations each and every time.

It is the modes of relationality among subjects the artists who are engaged with relational aesthetics are experimenting with or at least they are assumed to be. Claire Bishop, in her “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” article, argues that it is naïve for artists to think they succeed in fostering new relationalities among the viewers, by bringing them together. Some of the artists she discusses are Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick, who are often promoted by the curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud. When read together with her other article “Social Turn and its Discontents”, it can be said that she identifies three problematic notions about these artists’ pieces. First, she criticizes the pieces which are based on an artistic renunciation and an embracing of “a Christian good soul”, particularly when she talks about Oda Projesi’s –a Turkish art collective- workshops, which the artists organized in order to bring art to people who live in their neighborhood by providing them with art supplies and space and by facilitating the production of art for them. (Bishop 2006 5) This can also be argued for Rirkrit Tiravanija’s dinner gatherings. In these cases, the pieces lack the artists’ arguments, by relying too heavily on the participants’ contributions. Moreover, Bishop argues, there are two other problems with these art pieces, the first stems from a misreading of post-structuralist theory. She claims these artists misinterpreted the openness of a work of art, “a work that is open-ended, interactive, and resistant to closure, often appearing to be work-in-progress rather than a completed object”, therefore, “rather than the interpretation of a work of art being open to continual reassessment, the work of art itself is argued to be in perpetual flux” (Bishop 2004 52) The third problem rises from the appropriation of these experience-based happenings by capitalism as an experience economy.

In the case of Santiago Sierra’s works, which are also discussed by Bishop, we have an encounter that results in a different kind of reaction, however, not one that favors a becoming of the viewers, but a reaffirmation; “This is not me!” When the viewers of Sierra’s works face the paid prostitutes or the street vendors of Venice, what they see is the Other on display, not necessarily a relationship between the viewers and Sierra’s paid workers, even though it generates an unease or discomfort; a becoming, a formation of a new mode of relationality remains missing. It is the encounter or the collusion of two different classes or groups, but not necessarily a new mode of relationality among them.

This brings us to the question of what would be a relational aesthetics piece that would foster a becoming that would result from a partial loss of the sense of the modern self or a reconfiguration of subjectivity, leading to impersonal narcissism through some sort of sustained antagonism, perhaps in the areas which Guattari identifies, for inventing new relations “to the body, to fantasy, to time passing, to the mysteries of life and death”. (Guattari cited in Bourriaud 92) A piece that would make us interrogate things that we take for granted, on the borders where everyone has something to negotiate through, “an intimacy that explores the regions of impersonal co-existence where loss of self expands the capacity to love,” to cite from Judith Butler’s review of the book Intimacies.

 Piril Gunduz


Bersani, Leo and Philips, Adam. Intimacies. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October, 2004: 51-79.

Bishop, Claire. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents.” Artforum, February, 2006.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Les Presses du Reel, 2002.

May, Todd. Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

4 Responses to “Impersonal Narcissism and Relational Aesthetics”

  1. […] Here is my blog post where I discuss the problem of subjectivity and relational aesthetics for Spring 2012 Art After Deleuze class. […]

  2. Well said.
    Just one question: How does the photograph at the top relate to the essay? Or is it just meant to decorate?

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