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Interview with Boris Groys on Alexandre Kojève

In this interview, philosopher, art critic, essayist and curator, Boris Groys discusses his most recent curatorial project After history: Alexandre Kojève as a photographer. The exhibition, which was presented in Paris at the Palais de Tokyo in Novemeber 2012, and is currently on view at the James Gallery at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, is the result of  Groys’ discovery of Alexandre Kojève's (1902–1968) immense visual collection in the Kojève archives at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.  Presenting the photographs, collected postcards, and hand-drawn itineraries of the French-Russian philosopher, the exhibition is a visual exploration of Kojéve's philosophical and political thought.

The exhibition, After history: Alexandre Kojève as a photographer is part of Former West, a long-term international research project reflecting upon the changes introduced to the world by the political, cultural, artistic, and economic events of 1989.

Thomas Delamarre: First of all, could you explain who Alexandre Kojève was, since he is not very well known to a large audience, even in France? Especially, how did he shift from philosophy to a more practical engagement in French administration, for the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and in the service of the European Commission?

Boris Groys: Kojève became famous in France between 1933 and 1939: at this time, he taught a seminar on the Phenomenology of Hegel [at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris] that was extremely popular in the circle of French intelligentsia. People like Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan and Maurice Merleau-Ponty attended the seminar regularly. So he had a huge influence on the development of French philosophy after World War II. You can find it in the early works of Jean-Paul Sartre, for example.

At that time, he developed the very well-known notion of the end of history, which should be understood as the end of philosophy and not of practical history. What he meant was that the history of philosophy, as a history of looking for a perfect society, a perfect way of life, this history has come to an end. He believed that the understanding of the ideal organization for social practice had been reached. This mode of organization is the so-called universal and homogeneous state: a state in which all rights and all desires are recognized, a state of total recognition in which the differences between oppressor and oppressed, between master and slave, are erased. And so, once this understanding has been reached, the next step is the practical work. In his view, philosophers have to become bureaucrats, clerks, in order to organize the bureaucracy of this new homogeneous and universal state. So, putting his thoughts into action, after World War II, Kojève ceased to be a philosopher and became a bureaucrat. He notably participated in the foundation of the European Community and he was a high ranking representative of France in many international conferences and organizations, specializing in economic relationships.

TD: How did he start his activity as a photographer? How does this relate to his philosophy and his activities in administration?

BG: At that time, approximately 1956 to 1968, he began to travel a lot due to his professional activities. During his travels, he produced more than 5,000 photographs, now kept in his personal archives at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in Paris. He also collected more than 10,000 postcards, also kept at the BNF. His pictures mostly represent historical monuments: so his photographic praxis is a kind of continuation of Hegelian phenomenology. It is a kind of reconstruction of history under the condition of post-history: it is a post-historical view on the monuments of history.

TD: What do you mean exactly by this idea of a post-historical view?

BG: It is post-historical in the way that Kojève is somehow non-subjective, non-personal. He looks at these monuments in a kind of neutral way. We should not forget that we are speaking about the fifties, the sixties, so the time of Andy Warhol, of mass-culture. In a really strange way, though the content of his photographs is historical, his way of looking at it is post-historical and mass-cultural: his photographs are fashioned in the style of mass-produced postcards. They are a manifestation of the Hegelian synthesis between an individual gaze (the subjectivity) and the universal spirit, which neutralizes the way of looking.

TD: In a text called The Weak Universalism1, you describe the artistic practice of the early 20th century avant-garde. You say: “By means of reduction, the artists of the avant-garde began to create images that seemed to them to be so poor, so weak, so empty, that they would survive every possible historical catastrophe.” I was wondering if there was a link between these two practices, the avant-garde’s practice and Kojève’s collections of images.

BG: Kojève’s images play with weakness, I agree: the mass postcard style is a weak style. It seems like anybody could make these photos, they look like trivial tourist photos. And everybody can go through the world as a tourist. But they are not: there is a selection in the images. They show mostly historical monuments, always shot from a similar position, perfectly photographed, usually with no people in the picture, and with almost no funny elements or anything having to do with life or vacations. So they look like trivial tourist images but in fact they are very ascetic. They are organized, disciplined, and subjected to a very rigorous criterion of selection.

TD: So you discovered the collection at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and you selected 400 images…

BG: Yes, well there are about 5,000 images. There is only one copy of each, one slide. It looked like a very dangerous situation to me. I was worried that after several years these slides would disappear because they usually don’t last very long. So I digitized 400 of them for the exhibition.

TD: How did you make your selections? How did you organize them for the viewer?

BG: They were organized by Kojève himself according to his travels to various parts of the world. As I am also a reader of his books, I know that some countries are particularly important for him: France of course, because he spent most of his life there, Russia, his native country, and Japan, a country that completely fascinated him. He was attracted by Asia in general, which means also India, China…

So I organized the exhibition in seven different projections. They trace seven trajectories: three are European, three are Asian and I also made one selection connected to his writings, concentrating on France, Russia and Japan.

The exhibition also displays photographs of his postcard collection and itineraries that he wrote himself on small postcards. They describe his travels in great detail.

TD: My last question will be about you. How does this activity as a curator relate, in your own practice, to your other activities as a philosopher, an art critic and a teacher? Is it in a way the same activity taking various forms?

BG: It is absolutely the same activity. I have actually been a practicing curator for many years already. For me, it is the same as being a philosopher: the philosopher organizes things and notions in a certain way, so that the reader gets an insight into a constellation that simply was not there, for things were not organized this way. The curator does the same: he organizes objects, images, spaces, times in a certain way, allowing the viewer to discover something not visible otherwise.

TD: Thank you very much.

BG: Thank you.

1) Boris Groys, The Weak Universalism, in Going Public (eflux journal), Sternberg Press (2010).
Also available online at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-weak-universalism/

Boris Groys is currently a Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University and Senior Research Fellow at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe, Germany. He has been a professor of aesthetics, art history, and media theory at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design/Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe and taught at a number of universities in the United States and Europe, including the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Groys has curated several major exhibitions including Total Enlightenment: Conceptual Art in Moscow 1960–1990 at the Kunsthalle Schirn in 2004 and Medium Religion with Peter Weibel at the ZKM in Karlsruhe in 2009.