Marc James Leger

Marc James Leger

Marc James Léger is an independent scholar living in Montreal. He is editor of The Idea of the Avant Garde – And What It Means Today (2014) and author of Brave New Avant Garde (2012), The Neoliberal Undead (2013) and Drive in Cinema: Essays on Film, Theory and Politics (2015).

Thursday, 02 June 2016 09:45

Unknown Knowledge: Richard Hamilton's Last Works

Published in Visual Arts

Marc James Léger follows up his last article with an essay on the British artist and self-defined communist, Richard Hamilton. Léger continues his quest for a renewal of emancipatory politics on the left through a critique of discourse theory.


In March 2016 I published Ecce Homo! Occupy God? in Culture Matters, in which I argued against Michel Foucault’s assertion from his 1966 book The Order of Things, that the humanist conception of man would soon be understood to be nothing more than an effect of discourse and would disappear from human knowledge like a face at the edge of the sea. With reference to Lacanian psychoanalysis and the excellent book by Heiko Feldner and Fabio Vighi, Žižek Beyond Foucault (2007), I wrote:

My take on individualism is that we should be collective while also being human. This to me is definitional of leftist class struggle. It means ridding ourselves of the idea of creating a positive unconscious of knowledge that could be located either in social structures or in the persons of individual subjects.

The implications of Foucault’s work seem to me to underscore the totalizing aspects of social constructionism. Even if Foucauldian discourse theory resembles Marxism in its effort to show how “socially constructed” phenomena become naturalized (i.e. as ideology), social constructionism is inherently a method of deconstruction and has by and large abandoned the terrain of revolutionary consciousness.

I wrote the article because I believe that contemporary leftist social movements – such as the alterglobal “movement of the squares,” the strikes by students against tuition hikes, the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, the climate justice movement or the Nuit Debout movement against the new French labour law – are attempting to move beyond the pessimism of postmodern theory but lack the resources to rethink dialectical materialism in this post-postmodern epoch of neoliberalism. There are many intellectuals whose ideas could be helpful in this context but it is my view that foremost among these are Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. It is very difficult to displace an intellectual framework like Foucault’s because of its exceptional sophistication. To my mind the only people working today who have achieved this level of complexity are Badiou and Žižek. I am aware that although the names of Badiou and Žižek are well-known, their ideas are not very well understood, let alone accepted.


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Diego Velásquez, Las Meninas, 1656. Oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.


As it happens, I was invited in early April to collaborate with the Montreal-based arts and humanities magazine Spirale on a planned special issue whose theme would be Foucault’s opening discussion in The Order of Things of Diego Velásquez’s Las Meninas (1656). With this example Foucault introduces his notion of episteme, the more or less unconscious rules according to which different disciplines and fields of knowledge operate. For Foucault, there is an important epistemological shift between the classical period and the modern period that begins in the early the nineteenth century. Foucault himself hesitated to say that his work was contributing to a new postmodern episteme. The editors of the magazine are interested in knowing if we today are on the cusp of just such a new episteme and so proposed that contributors to the special issue select an artwork that like Las Meninas might help us to reflect on the current state of knowledge. Such images, they argue, could help us to fathom the current condition of the post-human, the emergence of the biopolitical subject, the representation of the undecidable, or the end of meta-narratives.

I agreed to participate but I did so with the awareness that I have no special investment in these themes from 1980s academia. After I sent my text to the guest editor to see if it was acceptable for translation, he asked me to remove all of the references to what happens to be leftist thinkers. After I refused to do so, the article was turned down because it was assumed that the magazine editors would find it too long or too complicated for non-academic readers. It does seem odd that a theme issue that invites articles from “erudite and vivacious spirits” and that wishes to think about how Marxism is dead and we’re all neoliberal cyborgs now, should be frightened by a little bit of intellectual discussion. So much for a culture magazine being able to reflect critically on the conditions of possibility of a sector now known as the knowledge industry. In any case the below is what I came up with, just a little over 2000 words. My choice of artist was the late Richard Hamilton, a self-defined communist and one of the last great postmodern artists, you could say.

Foucault's discourse theory

The special issue of Spirale takes as its template Michel Foucaul’s discussion of Velásquez’s Las Meninas as a means to describe the emergence of the classical episteme, symbolized in local terms as a “liberal humanism” according to which one could display on a canvas the range of creatures great and small, from the absolute power of the monarchy to that of a professional painter, courtiers, attendants and whoever might have the good fortune to see the painting: hypothetically, all of king Philip IV’s loyal subjects, which, thanks to his patronage and to the stratagems of the artist, extends to the present like a legendary Leviathan.

The virtual actuality of Las Meninas, what it might say to us today, is no less a question to fathom than the possibility of defining a contemporary episteme, one that passes through the modern via the threshold of the postmodern, with all of its now well-worn clichés: the end of meta-narratives (Jean-François Lyotard) like class struggle and their replacement by “petites histoires,” the dangerous supplement and différance (Jacques Derrida), the precession of simulacra (Jean Baudrillard), the death of the author (Roland Barthes), etc. In other words, today’s episteme would have to incorporate the entire toolbox of post-68 pessimism: the impossible, the unrepresentable and the undecidable, mixed in with the metaphysics of the so-called new materialisms: discursive apparatuses (Foucault), machinic ensembles (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari) and object-centred ontologies (Graham Harman). Our task for this forum is to find an artwork or art practice that could help to convoke the knowledges that are appropriate to our era of genetic modification and new technologies, and possibly also what Foucault described in The Order of Things as the “experience of the propinquity of things … the order by which they must be considered”?

I could in this regard save myself some trouble by taking up, readymade, Lane Reyla’s recent discussion of today’s “communicational episteme.” In Your Everyday Art World (2013) Reyla examines the new kinds of art practices that emerged in the 1960s and 70s with post-minimal, post-conceptual and performance art forms. Gone he says are the hierarchical, institutional, official, continuous, restrictive, spectacular, standard and canonical “Fordist” routines of the art system, with its artists, art objects, studios, galleries and museums, magazines and journals. All of these are replaced with the micro-political organization of sociality, with its short-term, temporary, recombinant, immersive, context-dependent, open, deterritorialized, nomadic, interchangeable, affective, relational and connective networks. To quote Reyla:

The rise of the flexible site and the concurrent marginalizing of the anchored studio and artwork perhaps marks the demise of a whole episteme based on fixed positions, a model of consciousness erected on a representational logic according to which subjects distance and capture objects through static visual spatializing and ordering.

What Reyla also demonstrates is something that is folded (back) into the purview of discourse theory, that is, how all of these have meshed with what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello refer to as “the new spirit of capitalism.”

Indeed, the contemporary neoliberal order of things is consonant with the flow of information and economic circulation. A world in which an almost fully automated social space replaces older, “modern” notions of revolutionary politics is one in which, as Franco Berardi argues in The Uprising (2012), political resistance to neoliberal power is replaced by a system that expands and is self-reinforced in response to the rise in perturbations. We are caught, Berardi says, in an irreversible bio-economic totalitarianism, with its acceleration of the info-sphere and incorporation of the automatisms produced by capitalism’s information and image-based economy. To escape from these processes of domination, Berardi calls for our collective intelligence (general intellect) to re-unite with the social body and to reactivate social solidarity beyond conformism.

Both Reyla’s and Berardi’s approaches, however, conform more or less to Foucault’s theory that the forms of power create their own specific forms of resistance. It is not so much that for Foucault resistance is futile, but that the forms of resistance are part of the “discursive” order of power and knowledge in any society. One could think for example how industrial society produced the proletarian strike and how neoliberal society produces a multitude of single issue protests. It is certainly worth considering the positive conditions of knowledge in our era, but this does imply a certain positivism and metaphysics, something that Marxist theory, Freudian psychoanalysis and modern physics are known to have challenged. Regardless, Foucault’s theory of discourse has by and large become the lingua franca of most critical humanities scholarship.

To my mind the best of what Foucault taught is his method of studying history, from what he called “archaeologies” to his later “genealogies.” But Foucault’s historicism, his study of the play of forces at any given time, does not always allow for the historicity of our contemporary global capitalism. In fact Foucault was more interested in displacing Freudo-Marxism for the sake of the study of hitherto ignored micro-practices, including the study of psychiatry, the penal system and sexuality in antiquity. His concern was with modern disciplinary power as a series of techniques of normalization. Foucault’s “difference politics” was set against normalization rather than capitalist exploitation. This is why some activists who are influence by Foucault consider that capitalism is more suited than communism for new forms of subjectivity to flourish. Against Marxists, those who are influence by Foucault’s discourse theory consider that class oppression exists on the same level as other forms of oppression based on race, gender and sexuality.

It is debatable whether or not Foucault’s anti-dialectical positivism and notion of difference succeeded in altogether displacing ideology critique and anti-capitalist antagonism. Some have even begun to think of the ways that Foucault’s work and postmodern academia – where people seek power rather than truth or justice – have been complicit with neoliberalism. Indeed, the cultural studies emphasis on representation, which is the foundation to Foucault’s politics, signals the pyrrhic victory of what Alain Badiou in his Logique des mondes (2006) refers to as the democratic materialism of languages and bodies. Foucault’s acolyte, Gilles Deleuze was also a critic of Marxist dialectics, which he tended to reduce to the Stalinist version of dialectical materialism (diamat), which presumed in the 1950s that Soviet society had reached the stage of communism described by Marx. Like Foucault, Deleuze’s “difference politics” was set against normalization and proposed infinite becoming and new subjectivities as the source of hope and change.

This is one reason why many activists today think that we need to change ourselves as much as our governments. Pierre Bourdieu, in his sociology of class dispositions also noted how these conversion narratives were typical of the petty bourgeois class, the new salaried employees of the post-industrial service economies. In postwar Italy, in what is known as the movement of “autonomous” Marxism, this meant experimenting with sex, drugs and lifestyles and getting away from the work fetishism of labour unions and communist parties. This is one reason why today the left is so easily fragmented into many different constituencies, subcultures, counter-publics, and single-issue platforms. Given the failures of twentieth-century utopias, there is a real fear of trying to organize revolutionary groups and parties. The endless becoming of new subjects is great for lifestyle concerns but it is also completely compatible with the neoliberal privatization of society. Foucault and Deleuze’s difference politics have in some ways, despite themselves perhaps, delivered us to a bad infinity of becoming that seems at times little more than a new Renaissance bestiarium, promising endless variation inside the finitude of capitalist worldlessness.

What Badiou refers to as today’s relativistic “atonal” world is a world that, according to Žižek, lacks a quilting point. A quilting point is, according to Žižek, “the intervention of a Master-Signifier that imposes a principle of ‘ordering’ onto the world, the point of a simple decision (‘yes or no’) in which the confused multiplicity is violently reduced to a ‘minimal difference’.” The postmodern world, Žižek argues, tries to dispense with the agency of the Master-Signifier, which must be deconstructed, dispersed and disseminated – a desire for atony, with its politically correct politics that avoid the destabilizing features of jouissance: caffeine-free post-politics. The limit of Foucault’s theory is that it subsumes ideology within scientific discourse, thereby avoiding the question of class struggle.

Foucauldian discourse theory argues that reality is not an inevitable and permanent structure but a contingent or arbitrary discursive construct. Discourse suspends the notions of culture, custom, ideology and human psychology and replaces these with the notion of technologies of power and the materiality of symbolic practices. Whereas Marxism emphasized consciousness, according to Feldner and Vighi, discourse theory claims to reveal the positive unconscious of knowledge, revealing a priori knowledge systems that exist behind even political economy and psychoanalysis. For Foucault all knowledge is part of regimes of power and regimes of truth which are historically specific and not immutable.

Lacan's theory of the Real

For followers of the work of Jacques Lacan, however, Foucault’s historicism avoids certain aspects of epistemological-ontological mediation: not only is there a politics of truth, a study of the conditions of possibility of knowledge, but, we must also consider ontological failure as such, the inability to know something and the failure of symbolization, which Lacan designates as the Real. Lacan’s theory of the Real is similar to what Foucault might define as the non-discursive, which allows for the notion that symbolic representation, and therefore all social structure, is inherently incomplete and unstable. Lacan’s psychoanalysis is therefore compatible with modern physics in ways that Foucault’s idea of a “positive unconscious of knowledge” avoids. The modern universe, from Newton to Darwin, is experienced as contingent and irrational. It is this traumatic meaningless that the discourse of psychoanalysis addresses with the notion of the unconscious and the indeterminacy of the subject.

In his Seminar of 1969, Lacan argued that the structure of subjectivity oscillates between what he called the Four Discourses: Master, University, Hysteric and Analyst. In each of these Discourses, Lacan addressed different potential orderings for systems of knowledge, the function of symbolic structures, desire, truth, belief, trauma, social reproduction, hidden symptoms, loss and surplus, Master Signifiers, and the position of both the analyst and the analysand (the subject of psychoanalysis). From a Lacanian point of view, if there were such a thing as a contemporary episteme, it would emphasize the oscillation between the Discourse of the University, understood as the predominance of expert knowledge, and the Discourse of the Hysteric, understood as activist resistance to the crises of the same technocratic order. Through technocratic rule, contemporary culture gives precedence to what Lacan defined as the Discourse of the University. The term University is here specific to Lacan’s terminology and is not a critique of scholarly learning, far from it, nor it is limited to universities. Another term for the aspect of “all-knowing” that Lacan associates with the Discourse of the University is bureaucracy. For example, in comparison with the feudal order of the classical era of the time of Velásquez, one can see how the classical master, the aristocracy, has been replaced with the new master of expert knowledge.

What if we avoided Foucault’s foreclosure of humanist subjectivity and instead discussed the problem of knowledge and representation in relation to the Lacanian notion of the Master-Signifier, a move that could afford us, in addition to questions of collective resistance, an appreciation of artistic creation? The Discourse of the Master produces surplus (surplus value, surplus enjoyment, surplus knowledge) insofar as it is generated by interaction with the system of knowledge. Consider in this regard the last work of Richard Hamilton, the originator of Pop Art and one of the last “masters” of postmodernism in art. His last work is enigmatically based on Honoré de Balzac’s 1832 novella ‘Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu’ (The Unknown Masterpiece), an allegory about artistic and erotic desire in which the aged artist Frenhofer invites his colleagues to view a painting in which a perfect nude is said to come to life. His peers, however, see nothing but abstract shapes and the artist consequently proceeds to destroy his works and then mysteriously dies. As it happens, the story was published in The Human Comedy, a multi-volume compendium of writings that Balzac put together before his death.


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Parts (a) and (b) of Richard Hamilton, Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu – a painting in three parts, also known by the artist as Untitled and Balzac (a) + (b) + (c), 2011. Epson inkjet on Hewlett-Packard RHesolution canvas, 3 panel triptych, 112 x 176 cm each. Created in chronological order, the first image was generated by computer in Photoshop and overpainted by hand. It makes use of an 1855 photograph by Louis-Camille d’Olivier of a female nude with a model’s foot added from a separate photo. It is followed by a drawing made with Photoshop filter, and a digital rendering of the finished work. The Richard Hamilton Estate.


Hamilton’s last work was planned for an admission-free exhibition at the National Gallery London and remained unfinished at the time of his death at age 89. Aware that he would not complete the work, he decided to show the three panels as preparatory pieces. Like Duchamp with his last work, Étant donnés, Hamilton embodies the position of a Master whose law-giving work functions as loss, which we could think about in terms of the surplus value of capitalist capture: the work of art as a reflection on the impossibility of art in terms of the dominance of the contemporary Discourse of the University, which attempts to reduce everything to market value. Christopher Riopelle reported that Hamilton said of the Balzac project: “This is my Étant donnés.” It is also interesting to consider in this regard Hamilton’s early experiences in the 1950s with the Independent Group, a group of “anti-academic” artists who, according to Lawrence Alloway, challenged the University culture insofar as it was keyed towards authoritarian and ruling-class interests.


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Richard Hamilton, Picasso’s meninas, 1973. Etching, 57 x 49 cm. The Tate Museum.


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Richard Hamilton in front of a suite of his etchings titled Picasso’s meninas (1973) on the occasion of his exhibition Richard Hamilton: Picasso’s meninas, Museo del Prado, March 23-April 7, 2010. The Hamilton portfolio, titled Homage à Picasso, was part of a larger exhibition that provided a viewpoint on Velásquez’s Las Meninas through interpretations by Goya, Picasso and Hamilton. Photograph by Alberto Bernardo. Museo Nacional del Prado.


In the Discourse of the Master, the artist is a “vanishing mediator” of his own work. The artist’s “self-analysis” in his art, his self-knowledge of the world, maps his relationship to representation; he is not an effect of discourse but an objectified subject. What resists his total and complete immersion into the order of things is his life instinct, which Lacan referred to as lamella. Through his art, the artist captures the enjoyment of reality as a fundamental fantasy, as infinite plasticity and the blind insistence of a pure surface. It is a fantasy in which the artist must himself appear.

In comparison to Hamilton, Velásquez presented his viewers with a somewhat innocent, anecdotal invitation to voyeurism. Of course Velásquez was fully aware of this paradox in the terms of the Baroque art of his day, wherein the naturalist optical view of reality eclipses the observing subject and simultaneously reinscribes him or her in the space of the representation. An admirer of Velásquez, Hamilton planned for the Museo Nacional del Prado in 2010 an exhibition titled Homage to Picasso, which included his three 1973 etchings titled Picasso’s meninas, which depicts Picasso in the place of Velásquez, with the latter’s posthumously awarded cross of St. James replaced by a communist hammer and sickle. Velásquez’s break with the metaphysical world of mimesis as a precondition for access to the universal is now given, through what we have come to know through the teachings of Marx and Freud, the casting of ideology and the unconscious.


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Richard Hamilton, Interior I, 1964. Oil on collage on panel with inlaid mirror.


As Benjamin Buchloh remarks in the Richard Hamilton retrospective catalogue of 2014, Velásquez’s Las Meninas was particularly important to Hamilton for his 1964 readymade painting, Interior I. The Spanish artist’s work is “one of the key works within which a painter’s conception of an emerging bourgeois subjectivity (the painter painting) had found an initial and yet already culminating formulation” (Buchloh). In his discussion of Interior I and II, Hal Foster notes how these Hamilton works “invoke Dutch and Spanish interiors à la Vermeer and Velásquez, that is, Baroque ‘meta-paintings’ that … reflect on picturing as such.” The citation in Interior I and II of actress Patricia Knight from the 1948 Hollywood film Shockproof, in contrast to Warhol’s iconic stars, lends credence to Buchloh’s suggestion that Hamilton is concerned with the conditions of possibility for an anonymous collective perception that is mediated by the regimes of advanced image technology. However, with far less optimism than Constructivists and the Bauhaus, what Hamilton’s work provides – through in this case the figure of a film noir femme fatale – is an allegory of the culture industry, or, as Buchloh puts it, the artwork’s “epistemic destiny” as an object of affirmative consumption.


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Part (c) of Richard Hamilton, Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu – a painting in three parts, 2011.


In the Balzac work, to the left, a middle-aged Titian looks out to the spectator. On the right of the canvas, a young Courbet, in three-quarters profile, intensely discusses something with an elderly Poussin, seen in full profile and holding a paintbrush in his clasped hands. The three artists’ images are based on self-portraits and yet representation is a matter of conjecture, if not scepticism, in this post-Pop art homage to the artist’s devotion to eroticism and sexual frustration. The reclining female nude in the foreground lies on her side and props herself up on some pillows. Engrossed in thought, her eyes are closed and her right hand is folded dreamily onto to her chest. Her left hand is casually resting on her turned hip. While she appears very much the embodiment of beauty and harmony, her placement in the foreground also seems detached from the scene behind her, as though viewed through stereoscopic lenses.

In accordance with his other late works, the female nude is associated by Hamilton with the divine and with a “life-force” that is esoterically analogous to the auratic qualities of the immaterial and the digital. As Michael Bracewell puts it in Richard Hamilton: The Late Works (2012), “These men have the air of eminent doctors, absorbed in a joint diagnosis of whatever case the female’s tranquil form might present.” The circle of gazes that delighted Foucault in Las Meninas is here broken. Between the artists and the model, at the centre of the scene, stands an empty easel. Unlike Las Meninas, none of the viewing positions suggest a controlling gaze, neither that of the figures inside the work nor the gaze of the external spectator, whose attention is divided spatially and temporally between three sequential works.

In contrast to Fanny Singer, I would dispute the assertion that Hamilton is “concerned with the historicization of the male gaze.” The void of this art insists in its multiplicity and self-division on the end of a certain kind of reality to which we could give the name global capitalism. The empty easel at the centre of this set of panels has the shape of an H frame that possibly stands in for Hamilton himself. It is in fact drawn from his studio and is inserted in the Balzac work within the space of an artist’s studio. The only other occasion in which Hamilton depicted a studio was in Picasso’s Meninas. The studio easel as subject and as void symbolizes an unfinished task, an absolute negativity and suspension of knowledge that is the basis for any further identification. As Hamilton said to Paul Schimmel, reflecting on his vast array of works over the decades: “What the hell is going on here?”