Repetition-en-abyme: Aesthetics and the Antidemocratic Turn

“Repetition-en-Abyme” was commissioned by Padiglione de’Arte Contemporanea for the exhibition catalogue, “Fear Eats the Soul,” a survey of artwork by Artur Zmijewksi, curated by Diego Sileo. The exhibition took place March 3 – June 6, 2022. Catalogue forthcoming.

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Artur Zmijewski, Repetition, 2005, Film Still.

By Juli Carson

History is coming back. We are all dusting off old books about world order. Intellectually, this is the most interesting moment in my life. Yet at the same time, life as we knew it has ended, especially in Poland.[1]

Slawomir Sierakowski

The reality of the work of art and its expressive power cannot be restricted to its original historical horizon, in which its beholder actually seems to become the contemporary of the creator. It seems instead to belong to the experience of art that the work of art always has its own present.[2]

Hans-Georg Gadamer

Artur Zmijewski’s Repetition repeats itself. We should heed its hermeneutic message.

Consider the following. If the year 1989—the demarcation of the end of a divided Europe between Western and Russian influence—is the horizon or hinge between the political era of the Cold War 1970s and the post-political era of the neoliberal 20th and 21st centuries, then Repetition is the aesthetic through-line. The artwork’s referent belongs in one period while its inception and reception belong to the following. Moreover, now that we’ve unexpectedly landed in the post-post-historical world of Putin’s War—a prequel to a possible WWIII—Repetition has a different story to tell, as a kind of heuristic device for critical aesthetics and historical consciousness. Nothing could be more important given the global antidemocratic turn, both within the West and without. For the Western identified collective—one desiring a post-political global marketplace—might be done with the 20th century’s world wars, but the ideologies driving those wars are not yet done with the market’s post-historical players. This seems to be, then, a question of cultural repetition in general. And where there is repetition there is always a repressed demand. What follows is a close read of what Repetition repeats, in order to enact a type of perturbation—borrowing Jacques Rancière’s term—within the psychic, political and aesthetic fields.

First, there’s the problem of unconscious repetition, or, rather, the problem of consciousness. In the language of psychoanalysis, repetition goes hand in glove with transference. For transference instances the unconscious repetition of a prior demand—a missing chapter from our history—within the present. If repetition is therefore a transference of the forgotten past onto the present, then the compulsion to repeat replaces the impulse to remember. All this defines transference as a neurosis. However, there is another route. Meaningful transference replaces transference neurosis when repetition is neither repressed from our consciousness nor indulged, when we persevere through repetition in a self-aware manner.[3] In the analytic scenario, the analyst—a mirror of the analysand in Jacques Lacan’s terms—provides the non-explanatory guidance necessary for the analysand’s gradual self-awareness. In the cultural milieu, the artist might take up the role of the analyst vis-à-vis the public’s unconscious transference neurosis in repeating, time and again, the same antidemocratic turn towards autocratic strong men and their mythic subversion of “sovereign democracy.” An artwork, moreover, might performatively fill the gap of collective consciousness by returning the missing historical chapter, as it were, to a given collective memory.

There’s also the problem of how this unconscious missing chapter—a given historical event, once returned—is ideologically consumed back into collective consciousness. In the language of political science, repetition has therefore to do with how we conceive of history, itself, as a continuum. For the Western identified globalists, the so-called “post-political” world was shored up by the “end of history” myth, ushered in by the presumed end of communism and the inevitable victory of both liberal democracy and capitalism. This was most famously proffered by Francis Fukuyama, who, in 1989, claimed: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident…in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”[4] Timothy Snyder, in his more recent book The Road to Unfreedom: Russian, Europe, America, calls this the politics of inevitability, “a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.”[5] Even so, a repressed Cold War reality is currently returning to collective consciousness, with a vengeance. It seems that maintaining the “end of history” narrative within the inevitability paradigm is like playing a game of whack-a-mole with political chronotopes. Stop one chronotope over here, another one pops up over there. As Snyder himself observes, “The collapse of the politics of inevitability ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood.” In this case, “time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past.”[6] Recalling that repetition has to do with transference—the repressed repetition of a prior event—right now, that “threat from the past” points to the antidemocratic turn to fascism, the reality of the previous century’s politics of eternity, that can no longer be repressed by the politics of inevitability. As Slawomir Sierakowski put it, the post-historical life as we knew it has ended.

Enter Zmijewski’s Repetition.

In the language of aesthetics, a hermeneutic impulse beats at the heart of Repetition. More precisely, by hermeneutics I mean a post-hermeneutics: “post” in the sense of a “post-structuralism” that enacts a kind of deconstruction, not a negation. If we add what psychoanalysis knows about repetition to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s notion of a non-traditional hermeneutics, we arrive at what I’m calling a “hermeneutic impulse.” In the original definition, Gadamer reminds us, hermeneutics “is the art of clarifying and mediating our own effort of interpretation what is said by persons we encounter in tradition.”[7] We employ hermeneutics whenever we encounter something not immediately intelligible. That said, traditional hermeneutics is limited—as Jacques Derrida argued in debate with Gadamer—when employed to “commune” one-on-one with the past, for the past as it returns to the present is always simultaneously fleeting because its “truth” is forever altered by the subjectivity of its interpreter.[8] To which Gadamer retorts, that’s exactly the point! Art moves through time and changes with it thusly. In this way, “an absolute contemporaneousness exists between the [historical] work and its present beholder. The reality of the work of art and its expressive power cannot be restricted to its original historical horizon [as in traditional hermeneutics], in which its beholder seems to become the contemporary creator,” Gadamer explains. “Rather, [the reality of art] seems to have its own present. Only in a limited way does an artwork therefore retain its historical origin within itself.”[9] This is what is meant by the assertation that Repetition repeats itself. But it never does so in exactly the same way because what Repetition repeats are a different set of demands each time the work is encountered: one demand is unconsciously repressed from the past, while the other is consciously expressed in the present. When viewed critically, Repetition closes the gap between these two demands meaningfully. Should we identify the demand(s) being repeated in Repetition, we need first understand that what repetition returns is not the same but the different. Bruce Fink has succinctly put it this way:

In Seminar XI, Lacan sustains that repetition is one of the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. But if, as Heraclitus says, “you can’t step in the same river twice,” repetition seems to be something of a misnomer, consisting in the return, not of the same, but of the different—the return of something else, something other. Thus in fact it would seem there is no return…For no two “things” are ever identical or exactly the same.[10]

Accordingly, what gets repeated in Zmijewski’s Repetition is not the same thing as before nor is the artwork itself the same as it’s repeatedly viewed in posterity. In this way, Repetition evokes the Argo—the mythic ship, built with the help of the gods, each piece of which the Argonauts replaced so that in the end an entirely new ship was built with the same name and form. In this metaphor Repetition is the Argo and we the Argonauts.

Let’s begin, again, with Repetition’s primal scene.

The year is 1971. The site is Building 420 in Stanford University’s psychology department, where Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted what’s now known as the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). Funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the study set out to see what happens when people are put in an evil place: would they undergo deindividualization and begin to embody the institution or would their inner morality rise about the situation? The participants were 24 male college students randomly assigned to act either as “guards” or “prisoners” in a mock prison constructed in the building’s basement. The experiment was an infamous failure, lasting only 6 days from Aug 14 – Aug 20. Stemming from the fact that Zimbardo was both lead investigator and the mock prison’s superintendent, the study’s “independent variable” had been nullified from the start. In experimental science, the independent variable is the cause of a given study—here it’s the random assignment of the roles of prison-guard and prisoner. Dependent variables, in turn, are the effect that the independent variable has on the study’s participants, which are then measured by the outside researchers. Since Zimbardo was at once the experiment’s designer and participant—at once inside and outside the study—any distinction between independent and dependent variables collapsed, transforming the study from scientific experiment to mere simulation, a condition exacerbated by the lack of a control group. Simply, SPE constituted its own hermetic world, the researchers at once the participants, the university at once the penitentiary. Having become that which it had set out to study, on day 6 the experiment was called off. And yet, because the prisoners had so thoroughly transferred onto the institution—to the point of believing the “Stanford County Prison” was real—when they were told to go home, they were at first bewildered, necessitating deprogramming sessions to remind them of their real identities.

Key to the experiment’s failure was that, from the very beginning, it was structurally more simulation than science. A New Yorker article written on the occasion of the cinematic reenactment of the Stanford Prison Experiment (of the same name), written in 2015, describes the exactitude of this simulation:

From the first, the guard’s priorities were set by Zimbardo. In a presentation to his Stanford colleagues shortly after the study’s conclusion, he described the procedures surrounding each person’s arrival: each man was stripped searched, “deloused,” and then given a uniform—a numbered gown, which Zimbardo called a “dress,” with a heavy bolted chain near the ankle, loose-fitting rubber sandals, and a cap made from a woman’s nylon stocking. “Real male prisoners don’t were dresses,” Zimbardo explained, “but real male prisoners, we have learned, do feel humiliated, do feel emasculated, and we thought we could produce the same effects very quickly by putting men in a dress without any underclothes.” The stocking caps were in lieu of shaving the prisoner’s heads. (The guards wore khaki uniforms and were given whistles, nightsticks, and mirrored sunglasses inspired by the prison guard in the movie “Cool Hand Luke.”)[11]

Classic transference neurosis ensued, in the guise of total transference by the participants onto the authority of the institution and counter-transference of Zimbardo onto the “world” of his experiment.

That said, even though there was no “detached” psychologist running the study, Zimbardo’s intentions were squarely behaviorist—a “radical” form of B.F. Skinner’s methods on animals— privileging external stimuli as the source of cognition over internal mental ones. In SPE the external stimuli would be the effect of the prison environment on the guards, and, subsequently, the sadist prompts from the guards onto the prisoners. We should note, too, that Zimbardo’s behaviorist approach to studying abuses of authority were part of the general zeitgeist. Famously, at Yale University, there had been Stanley Milgram’s “obedience to authority” study that demonstrated when subjects were encouraged by an authority figure, they would shock their fellow-citizens with what they believed to be lethal levels of electricity. Conducted in July 1961, just three months after the Adolf Eichmann trial had commenced in Jerusalem, Milgram was attempting to understand the psychology of genocide. Given the right conditions, was there a bit of Eichmann in all of us? A decade later, Zimbardo too wanted to understand the source of “man’s inhumanity to man,” the backdrop to SPE being the atrocities committed by American’s abroad in the Vietnam War combined with the brutal police violence fueled by President Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” at home, the latter of which constituted another white nationalist zeitgeist, hence the “Cool Hand Luke” persona taken up by one of the most sadistic SPE guards. Simply, if the SPE therefore instanced a kind of transference neurosis, it’s because the participants and researchers both couldn’t help but repeat what had been set out to evaluate. Why? Because everyone was unconsciously (and not so unconsciously) repeating the external authoritarian stimuli writ large throughout culture—from war coverage seen on television to cinematic representations of the Southern Strategy seen in theatres—producing more of a cult that had to be intervened than an experiment to be studied.

Fast forward to 2005. It’s been two years since the Iraq War began, and already members of US Army and CIA are spectacularly exposed as having committed war crimes against detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, including physical and sexual abuse, torture, rape, and the killing of Manadel al-Jamdi. Meanwhile, at the University of Delaware, to an audience of 600, Zimbardo delivers a lecture entitled, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” as a means of defending his SPE. The lecture begins with slides and video giving graphic visual representation of the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib, which produced a kind of repetition of those crimes or what Adorno would have called the culture industry’s penchant at redoubling the very atrocities it seeks to critique.[12] That same year, on June 12, in the Polish Pavilion of at the International Biennale of Venice, Artur Zmijewski—also interested in addressing the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib—enacts a visual repetition, not of what happened in that prison, but of the Stanford Prison Experiment itself. Accordingly, a mock “prison” was set up in a post-industrial space in Warsaw’s historical Praga district, where Zmijewski was to produce a “remake” of the original experiment. As Joanna Mytkowska described in the catalogue for Repetition’s premiere at the Venice Biennale:

Zmijewski decided to meticulously recreate the experiment’s initial conditions: select, with the help of psychologists, subjects meeting the criterion of psychological normality, arrest them in their places of residence, and isolate them under the supervision of guards. However, the experiment will take place in a different cultural environment [than the original experiment]…and the participants will have a different initial awareness of being the objects experiment and observation. It will now be far more difficult to separate outside reality from the artificially recreated one. Yet one can count on the fact that the extreme situation will result in excessive behavior, difficult decisions, and intense negotiation of roles. The contemporary relevance of the prison experiment issues from the human-rights abuses and torutures that took place at American prisons in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.[13]

In the same catalogue, Sebastian Cichocki further observed that “The prison laboratory in Sanford was a trap, for both the observers and the observed. In repeating the 1971 experiment, Zmijewski removes it from its time-frame and transforms it into a universal manifestation of weakness and moral failure.”[14] What returned in Zmijewski’s re-enactment, then, was the different rather than the same. This is not just because his participants called the experiment off themselves, citing the Golden Mean, as a kind of “safe concept” that averted the group from descending into the abject spiral of cruelty that characterized the original experiment. It’s also because to Zmijewski’ was, in fact, more scientific in his approach than was Zimbardo, playing no role in re-enactment other than the initiator/director of the re-enactment. On the other hand, it was more knowingly an artwork than the Happening of Cruelty that was Zimbardo’s experiment. All Zmijewski’s participants knew what they were repeating, at once playing themselves playing someone else. We should note too that in Repetition repeating something in real life, it didn’t merely redouble life. Rather, with recourse here to Ranciere, Reptition entered into the aesthetic dimension as a “dissensus.”

Dissensus, according to Ranciere, is not a conflict. Rather, it’s a perturbation of the “normal relation” between things, platonically defined as “the domination of the better over the worse.” In this way, dissensus is non-dialectical, and, accordingly, it opposes opposition. It’s not a quarrel over personal interests but a political process that seeks to perturb the sensible order of things. The political “game,” as its normally played, distributes “two complementary and opposite powers in such a way that the only possible perturbation is the struggle of the worse against the better,” which is really just reaction-formation in the end, the flip side of the same coin. All this takes place within the police order.[15] The people, on the other hand, are defined by Ranciere as “the political subjects of democracy that supplement the police account of the population and displaces the established categories of identification.” As a kind of supplement, the people are unaccounted for in the police order because they are not categorized within a given identity or collectivity. And since they are unaccounted for, they are political subjects that might “disclose a wrong and demand a redistribution of the sensible order.”[16] In 1971, because the Stanford Prison Experiment was based upon sociological protocols, it wasn’t a dissensus. In fact, when it failed, it merely redoubled the normal order: a prison battle between two complementary and opposite powers of guard and prisoner. The only perturbation it made was reversing the Platonic order of better over worse for the worse over the better. Nothing particularly new about human sensibility was revealed nor was the hegemonic relation between “good and evil” neutralized. In 2005, Repetition adapted those same sociological protocols towards different ends—as a reenactment within the aesthetic domain—such that it neither redoubled the normal world order, nor did it sublimate that order as something other in the place of “art.” How? First, Repetition was indeed still an “experiment” because no one could really know in advance how it would turn out because the reenactment wasn’t pre-scripted (as was the 2015 cinematic version that faithfully redoubled the SPE, just as the SPE had itself redoubled the world). As a re-enactment dissensus—one redoubling the protocols of the experiment, not the experiment’s ends—Repetition perturbed the normative oppositional categories that structure and maintain both the aesthetic and political fields: reality/artwork and inside/outside. At the same time, Repetition revealed and neutralized the division of worse/better because, in the end, the participants refused to partake in the protocols of those divisions.

All this was Repetition’s “meaningful transference” onto the so-called post-political world of 2005, the predominant theorist of which was Rancière who still believed in political resistance. In fact, in his afterword to Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics, Slavoj Zizek notes that the theorist had remained true to the populist-democratic impulse within the so-called post-political world, explaining: “If what Rancière refers to as the police-aspect of the political, the rational administration and control of the social processes, focuses on the clear categorization of every individual, of every ‘visible’ social unit, then disturbing such orders of the visible and proposing different lateral links of the visible, unexpected short-circuits, etc., is the elementary form of resistance.” If I’m arguing that Repetition meaningfully transferred onto the post-political world of 2005, it’s to say that the experimental artwork momentarily short-circuited the hegemonic identity formations to which it pointed, hermeneutically, across the historical field of its appropriations, that is to say, to the world’s rinsing and repeating the repressed antidemocratic demands of the 1920s/1940s/1960s/1970s. The question remains, as we experiment on watching Repetition, again, in the post-post-historical world order of 2022, what will we find? What perturbations might it make now that the political categories of evil versus good has returned history to us? As a means of anticipation, I will give Joanna Mykowska the last word: “In Zmijewski’s work, the repetition of what has already occurred—the recreation of history; its recall once again; the replacement of the language of memories with experience; the revival and survival, for real, of history—appears to be a key concept.” Or, as Kurt Vonnegut put it in Slaughterhouse Five: And so it goes. The political deck has been reshuffled and our infinite conversation with Repetition begins once again. As they say in America, watch this space.

  1. Slawomir Sierakowski, “Putin’s Lebensraum,”, March 14, 2022.

  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Aesthetics and Hermeneutics,” in: The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of the Later Writings, ed. Richard E. Palmer, Evanston 2007, p. 123.

  3. Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, Working Through (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis II),” in: James Strachey (ed)., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XII, London 1958, 147-146.

  4. In The End of History?, Francis Fukuyama further argued that “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” in: The National Interest, Summer 1989, No. 16. pp. 1, 5.

  5. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 1918), p. 6.

  6. Snyder, p. 7.

  7. Gadamer, “Aesthetics and Hermeneutics,” p. 126.

  8. See Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference, ed. Mireille Calle-Gruber, trans. Jeff Fort, forward Jean-Luc Nancy, (New York: Fordham, 2016). See also: Juli Carson, The Hermeneutic Impulse: Aesthetics of an Untethered Past, (Berlin: PoLYpeN, 2019).

  9. Gadamer, p. 124.

  10. Bruce Fink, “The Real Cause of Repetition,” in Reading Seminar XI, Feldstein et al, eds. (New York: SUNY Press, 1995), p 223.

  11. Maria Konnikova, “The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment,” The New Yorker, June 12, 2015.

  12. See: Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” (1962), in: Aesthetics and Politics, (New York: Verso, 1995), p. 189. He says: “The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however, remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it.” In the larger culture industry this principle would apply to academics, journalists and the like.

  13. Joanna Mykowska, “Two True Scenarios,” in: Artur Zmijewski: If it happened only once it’s as if it never happened, (Hatje Cantz, 1995), p. 16.

  14. Sebastian Cichocki, Artur Zmijewski: If it happened only once it’s as if it never happened, p. 41.

  15. Jacques Rancière, “The Aesthetic Dimension: Aesthetics, Politics, Knowledge.” Critical Inquiry 36, (Autumn 2009), p. 3.

  16. Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, (London: Continuum, 2007), pp. 88-89.