La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
AMANDA BOETZKES / Realism Without Authority: The Performance of Viewership

AMANDA BOETZKES / Realism Without Authority: The Performance of Viewership

What if everything they say about climate change is actually true? I’ll admit that on any given day, though I believe that it is actually true, I have trouble living as though it is. The reality of climate change is hard to sustain. To carry out my day, I find myself orbiting a strange impasse: I must trick myself into believing in climate change (as though I do not already) in order to perceive, write and think about it as a reality. My thoughts revolve around my blindness to the reality of climate change that is precisely its ontological reality as blindspot. If climate change is a reality, then, it comes into view through the machinations of viewing, visualizing, representing, and theorizing by which I project or even propel onto the world thoughts and images that might infer this withdrawn reality. In so doing, I make sense of its realism.

This cycle of projecting thought and introjecting sense risks being a closed perceptual circuit. However, the processual rhythm could perhaps be parlayed into a realist disposition, a sensibility to and for the reality of climate change, if not a total embrace that it is representing itself to my senses. Might we think of climate change as a phenomenon that is expressing itself to perceiving beings? Yet, a realist disposition may be difficult to subtend because it can easily slip into ideological forms that replace or even dismantle the capacity to perceive reality by predisposing the senses toward technocratic empiricism (hard facts, for example). How, then, to approach a reality such as climate change?

In what follows, I would like to propose realism as a modality of reflection on the reality of climate change. I will suggest that realism is a way of thinking-perceiving in the interstices between realities and their mediated appearances within perception itself. That is to say, inasmuch as reality is perceived indirectly—inferred by a sensible appearance, or what Graham Harman calls its allure—perception is constitutive of how we think that reality. Reality and perception afford reflections on one another. To think of realism as what spans reality and perception, then, is an avenue into iterations of the reciprocity between ecology and visuality.

However, I would like to qualify this reciprocal relation between ecology and visuality by suggesting that what realism offers as a modality is a sphere of experience without authority.  Otherwise put, realism proffers a sensation of what cannot be subsumed into disciplinary thinking, even philosophy. It is a mediation of what is unmediated about reality. Yet, paradoxically, the reality of climate change is not perceivable as a reality without that very perception necessitating a style of perceiving that controverts the authority of the scientific method and the drives of political economies. Realism without authority suggests the possibility that there is an alternative play of the senses with reality than that which is put into action by both the scientific method and the political sphere. It recuperates a (perhaps) utopian version of Kant’s Sensus Communis insofar as it seeks recourse to the collective deliberation over the interpretation of the sense of reality. It also presumes that such sense can be retrieved “freely”. Such a challenge discloses what is “unrealistic” about realism. For there is no freedom to a realism without authority through presumptions of autonomous experience in accordance with a Hobbesian subject.[1] But I would suggest that realism is what awakens within perception a recovery of the a priori of collectivity as the co-constituted condition of sense. I will pursue this line of thinking through a discussion of the theatricality of perception and the expressivity of reality.  

Realism By Way of the Performance of Beholding

Why orbit a blindspot? The realism of climate change lies in the fact that it haunts as a quasi-gaze from the Other, as Lacan would have it: rising up to dispel and distort the visual field with its contradictory conditioning of the atmosphere. Surely, the dilemma of realism is nothing short of its power to annihilate subjectivity when it does indeed rise up as a “return of the real”.  But I am less interested in these returns or their psychoanalytic structure, and more in the material scenarios in which they present themselves. One might look, for example, to Michael Fried’s reading of Courbet’s realism, and its cycling through a moment of the origin of the world, as the origin of realism in that artist’s painting L’origine du monde (1866).

Many will be familiar with Michael Fried’s understanding of Courbet’s realism as underpinned by the critical project of absorption, which he parses through the artist’s thematics, materials, figures and compositions.[2] Courbet’s realism was hinged on overcoming the theatricality of painting, its way of explicitly calling for the viewer’s attention—of expressing “I am a painting”—and instead absorbing the viewer, drawing the viewer inward through themes of introspection (reading, sleeping, contemplating, dying) and establishing a bodily continuity between the “painter-beholder” and the painting’s subject matter. The critical project of absorption is achieved through tactics by which the painter-beholder is referenced as embodied in a material continuity with the painting, and conversely the painting delivered its realism by virtue of the penetration of the painter-beholder through its frame. Absorption is undertaken as an “eclipsing of vision” concomitant with the bodily absorption of the painter-beholder into the painting.[3]

Courbet’s Origin of the World—a painting that was notorious for its realist rendering of flesh in a focalised perspective of a reclining woman’s splayed thighs and genitalia—achieves its realism not merely through naturalism but as an elaboration of absorption. In Fried’s view, there is more to this painting than a regressum ad uterum despite Courbet’s repetitive inclination to render landscapes and figures in such a way as to draw the eye to crevices, openings, caves and grottoes. For Fried it is the dynamism of the relation in such scenes, the simultaneous inward draw in tandem with an outward push issuing from the painting, that determines both its compositional intervention and its realist subject matter. Further, the absorption of the viewer is contingent on the material realism of the painting itself, and this would not succeed if not for the material integrity that the painting itself delivers; the painting exacts an incision into a representational real. The theme of the “origin of the world” is not merely a panerotic exegesis of woman as generative matrix (though it is that too). It is rather a post-coital moment of figure and beholder falling back from an entangled position by which realism is created ex-nihilo out of the inference of shared enfleshment as a mutual embodiment.[4]

This avenue into realism brings it to bear on an enfleshed and even transcorporeal understanding of representation itself. But this transcorporeality must also be understood in direct relation to the creation that the beholding of representation is. Which is to say that if it is possible to have some purchase on the realism of a transcorporeal materiality, it comes into being through acts of creatio ex nihilo in which bodies, objects, and even whole realities come into being as a coming into appearance. Creation, in Fried’s terms, however, is a setting aside of the literal real. It is an access to appearance through the undoing and remaking of visuality in the wake of contact or communion with the real. Or, to now put this in ontological terms, it is to understand that as an integral part of the creation of representation vision is taken up in the sensual appearance of real objects. Realism is thus a visuality, a way of engaging with reality so as to produce its appearance and approach. This engagement is precisely what degrades the visual as a projection or affirmation of what I already know and undoes the anchor of the co-extensive pairing of naturalism and autonomous viewing subject in one another.

Where Fried argues for the absorption of the beholder into the painting as an avenue into overcoming the theatricality of a scenario in which the painting stands apart from the beholder and asserts its objecthood, Graham Harman argues that an object-oriented-ontology would advance so deeply into absorption as to say the real object is ultimately fundamentally withdrawn and inaccessible to the point that “no literal description or perception could ever hope to reach it”.[5]  However, the union of the real object with its sensual qualities is activated through the performance of the beholder. Thus, when a beholder views a painting such as Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, she or he springs forward to perform the sensual qualities of each of the figures on the canvas. The artwork originates the beholder through the beholder’s performance of the artwork’s sensual qualities.

For Harman, this activity of performing the sensual qualities of the painting is quite the opposite of Judith Butler’s concept of performativity, which he positions as anti-essentialist. Whereas in the case of my performativity, it is my performed sensual qualities into a domain of recognition (or negation) that constitute me as a subject, in the performance of beholding, I the beholder (as a priori real), perform, cognize and essentially perceive the painting as painting. My perception originates it as such in gathering and providing a support for its sensual qualities.  In this respect, Harman redistributes Fried’s anti-theatrical scenario to come to the thought that the beholder must be theatrically engaged with the artwork if it is to be an artwork at all. The beholder’s performance of the sensual qualities of the real object—art as such—constitutes it as a subject that emerges and is conferred aesthetically in a sensual nexus with that object.  Even more strongly, he suggests that there is an implicit theatricality to all aesthetic experience: “theatre is everywhere”. This is why an artwork must always try so hard to overcome itself in the manner of Courbet’s realism (as absorption in that case), or by extension, the modernist project by which art overcomes the theatricality of objecthood to become art, as Fried would have it. Realism relies on the performance of beholding.

It is with this configuration of the beholding of real objects in mind that we might turn to the climate change imaginary and its potential realism. What I am calling a realism without authority can be restated now as the situation in which reality comes into appearance through the performance of viewership:  the sensual appearances of reality as performed by her, him, them, us. It is a way of experiencing the emergence of one’s being in co-constitution with the sensual qualities of another real being. This is an aesthesis, an aesthetic operation in which my co-constitution with reality feeds forward and back as a form of self- projection and reflection in an entanglement with the sensual appearances of the real. This situation has a kinship with what Timothy Morton calls “ecognosis”: a knowing as a letting-be as known.[6]  I want to stress that I’m less interested in the cognizing or knowing a reality (like climate change) and more in its surface appearance as beheld by me (you, them, us) as the origin of that reality for us; its theatricality as the site of creation of an emergent realism. If it feels like I must lead myself, or convince myself of the reality of climate change when I already believe it to be real, perhaps this is because I am impelled to deliberate over its reality by way of its appearance, by supplementing climate science with the aesthetic experience of climate change as a reality.  I have entered into a performance of beholding, an encounter in which I am founded (I spring forward) because the sensuous qualities of a real object have invaded me (or intruded upon me, to use Isabel Stengers’ lexicon when she describes the “intrusion of Gaia”). Further, I must concede that the beholder I am is not alone, but also enmeshed with other perceiving beings with whom I am co-perceiving. Such a multiplicitous intrusion calls me to shift the terminology of this scenario from the performance of beholding to the performance of viewership.

The Immediacy of Viewership

In the midst of the performance of viewership and a discussion about the realism of this performance, the question arises, how does the mediation of appearance change our understanding of authority? For inasmuch as the domain of ecology is accompanied by various challenges to the authority of science along with its imperatives for both political and generalized responsibility (stewardship, defense and care of the earth), we must also question the instrumentation by which we visualize the objects of ecology, such as climate change. I do not raise mediation as a term to indicate the use of technology, but rather the constitutive nature of visual media in the performance of viewership by which reality becomes apparent.  In this regard, the work of Swiss artist Julian Charrière both enacts and visualizes the performance of viewership that is constitutive of the realism of ecology.

Julian Charrière, The Blue Fossil Entropic Stories III, 2013. Copyright the artist; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

Charrière’s practice is animated by agonistic encounters with icebergs. Among the most self-possessed of planetary entities, icebergs signal the paradoxical volatility and indisputable presence of the earth. But they are also indicators of the melt of the earth’s cryosphere due to climate change. Charrière makes the realism of the iceberg, and the recession of climate change from perception, apparent precisely through his mediations of ice. In The Blue Fossil Entropic Stories (2013; Fig.1), Charrière boarded an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean near the coast of Iceland and spent eight hours submitting it to the heat and light of a blowtorch. The resulting photographs position him as a solitary figure that vainly tries to access the core of the berg. For all his dramatized labor, he is refuted by its immense scale, its solidity, its slippery but nevertheless porous surface, and the purity of its blue color which remains preserved beneath a surrounding sheath of dirty sediment. The blowtorch—a Promethean element of fire, heat and transformation—merely magnifies the iceberg’s inaccessibility. For despite the fact that the iceberg is a symptom of the extinction of glaciers worldwide, the temporality of its own entropic demise is its own; it remains invisible to the viewer, seemingly untouched by the blowtorch. Ultimately, the blowtorch is completely ineffectual at hastening or impacting the iceberg’s melt whatsoever for the melting of the iceberg—of glaciers at all—in reality takes place on a more vast scale of time and space that we cannot see.

Julian Charrière – Towards No Earthly Pole – Vostok, 2019. Copyright the artist; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

Charrière’s work points to a condition in which the appearance of the earth in glacial landscapes is mediated and sensuously immediate, while at the same time its realism is irreducibly withdrawn. Thus, in his recent exhibition Toward No Earthly Pole (2020; Fig. 2), which features the glacial coast of West Greenland illuminated and photographed by a drone in the darkness, we become attuned to two simultaneous agents which behave in concert with one another: the first is the assemblage of human equipment involved in the production of the image and the second is in the shining apparitions of the ice. While perhaps the latter might be viewed (somewhat cynically) as a spectacle—it does after all dazzle the eye with its textured facets, like a rare jewel magically preserved in the heat of a warming planet—the integrity of the image reveals itself in its very staging of its own mediation and strife with the elements. The artist draws viewers into a reflection about the performance of their own viewership, an endeavour that is undertaken precisely in his dramatization of the mediation of the image as an immediacy of irreducible being.  Charrière journeys into the oceans and fjords; he follows icebergs, scales them, melts their surfaces, illuminates them, hovers over them with a drone and photographs them. Through all the internal gesturing toward the icebergs—from close and intimate proximity to a distant, hovering vantage point, from the physical to the virtual, in the darkness and under the casting of light—their presence becomes real. Yet they are as impossibly self-enclosed as mountains and as dynamic as the waves of the sea. The gesture and the reality appear in concert as the realism of the image.  

Realism without Authority

If the performance of viewership has any import at all to the relationship between ecology and visuality, this lies in the disruption of authority that generally prevails over the imaging of climate change. While the authority over climate change is primarily governed by a regime of scientific fact, the tyrannical spin-doctoring of the extractivist energy economy, and articulations of political resistance to the latter, it seems that the capacity to visualize the earth fails even if renderings of it proliferate. Which is to say, the twin poles of science and politics do not capture a planetary reality, only its disappearance into information and further instrumentation. 

We might weigh the difference between the performance of viewership at stake in Charrière’s practice and the many images that stands as hieroglyphs for climate change in the popular imagination: the glacier calving footage in Al Gore’s 2006-documentary An Inconvenient Truth—the immense piece of ice cracking off and sinking into the North Pacific Ocean at the Grinnel Glacier in Alaska—or the “Starving Polar Bear Stranded on Iceless Land,” footage captured by National Geographic photographer Paul Nichlen on Somerset Island, Nunavut. The latter footage is subtitled “This is what climate change looks like.”[7]  While this imagery is perhaps suggestive of the effects of climate change, it nevertheless prefigures a deeply coded form of viewership that signals the very power relations that constitute it as a somewhat blunt political instrument. With an emphasis on the fragility of planetary life and the depreciation of its conditions, such images implicitly affirm the logic of human power over nature, while dwelling on this power as an incontrovertible truth. They are images of climate change and a framing of that phenomenon as a reality. The urgency of the imagery ratifies the authority that generated it in the first place, rather than performing the gap between its mediation and the real agents animating the condition.

If the visuality of science can be deployed on the basis of belief in order to incite political support—or perhaps more accurately, deployed to take command of reality rather than to engage it—then it is becoming ever more the case that the proliferation of the sciences is also a proliferation of mediation without authority. That is, we must consider how scientific imagery gestures to the reality of climate change with no self-reflection about the political valences of that gesturing. Consider the proliferation of glaciology, for example, which ranges from the microbiological to the atmospheric, and which produces the primary data about the rising temperature of the planet. Now consider how that rise in global temperature does not resound politically in and of itself, but must instead be activated externally by movements such as Fridays for Future, the international youth movement spearheaded by Greta Thunberg which calls for a strike every Friday with a view to holding the world’s governments to the Paris Agreement. While the former appears neutral and the latter deeply affected, it is the latter that appears to be invested with the consciousness of the real effects of climate change, effects that otherwise leave the data untouched by meaning. Yet, these two spheres—the “purely” scientific and the dramaturgy of the political—are nevertheless beginning to intermingle in contemporary art.

If glaciology is proliferating at an accelerated pace (and somewhat melodramatically) through ice core sampling, climate paleontology, the measurement of ice mass and the dynamics of melt, satellite imaging, and Inuit epistemology, while the political sphere is being taken to task by youths advocating for trust in science, then we have been lifted into a terrain in which the science is affectively-charged and the political amounts to the raw enforcement of the truth of scientific empiricism. Where is reality in the midst of this? This at least should be the very question that the mediation of visuality poses.

Anna Lindal, Cold Facts/Hot Enchantment, 2009. Copyright the artist; Phot credit Mike Lamb

Such a movement of thought is the backdrop for Icelandic artist Anna Líndal’s 2009-video installation Cold Facts/Hot Enchantment (Fig. 3), which positions the science of ice giving way to a performance of viewership.  Líndal documents the activities of the Icelandic Glaciological Society, which she accompanied on numerous expeditions to Vatnajökull, one of the largest glaciers in Europe. The footage is particularly attentive to the equipment of the survey team: water tanks, trucks, skidoos, ice core cylinders, and the nylon straps that fasten the gear to the vehicles. Indeed the cohesion of the installation is itself fastened together by nylon straps that spanned the exhibition space and connected the screens and projectors. But the video transitions from the mode of documenting measurement to a mode of witnessing an event: a volcanic eruption. Aerial scenes of this event pierce through that of the survey equipment. The fumaroles of billowing steam from Vatnajökull’s subglacial activity periodically disrupt the instruments that attempt to capture its dynamism. Líndal therefore captures these earthly expressions at the cleavage between the “cold facts” and “hot enchantment” of the volcano. But in so doing her work mobilizes the scientific group as engaged in a modality of viewership that is differentiated from the allure of the volcano. It introduces an internal reflection on that very modality, so that the video itself, in its suture of the volcanic activity and its scientific measurement, becomes its own performance of viewership.

I link this mode of reflection to an internal hermeneutic work at play in the artwork itself, which sets science and politics into motion in such as way as to open the question of reality rather than to presuppose either the applicability of facts toward a pastiche representation of reality, or a wild succession of simulations of the real to drive political outcomes. Authority does not rest in the disciplining of knowledge of reality, then. Nor is it yielded in the proliferation of that discipline. Rather, authority has been redirected toward an infinitely open questioning of that reality. It is this questioning that is at stake in the performance of viewership. Here I would recall Hannah Arendt’s brilliant essay “Understanding and Politics (The Difficulties of Understanding),” in which she deftly shifts the hermeneutic work of understanding what is historically incomprehensible (in this case, totalitarianism), away from social scientific approaches to human behaviour to a politics of reflection that convenes a generously defined form of collective judgement.[8] In this instance, understanding cannot be socialized nor governed by the authority of the social; instead understanding and its implicit politics are discovered from preserving the freedom of reflective judgment in the face of senselessness. Her analysis shifts freedom from a concern for the social per se, to a way of freely thinking, reflecting and understanding through collectivity, adjacency, and co-existence. Here is where I would emphasize the importance of considering viewership—an acknowledgment of the implicit collectivity and heterogeneity at stake in the gesturing appearances of realism, as opposed to the presumed singularity and potentially scopophilic paradigm of “beholding”. Might we then consider that the lynchpin between ecology and visuality is precisely the work of a new “us”, a viewership that performs the deliberation of meaning in and through the mediation of the image as a realism without authority?    

Amanda Boetzkes

[1]We must take into account Judith Butler’s argument that our fantasies about a state of nature are founded on an ideal of male independence, as though our senses are always fully formed in an individuate.d adult state rather than forged through the dependencies of childhood. See Judith Butler, The Force of Non-Violence: An Ethico-Political Bind, Verso, New York, 2020, p. 36-37. As an alternative, might we wonder about the possibilities of a queer responsibility for how we perceive reality, in the manner suggested by Sara Ahmed when she proposes “queer use” as an ethics of finitude? See Sara Ahmed, What’s the Use,Duke University Press, Durham 2019.

[2]Michael Fried, Courbet’s Realism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1992.

[3]Ibid., p. 153.

[4] Having said this, however, I would suggest somewhat provocatively that Fried is precisely “literal” in his understanding of this mutual embodiment, for he is able to set aside the manifest phallocentrism-as-solipsistic circuit at play in Courbet’s visuality in order to elaborate the painting’s realism as one in which the figure and the painter-beholder are so continuous that Courbet’s realism appears as his femininity. His enfleshed real figure is apparent in represented female figures that appear as redistributions of Courbet himself. My critique, coming from an Irigarayan reading of the ontology of sexual difference, is that the appropriation of embodiment, no matter how naturalistic in style, cannot possibly be realist unless it also stands as both an absorption of Courbet the painter and as a projection of Courbet the normative man over the visual field in a way that is parlayed precisely through Fried’s reading of it. But perhaps I am the one being literal, or say, ontological about sexual difference and the asymmetry at stake in a patriarchal scopic field. Nevertheless, it is possible that absorption is nothing short of a theatre of phallocentrism. It is worth noting Christa Noel Robbins reading of Fried’s sensibility as precisely homophobic (and aggressively heteronormative) in her recent article “The Sensibility of Michael Fried,” Criticism,Vol. 60, No 4, Fall 2018, p. 429-454.  If we are to consider visuality in terms of the sensual performance of the beholder at play in viewership, one must embrace the queerness of real objects including art itself. Here queerness might be read in terms of the withdrawnness of the real object; its capacity to be irreducible to the (hetero) normative visual field and to gather within itself the capacity for infinite possible sensible appearances.

[5]Graham Harman, “Aesthetics and the Tension in Objects,” [Met]afourisms: Art Practice & Documentation, Midsea Books Ltd, Valetta (Malta) 2018, p. 17,

[6]Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence,Columbia University Press, New York 2016.

[7] National Geographic Youtube Channel, Accessed September 11, 2020.

[8]Hannah Arendt, “Understanding and Politics (The Difficulties of Understanding),” Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954, Formation, Exile and Totalitarianism, Schoken Press, Berlin 2005.