Unlearning and tertiary memory. Some ideas on nuisance and authoritarian society


Anna Markowska — an art historian, curator and critic from Poland, graduated from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, currently a professor at the University of Wroclaw. She lectured in many countries: Czech  Republic, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Israel, Portugal and Russia. Her research and teaching interests focus on art and culture from 1945 till now, comprise art after Holocaust, Polish art under Communism, art strategies in relation to power. Her books include books on Polish art (Two Turning Points: Polish Art After 1955 and 1989), American art (Comedy of sublimation); archival research on Polish conceptualism: (Permafo 1970 — 1981, Gallery of Recent Art); exhibitions and catalogues of contemporary artists (The Past that Would Not Pass Away. History, Remembrance, Oblivion in the Work of Dorota Nieznalska) and compiled studies about global art (Trickster Strategies in the Artists’ and Curatorial Practice; Politics of Erasure; Sustainable Art. Facing the Need for Regeneration, Resposibility and Relations). Her latest book: Why Duchamp didn’t part his hair? (2019) is about an attempt to interpret Duchamp’s work in the context of various explications, changing throughout the subsequent decades. The eponymous question pertains to not just appearance, but to divisions and taxonomy resulting in artistic strategies

I would like to discuss a trouble-making art legacy in the former Soviet bloc focusing on two communist monuments: the Petrova Gora Monument (involuntarily transformed into a strange UFO-like object) and the Karl-Marx Monument in Chemnitz (transformed into “Charlie”, a cartoon-like character). Like in Ariel’s Song (“Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes”), something completely unexpected happened there. These unanticipated and stunning transformations — in a not yet completed state of metamorphosis — seem to be a nuisance for art theorists, because of the re appearance of the past in an uncontrolled and somehow inconvenient way.  Being an insufficiently transformed predicament, a nuisance might be, however, recognised as a message — for some scholars it includes courage and capacity to live one’s own life and willingness to interrupt and being interrupted because it is all about expecting things not to be as we want them to be [1]So let me begin by some general statements on the theory of art, remembering about the indispensability of nuisance for any change and novelty [2]. As Bernard Stiegler said: “In short, to be anxious is disclosure to the world. Anxiety isolates and thereby discloses the possible” [3]


Using Stiegler’s analyses, it could be assumed that êpimêtheia and promêtheia, relating to the two titan brothers Epimetheus and Prometheus (depicted by Aeschylus, Hesiod and Plato) — stand for two ways of temporalisation connected with fear and hope: in the first case it is withdrawal, thinking after the fact (méditation après coup) and unconcerned distraction, and in the second — forethought, linked to predicting. Both ways are described as directly connected to the birth of technics and craft [4]. Epimetheus, responsible for the creation of êpimêtheia, is at fault for i.a. not predicting and forgetting things, which is why he is traditionally viewed as the more foolish brother; yet, as Stiegler remarked — the weight of both brothers is emphasised by the fact that the birth of technics in the myth is at the same time the birth of mortality or thanatology. The Epimethean referring back is, moreover, connected with retention, which, as Stiegler explains, “is not perception but refers back to it, and which is not a production of the imagination either since it is part and parcel of the real phenomenon of time, is neither a ‘secondary memory’ (a rememorization of a past temporal phenomenon that could come back into presence) nor the consciousness of an image — a general case of what we will call tertiary memory” [5].


It seems that changes in art could be described through such Epimethean works as the Petrova Gora Monument or “Charlie”, questioning current projects and their calculated intentions. But current politics and prescriptions for artists indicating ways of engagement in socio-political changes intertwin, omitting blisters and focusing on hopes. What is more, however, authoritarians always seduce, as Detlef Oesterreich remarked, by offering power and greatness. The concept of authoritarianism was once used to explain the success of German Nazism and Italian fascism within a social-psychological framework [6], but Eastern Europeans — long under Soviet domination and not subjected to such research — used to see themselves only as victims of Communism, which was implemented by the USSR with no help from themselves. It should be recalled that the so-called authoritarian reaction means adopting rigid norms and animosity towards any novelty (often accompanied by a hard economic situation) as a sort of psychologically protective tool; that is why people do not distance themselves from illegitimate control. Consequently, getting rid of Communism meant either “coming back” to the traditional canon of Western and/or the “indigenous” culture or choosing another strict way to reach the future and its rigidly defined goals because previous were outdated. But who would decide the shape of that canon or aim, if not dictatorial experts? Obviously, the very idea of such a canon (or a goal) is an effect of an authoritarian socialization under Communism. Democracy is, however, not only about exchanging “ evil” ideas for “good” ones. By defining an authoritarian personality (as opposed to an autonomous individual) as the eagerness for “a voluntary submission to illegitimate control” [7]Oesterreich suggests that free individuals may allow themselves not to submit to collective projects of regeneration. Yet, changes in art are usually described by looking for landmark dates and collective (political) transformations and big projects are always part of that.


Two recently published books on Eastern European art propose specific dates as moments of definite change: in Globalne ujęcie sztuki Europy Wschodniej (A Global Approach to the Art of Eastern Europe, 2018) Piotr Piotrowski makes three horizontal cuts — 1948, 1968 and 1989, an assessment shared by Andrzej Szczerski, who in his book Transformacja. Sztuka w Europie Środkowo- Wschodniej po 1989 roku (Transformation. Art in East-Central Europe After 1989) from the same year repeats the last of these dates dealing with the changes in the aftermath of the fall of the USSR. Both authors differ in their attitude to time: while Piotrowski proposes utopistics, looking towards future and trying to co-opt Immanuel Wallerstein’s concept of scientific utopia that is not an idealistic vision but a real possibility, based on analyses [8]Szczerski hopes for a “return to the roots” by looking towards the past, fearing that modernity entails the risk of losing one’s own cultural identity, including — especially — national identity.


Standing on politically opposed (right-wing and left-wing) positions, both authors do not distance themselves as scholars from a psychological attachment to authority, as though the authoritarian legacy of the Enlightenment is not a sufficient reason not to create a priori hierarchies again, but rather to follow ideas of intense unlearning. Piotrowski wrote: “It is us, participants of social life, not the metaphysics of history, historical necessity etc., who can cause change. What future will look like is unknown, of course. What matters is that it depends on us to a large extent” [9]. Although he is right, the idea of the future, I would argue, is not as important as being here and now; exchanging one future for another future closes the door to reality. The elusive notion of reality for the purpose of this short essay might be defined as the readiness to meet a nuisance and/or to say “I do not know”, because of immersing in an assemblage-like multitude of rhizomatic stimuli [10]. Allowing to doubt is not, however, welcome in the academic milieu. So we might either follow utopistics and Piotrowski’s alluring projects or, alternatively, Szczerski, who, in a different tone, believes that the essence of European experience lies in the multitude of interpretations of the traditional canon stemming from ancient  Greece and Rome as well as Judeo-Christian spirituality [11]. Both of them welcome art that leads onto the right track, which Piotrowski significantly expressed saying that we “need a utopia, at least as a signpost” [12]. However, if Piotrowski, uncovering the signposts, struggles with the authoritarian legacy of modernism and enjoys the symptoms of global, anti-national agoraphilia, Szczerski, putting up the signposts to the past and looking for national roots, omits the Enlightenment (limiting the authoritarian legacy to Communism), ignoring it both in the context of emancipatory aspirations as well as shady connections with the Nation. But, even reaching back to distant past for inspiration, can an art historian really forget the ambivalent legacy of the Enlightenment?


One of the faults of European culture, traditionally appearing also in modernism and institutions which it brought to life, was its inhospitality. Jacques Derrida tracing this flaw reached as far back as the Antiquity, analysing i.a. the attitude of Socrates who, defending himself, played the foreigner with his unique irony: “Socrates himself has the characteristics of the foreigner, he represents, he figures the foreigner, he plays the foreigner he is not” [13]. He was characterised by inappropriate appearance and strange language, for he said — defending himself in front of the judges — that he was not too fluent in legal jargon. One could say that Socrates deskilled himself in speaking, just like Picasso in creating his cardboard guitars. Socrates performed a distraction with his speech, because he did not want to relate to tradition fluently; the break was a reaction test, of sorts, to what is different, a test of hospitality. Picasso dared to do something unacceptable by any a priori project: just turning around, picking up cardboard he had at his fingertips and showing it as “something” in the process of becoming something else.


As Donald Preziosi wrote, art history and museology dealt with the distribution of memory space, changing the past into present and  suggesting that the past — objectively existing in itself, without any projections of contemporaneity — may simply be juxtaposed with the present and shown in the sequence of cause and effect, in a simple relationship with national teleologies of modernity or supporting the state-nation (as a kind of an arch) and personifying this nation in the form of a citizen. Thus ultimately, as Preziosi believed, the discipline of art history — as a universal empirical science systematising, classifying and analysing the whole of aesthetic phenomena — has become one of the products of aesthetising social life and embodying the society’s desires, because art changing into “the other” of the age of Enlightenment had the power of convincing that while being the physiognomy of truth (and a universal language of what is appropriate), it also remains the inner “I” of the observer. And if so, then in fact Europe itself becomes a museum, and non-Western objects come to be its exhibits, legible only within this particular institution, i.e. modern Europe. Alongside that, in a modern museum that which was not European art became its prologue; the art itself gained the role of the brain for the whole world and constituted the modern present time of Europe in the imperial gesture of stepping into the centre; in a nutshell — the uncivilised African art (fetishes) led to civilised European selflessness (high art), and art history’s task was to naturalise and scientify this sequence, transforming it into a credible story. That diagnosis may be easily adapted to Eastern Europe after the dismantling of Communism: less civilised Eastern Europeans should just follow the West. There is no point in arguing that showing African or Islamic art in a European museum is a proof of tolerance, because that would be too optimistic of a diagnosis — a thought that David Carrier resonated with [14]. There is also no point in arguing that the absence of East European art in a West European museum is another side of the same coin. The compatibility of politics, religion, ethic and aesthetic is also credited to the epistemological technology of art history; so at its base there are — which Preziosi said expressis verbis — “idealistic, essentialist, racist, historicist” convictions, since the universalist Enlightenment created art fabricating quality differences between individuals and communities [15]It could be said without too much of an exaggeration that an art historian tirelessly building the superiority of their own culture simply described themselves and their opinions, believing them to be the only valid ones. But the orientalisation of Eastern Europe can be an excuse neither to the global homogenisation of Piotrowski’s historical cuts nor to the national closure proposed by Szczerski.

Instead of post-Enlightenment impulse of spreading the light of education, today institutions should — at least sometimes — encourage unlearning or erasing that which is deemed obvious, a necessary phase preceding the acquisition of new rules of conduct [16]. What would it look like in practice? Explaining to the vast numbers of museum visitors what they should be offended and not amazed by bears all the hallmarks of ideological agitation. In the above-mentioned book Andrzej Szczerski still prefers — subtle, yet— learning: referring to tertiary memory as mapped out by Stiegler — memory detached from man, existing thanks to technology and resulting in breaking off the historical continuity. As Szczerski explained Stiegler’s intentions, thanks to this industrial memory, based on memories of fictional events, one can create non-existent memories and modify the existing ones; the author combines them with active forgetting described by Ricoeur, not looking for truth and selecting events from the past through illusions and manipulations. The description of works using tertiary memory is found in the chapter with a telling title — There Was No Communism — and  relates to such memory changing processes that were supposed to forgo judging those responsible for communism [17]. In the author’s opinion, they were both promoted by the then state authorities as well as the media in the name of historical compromise, and peace in the country was achieved thanks to the shortcoming of erasing the crime [18]. It could be said that the author does not really have hopes as much as specific expectations connected with relying on controlled and planned results. The Promethean ethos (NB, so valued by Karl Marx) eclipsed all hope. In the same chapter Szczerski gives an example of i.a. Deimantas Narkevičius’s film The Head, dedicated to Chemnitz’s (previously Karl-Marx-Stadt) 7-metre tall sculpture by the Soviet sculptor Lev Kerbel presenting Marx’s head. Today this sculpture is a tourist attraction and is affectionately nicknamed “Charlie”, an example of what Szczerski calls controlled amnesia, facilitating the unification process after 1990 and consisting in fitting totalitarian reality into the world of pop culture and entertainment intended for quick and thoughtless consumption [19].

His other example of bad manipulation by tertiary memory is a modernist monument by Vojin Bakić at Petrova Gora, an abstract sculpture featuring polished steel plates, which David Maljković showed in his cinematic trilogy Scene for a New Heritage (2004-2006). The monument is dedicated to communist resistance fighters who, led by Josip Broz Tito, fought Nazi Germany during World War II. Maljković created a fantasy, partially playing out in the future, and the title’s “new heritage” — which is of particular concern to Szczerski— is created not as a continuation of the old, but as its negation stemming from breaking with historical continuity, and then the not-so-distant past (that is escaped from through ignorance) is beyond any moral judgement; also architecture loses its ideological meaning, and, transforming into the neutral play of geometrical forms, it refers to the timeless ideals of the 20 th century modernism: functionalism, reasonableness and technological experiment [20]. In this context the author also writes about the disputes related to tearing down modernist architectural heritage in postcommunist countries, about freeing it from the stigma of the “unwanted communist times”. Using the Cyrillic alphabet is, for Szczerski, one of the signs of communism,  something he describes as part of the discussion about rejecting this script in Ukraine during the Euromaidan, and also in connection with the Optima (2017) work by the Moldovan artist Pavel Braila, referring to the fact of rejecting the Cyrillic script and switching to the Latin alphabet in Moldova in 1991. He comments on it writing about the title’s best and historic choice of European identity that mandates to change every detail of the post-Soviet reality [21]. Of course Cyrillic was a sovietisation tool, but its history is not limited to the 20th century and mentioning Ukraine in the context of the alphabet change is not particularly apt. Serbia, actually, uses both alphabets. Thus while the author is enthusiastic about the global papal cult (allegedly expressed in Uklański’s work that was created in Brazil as a live picture formed by over 3000 soldiers [!-A.M.], people voluntarily submitting themselves to the Pope [22]), and even goes on to say that the multi-million participation of Poles in holy masses during the Pope’s pilgrimage in 1979 created a “civic society” [23] (obviously showing that only excited people in crowds built norms and the ethos of the society), just using the writing probably created by one of the disciples of “the Slavic apostle” is an example of deplorable anti- Europeanism. The shady tradition of art history and modernity (to which Szczerski allegedly does not refer) came back in full glory for a moment. Referring to Preziosi again, a certain incongruity can be observed here: on the one hand, in stories of monuments connected with national teleologies of modernity consisting in supporting the state and the citizen, the author expresses moral dissent to manipulation, but that is no longer the case when national teleologies are supported by ideologies to the author’s liking (here, in fact, ancient traditions dating back to Socrates can be referred to). The deconstruction of modernism could be boiled down not at all to undermining its authoritarian flaw, but to the exchange of inappropriate content for one’s own opinions. Then, tradition could last in all its continuity for ages. In the author’s opinion, the worst that could happen is exactly “tertiary memory”. However, for Stiegler, tertiary memory is a new era, characterised by a possibility to escape determinism, or — as Piotrowski would say — a conviction that future depends on us to a large extent. Tertiary memory is a prosthetic access point into what is yet going to happen. Works described by Szczerski and especially — it seems — the one connected by the author to tertiary memory, i.e. the Petrova Gora monument, may act exactly like such prosthetics. In tertiary memory — preventing memory loss, as it is activated thanks to the freedom of movement in its space — we also have a continuation, albeit a bit different: based on that which is between life and phantomness.


Szczerski knows goals like Prometheus; but today, similarly to Socrates’s deskilling, we rather need Epimetheus’s unlearning. Prometheus is the one who feared the first woman (Pandora), and his ambition was — as Ivan Illich put it — creating a rational, authoritarian and misogynistic society, in which prophesies take precedence over dreams [24]. Yet Epimetheus, believed to be a fool, would probably understand contemporary feminist epistemologies of ignorance [25]. In Maljković’s film we can see scenes taking place in 2045 and aliens from another world and from an even more distant future. Szczerski admits that the film does not shed light on the purpose of the strange monument; what happens here is not so much renouncement of the past as removing it from any moral judgement, which becomes an oddity raising interest and boredom simultaneously. However, ultimately ignorance becomes a reprehensible escape [26]. Piotrowski writes differently about the changes of the year 1989: “Do not tear down. Rather  transform, and not build as much as rebuild” [27]. Instead of national perspectives, he promotes that which is not even international but cosmopolitan, or unifying, kosmos (world) and polis (city), and the last part is a guarantee of respect for the place. The ethic of foreign people becomes necessary here — people such as Socrates (aware of his lack of knowledge), deskilled Picasso (who dared to reject his mastery), Maljković, dizzy and overwhelmed by the past, and many others — which makes us think of art as a craftsman’s prosthetic for whom technology is not a comeback to engineering projects, determined by the current policy of European cultural roots [28]defined according to one’s own convictions, but a possibility to create without signposts and success-orientated projects — whether it is going to be a somewhat claustrophobic project of Europe by Andrzej Szczerski or the ultra-rational (i.e. full of restrictions), although very inspiring utopistics of Piotr Piotrowski. Well, I may be alone in my desire for the wandering perception and day-dreams instead of an intentionally oriented reflection [29], but I do not need Promethean signposts put up by scholars and gentlemen of culture in art (at least!), since I am an adult. Unlearning and tertiary memory can probably avoid these signposts quite successfully, to allow to be in the unideologised present at least for a moment. “Epistemologies of ignorance”, that i.a. Cynthia Townley wrote about, do not serve to strengthen the recognised patterns of dominance [30] and will allow us, I hope, to see such strange works as Picasso’s Guitar at an appropriate time. Not noticing them is also a tradition of the “appropriate” (in line with one’s own beliefs) point of view. In this perspective, unfortunately, no surprise will slip through as everything is known in advance and we can calmly and safely be — if not even  dead— then programmed like obsolete machines. The Petrova Gora Monument and “Charlie” seem to be a nuisance because of their unsatisfactory status of becoming rather than being. But recognizing a nuisance as a message about deprivation, a precarious process and a considerable act of faith which might be a missed opportunity [31]I would argue that it may also include courage and the capacity to be in real relationships, here and now. Maybe this is something we should learn after leaving the Epimethean quarantine of the unlearning?

  1. A. Philips, Nuisance Value, “The Threepenny Review” — No. 99 (Autumn, 2004) — p. 9-11
  2. R. Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989. For Rorty, an irritant, a saboteur’s nuisance or an obstacle is an inspiration he calls redescription because it enables moving on
  3. B. Stiegler, Technics and Time, vol. 1, transl. R. Beardsworth, G. Collins, Stanford University Press — Stanford 1998 — p. 256
  4. Ibid — p. 16
  5. Ibid — p. 246
  6. Oesterreich underscored that systematic research on obedience and submission in small and big collectives began only in the 20 th century (i. a. in the Frankfurt school {T. Adorno} and the Yale and Stanford Universities {S. Milgram, P. Zimbardo}), see: D. Oesterreich, Flight into Security: A New Approach and Measure of the Authoritarian Personality, “Political Psychology” 2005 (April), Vol. 26 — No. 2 — p. 275-297
  7. D. Oesterreich, Flight into Security — p. 276
  8. I. Wallerstein, Utopistics. Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-First Century, New York, The New Press — 1998
  9. Piotrowski, Globalne ujęcie sztuki Europy Wschodniej (A Global Approach to the Art of Eastern Europe), Dom Wydawniczy Rebis, Poznań 2018 — p. 27
  10. Here I am indebted for the combination of the material turn to Deleuze and Guattari’s thoughts, in: B. Jervis, Assemblage Thought and Archaeology, Routledge, London and New York — 2019
  11. A. Szczerski, Transformacja. Sztuka w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej po 1989 roku (Transformation. Art in East-Central Europe After 1989), Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Krakow 2018 — p. 208
  12. P. Piotrowski, Globalne ujęcie sztuki Europy Wschodniej (A Global Approach to the Art of Eastern Europe) — p. 178
  13. Of Hospitality. Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond, transl. R. Bowbly, Stanford University Press, Stanford 2000 — p. 13
  14. D. Carrier, A World Art History and Its Objects, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University City 2008 — p. 135
  15. D. Preziosi, The Art of Art History — p. 497 and 500. By “historicist” Preziosi probably meant Popper’s historicism, equally relating to the determinism of history and the conformity of the individual subject to it
  16. Cf. J. Halberstam, Unlearning, “Profession, ofession” 2012 — pp. 9-16. Halberstam combines “unlearning” with the affirmation of failure, cf. id., The Queer Art of Failure, Duke University Press, Durham — 2011
  17. A. Szczerski, Transformacja (Transformation) — p. 65
  18. Ibid — p. 66
  19. Ibid — p. 69
  20. Ibid — pp. 74–75
  21. Ibid — p. 181
  22. Ibid — p. 163
  23. Ibid — p. 44
  24. I. Illich, Deschooling, Marion Boyars Publishers — 1995 — p. 44
  25. N. Tuana, S. Sullivan, Introduction: Feminist Epistemologies of Ignorance, “Hypatia” — Vol. 21 — No. 3 — Feminist Epistemologies of Ignorance (Summer, 2006) — p. VII-IX
  26. A. Szczerski, Transformacja (Transformation) — p. 74
  27. Piotrowski, Globalne ujęcie (A Global Approach) — p. 192
  28. A. Szczerski, Transformacja (Transformation) — p. 208
  29. Lyotard put it (after Freud), that the wandering perception is recommended “in order to establish the diverse modalities of the activity of thought,” see: J.-F. Lyotard, D. Judovitz, Duchamp’s TRANS/formers, ed. H. Parret, transl. I. McLeod, Leuven University Press, Leuven 2010 — p. 127
  30. C. Townley, Toward a Revaluation of Ignorance, “Hypatia” 2006 (Summer) — Vol. 21 — No. 3 — p. 37-55
  31. A. Philips, Nuisance Value, “The Threepenny Review” — No. 99 (Autumn, 2004) — p. 9-11