Collision 66: March, 2021

Nothing Special

Arne De Boever

This contribution is a response to Collateral Cluster 29, which was devoted to the author’s book Against Aesthetic Exceptionalism.

Autonomy and Sovereignty

My title should be taken to refer only to this response and not to the stimulating cluster of engagements with my book that editor Pieter Vermeulen has assembled. As my book’s title indicates, Against Aesthetic Exceptionalism was written as a provocation, and the texts published in the cluster provoked me in turn to both reconsider various aspects of my book’s argument but also my overall critical project between literary criticism and philosophy. While I can’t possibly engage everything of interest that was raised in the cluster, I have limited myself to rehearsing some of the key terms and arguments as well as the politics of my overall position, in the hope that it can clarify the stakes of my ongoing project in unexceptional thought.

In his generous Introduction to the cluster, Pieter Vermeulen finds in my work at large a “refusal of autonomy.” It’s worth noting, however, that my book is not titled Against Aesthetic Autonomy. My book, and I would say my work at large, does not so much refuse autonomy but exceptionalist articulations of autonomy. Such articulations are, I argue, precisely not autonomous but sovereign—and they should be called by that name. On the one hand, then, my work is an attempt to trouble sovereign, exceptionalist understandings of autonomy. Other such attempts can easily be found, even if they are not usually developed in those terms, in critical approaches to autonomy that both reject and embrace it: think, for example, of those who embrace autonomy but point out that autonomy is not really possible strictly speaking and that every autonomy always depends—heteronomously—on a network of external support.1 This is a typically deconstructive position that demonstrates that the “autos” in “autonomy” is always already shot through with “heteros.”2 In my own language, such an approach “unexceptionalizes” (a term I develop after scholars like Emily Apter and Stathis Gourgouris) sovereign, exceptionalist understandings of autonomy.3 Some would argue that this is the only truthful understanding of autonomy, and that its exceptionalist articulation fundamentally misunderstands what autonomy is about. I would agree: exceptionalist autonomy is not autonomy. It is sovereignty. And so sovereignty becomes the “bad guy” in all of this.

My book goes a step further, however, in that it also (and this is “the other hand” announced above) considers such a knee-jerk rejection of sovereignty critically. In Against Aesthetic Exceptionalism, I reference work by scholars who have shown that on the political scene, actors often happily grant autonomy to this or that collective—but knowing full well that autonomy is precisely not sovereignty, and that those who are sovereign ultimately hold the power. In other words, autonomy is situated here on what, with reference to Stéphane Symons’ contribution to this cluster, one might call “the losing end” of the political stick, and it is for that reason (as I point out in my book) that Native Americans may insist on their sovereignty rather than their autonomy in response to those who still seek to subject them.4 (My discussion of Sam Durant’s Scaffold, on which both Tim Christiaens and Rika Dunlap comment, enabled me to draw this out.) In the book, I quote the work of Seth Anziska, who has shown the importance of the autonomy/ sovereignty distinction in the Israel/ Palestine context.5 In short, sovereignty also has something going for it when compared to autonomy; the struggle for sovereignty in anti- and postcolonial contexts shows this well. My book explores what the consequences of this insight for artistic autonomy and our thinking about the politics of art might be.

All of that also means (contra Symons) that I am precisely not situating myself on the losing end of the political stick: as I say at the end of my book’s introduction, the book is not another manifesto for horizontalism. I appreciate the politics of autonomy, but criticize its weaknesses; and I criticize the politics of sovereignty, but consider its benefits. My praise of the unexceptional thus does not come at the cost of rejecting the exception altogether: some verticality, some relief, is useful and even necessary if one wants to be politically effective. I recognize the importance of democratic exceptionalism and I show, for example, how it is operative in the work of Jacques Rancière—someone whom I, like Rika Dunlap, very much consider to be a democratic thinker even though the role of exceptionalism in his work also deserves closer critical scrutiny. In my earlier book Plastic Sovereignties, I have articulated this call for political verticality especially on the side of the political left, through a reference to the work of the Canadian political journalist Naomi Klein and her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (I mention this in view of Symons’ turn to the climate at the end of his response).6 Expressing her exasperation with the long-term embrace of structurelessness on the left, Klein argues there that one needs structure to be politically effective. The structures provided by autonomy are useful here, but it is worth critically considering their limited power in relation to the structures of sovereignty.


In Plastic Sovereignties, to which Against Aesthetic Exceptionalism returns, my project was not deconstructive but post-deconstructive: it sought to both politicize what Tim Christiaens in his response calls the “empty gesture” of aesthetics and aestheticize a political concept—sovereignty—that in its traditional articulation does not allow for the aesthetic. After deconstruction, Plastic Sovereignties took it up for political forms, to speak with the literary theorists (and advocates of form) Caroline Levine and Anna Kornbluh.7 More specifically, it took it up for the dynamic process of formation (the living, moving form-in-process that does not so much restrain life but precisely enables it) as being at the heart of a political concept—sovereignty—that was precisely not perfect, original, or complete. It was about an unexceptional understanding of sovereignty as a political concept that was crucially plural and open to secular making: sovereignty as a concept of political anthropology rather than political theology; sovereignty as a concept that is defined by the history of its own transformations and is thus in several crucial ways not sovereign. In Plastic Sovereignties, I rely on the work of thinkers like the already mentioned Naomi Klein but also Bonnie Honig and Chantal Mouffe to argue for a politics of counter-institutions like the one that Christiaens finds missing in my book.8

What interests me about the work of an artist like Alex Robbins is its counter-institutional component: the ways in which, through the “complements” it provides to established works of art, it deconstructs form and proposes a new formation of its own: art, but at the limits of the exceptionalism that structures it (at the limit, for example, of art’s economic value: after all, all of Robbins’ “Complements” read as “copies” and art’s economic value depends on its unicity, its logic of the one). I also mention in the book the gallery where Robbins showed some of the works I discuss, and which does not collect the customary 50% of an artwork’s sale. That is one example of what it means to counter-institute, a term that owes much in my own thought to Mouffe’s notion of counter-hegemony. I will readily grant that “to counter-institute” does not mean “to radically abolish,” which appears to be where Christiaens comes down. That also means, with reference to Christiaens’ otherwise perceptive reading of Agamben, that I am not just taking it up for potentiality against authority. Again, my work is not another manifesto for horizontalism. We have heard the utopian call to “radically abolish” many times before. It has certainly targeted sovereignty. It assumes that we can somehow be done with it all. It’s an ahistorical call. I don’t think YouTube provides a good example for the politics we need. This is, for me, revolution without theory: bring it all down, we can worry later about what comes after. The hard part is not to bring it all down, as The Battle of Algiers already told us. It’s what comes after. At the age of 40, I’m thinking about what comes after, what kind of political forms we will want later. It’s highly unlikely that we will ever be post-sovereign. But that doesn’t mean we need to accept sovereignty’s status quo. It’s much more likely that we will come to articulate radically alternative formations of sovereignty that can better accomplish our collective political goals. All of my work argues that to accomplish such a feat, we will need to get rid of the exceptionalism that structures not only our concept of sovereignty but much of Western thought.

By picking “sovereignty” over “autonomy,” I of course run a whole bunch of other risks. As the title of my book reveals, my goal is to trouble the exceptionalism in sovereignty. Traditionally, sovereignty’s “indispensable features” include, as per Wendy Brown, “supremacy (no higher power), perpetuity over time (no term limits), decisionism (no boundedness by or submission to law), absoluteness and completeness (sovereignty cannot be probable or partial), nontransferability (sovereignty cannot be conferred without cancelling itself), and specified jurisdiction (territoriality).”9 If “exceptionalism” is a common denominator—and a problematic one—between all of these, is it possible to surgically remove it and be left with an effective political power? Can sovereignty be rethought and practiced outside of exceptionalism? The modern, revolutionary transition from monarchical power to popular sovereignty was part of such a project, but that transition hardly went far enough. Sovereignty’s exceptionalism has persisted, has infiltrated and arguably taken over many articulations of autonomy, a process that becomes all the more disturbing at a time when sovereignty is clearly going through a world-wide revival. It seems the damn king just refuses to die! This is political history as a horror-movie, or a zombie-flick.

“A king’s court”

It’s in view of that urgent situation that I put forward my book’s central question: why do we seem to praise in our discourses about art an exceptionalism that, when it comes to politics, we wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole? What does this tell us about the politics of the arts, and their often-touted proximity to democratic values—openness, equality, pluralism? Against Aesthetic Exceptionalism was born from an experiment that I have pursued in my teaching: for several years now, I’ve begun my graduate seminar in “Contemporary Aesthetic Theory” by reading the first chapter of Schmitt’s Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, titled “Definition of Sovereignty,” with art students.10 There is nothing particularly outrageous about such an experiment: art students should probably be familiar with Schmitt’s troubling work, given his central importance in the work of critical theorists ranging from Giorgio Agamben (helpfully discussed in Christiaens’ contribution) to Mouffe, both of whom are widely read at arts institutions. Indeed, by reading Schmitt in a course on aesthetic theory, we were merely following the legal scholar Paul Kahn’s suggestion in his book Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty that Schmitt’s sovereign, who creates the state of exception by deciding on it, has something in common not only with the creating God—as many, noting Schmitt’s book title, have remarked—but also with the creating artist.11 The experiment would consist, then, in reading Schmitt’s theorization of a sovereign power that decides on a situation that the law could not anticipate, as a picture of the artist who, by many an account of the avant-garde that has remained largely intact until today, is associated precisely with such an agency outside of the law, not derived from norms—an agency that is absolute, if you will, and in that sense theological. If Schmitt, then, offers us an exceptionalist, theologico-political theory of sovereignty—one that we surely ought to be very critical of given Schmitt’s association with fascism—in our course on aesthetic theory we would realize that this theory is not so far removed from how the artist and art are still thought of today, a realization that of course would beg the question of art’s politics. Might there be… something fascistic about our exceptionalist understanding of art? But don’t the arts play a vital role, rather, in our contemporary democracies? Isn’t art supposed to be the very opposite of fascism?

The issues that such an aesthetic reading of Schmitt exposes are prominently on display in contemporary aesthetic discourse, and I offer several examples of it in my book. Consider here, as one further example, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s New York Times Magazine profile of the artist Anselm Kiefer, which is a portrait of the artist-as-sovereign.12 It describes Kiefer’s entourage as “a king’s court” and casts Kiefer himself at some point as a figure not unlike the Leviathan represented in Thomas Hobbes’ classic text, holding a spiky club in one hand and a pair of scales in the other. Horst Bredekamp’s study of Hobbes’ visual strategies includes one version of the famous frontispiece in which the sovereign indeed holds a pair of scales rather than the religious staff known from the 1651 edition of the Leviathan.

Horst Bredekamp: Thomas Hobbes' visuelle Strategien. Der Leviathan: Urbild des modernen Staates.

If those references still leave the links to sovereignty largely implicit, Knausgaard also explicitly brings up Kiefer’s encounter with Carl Schmitt during his law studies and mentions the complicated relation to Nazism in Kiefer’s work. While Kiefer is obviously critical of Nazism, Marcel Broodthaers was not exactly wrong when he asked, in response to some of Kiefer’s troubling early work where he photographed himself giving the Nazi salute in various European countries that had been occupied by the Nazis, “Who is this fascist who thinks he is an anti-fascist?”13 Knausgaard’s portrait is one other example of the connections between the Schmittian sovereign and an artist like Kiefer, and even if Kiefer is of course a very specific artist, Knausgaard’s portrayal of him can nevertheless stand in for an exceptionalist tendency in the art world that far exceeds the case of Kiefer alone.

“Readymade aura”

I want to end with the relation between the West and China in the book, which is not as critically articulated as I would have liked. The first chapter of my book on François Jullien offers an extensive discussion of orientalism in this context, something that I wasn’t able to include in Against Aesthetic Exceptionalism.14 Winnie Wong’s work is remarkable here because it shows, exactly as the stories she included in the cluster suggest, that it will not do to work within a simple (and orientalist) opposition between West and East when it comes to considering exceptionalism and unexceptionalism.15 There are obviously important resources for unexceptionalist thought in the West—I consider the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon to be a good example—in the same way that one will find exceptionalism in China (it would be hard to deny, for example, that the Daoist philosophy that is so central to Jullien’s work has an exceptionalist trait to it). Wong’s own work on Dafen village reveals that what has often appeared to the Western eye to be a site of mass-scale reproduction of Western paintings is in fact a site where what Walter Benjamin called the “aura” of the original is very much alive, where the force of what Caroline Jones calls “auratic authorship” remains strong.16 In the case of Dafen village we are dealing with an example of what one might call with Wong (or also following the work of Bianca Bosker) “original copies,” a term that shakes up any easy separation of the exceptional from the unexceptional.17

Such a deconstruction is already often the case within the West, for example in the work of Marcel Duchamp, who is central to Wong’s work on Dafen and appears in Christiaens’ response. Usually, Duchamp’s readymades are considered to mark an upwards, exceptionalizing move: they seek to transform a found object—say, a urinal bought at J.L. Mott Iron Works—into an original work of art by adding a signature to it (“R. Mutt”) and placing it in the gallery or museum. While it seems doubtful that this reading can cover the full extent of Duchamp’s project—Stephen Barker has argued that a readymade was always already a replica: impossible to turn it into an original, impossible to exceptionalize—the iconic interpretation of Duchamp’s project still seems right.18 Consider, for example, Duchamp’s most famous readymade: Fountain, from 1917. As William Camfield has detailed, the original work, famously photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, has gone lost: broken? Hidden? Stolen?19 What we have, instead, is later versions, “fabricated replicas” of the celebrated readymade.20 Of those replicas, however, including those of other works by him that have been lost, Duchamp apparently “made it absolutely clear that the copies were not meant to replace the originals.”21 In other words, the 1917 work was the original—the later versions did not exist at the same level. Duchamp said “that despite everything, ‘a copy remains a copy.’”22 Clearly, some exceptionalism remains in Duchamp’s art. Indeed, and speaking more generally, if Duchamp sometimes does not seem to consider readymades as art, Camfield recalls that he also “stressed that readymades were not ‘trivial’ but, to the contrary, represented ‘a much higher degree of intellectuality,’”23 adding about himself that “I’m nothing else but an artist, I’m sure, and delighted to be.”24 It’s Duchamp’s acknowledgement that he still finds “magic” in the readymade—something that Camfield captures with the wonderful but contradictory post-Benjaminian phrase “readymade aura”—that puts one on the trace of exceptionalism in Duchamp’s work.

In my current research, I am exploring various sources in the West and in China of what I am calling unexceptional thought. For that, I am working around three figures—the vandal (evoked in Christiaens’ response), the forger, and the sage—as productive sites for exploring unexceptionalism and its politics. It’s a project of philosophical aesthetics, but within a political philosophical framing, and with some reference to sinology. When I list the project’s three central figures, it sounds like the beginning of a joke: “A vandal, a forger, and a sage walk into a bar and…” This is not a bad association. Democracy has, for good reasons, often been thought of as a tragic regime. What if we reconsidered it as a comedy instead? Laughter, surely, is one highly effective, unexceptionalizing response to anything that thinks of itself as exceptional.


  • 1See, for example: Pascal Gielen, “Autonomie via Heteronomie,” Autonomie als Waarde: Dilemma’s in Kunst en Onderwijs, edited by Corsten, Marie-Josée, Christianne Niesten, Huib Fens, and Pascal Gielen (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2013).
  • 2In this context, two illuminating engagements with this overall problematic are: Stathis Gourgouris. “On Self-Alteration”. Parrhesia 9 (Spring 2010), 1-17; and Stathis Gourgouris, Lessons in Secular Criticism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), in particular Chapter Four.
  • 3Emily Apter, Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse, and the Impolitic (New York: Verso, 2018); Stathis Gourgouris, “The Question Is: Society Must Be Defended Against Whom? Or What?” New Philosopher, May 25 2013.
  • 4They often do so reluctantly, because sovereignty is a term that obviously does not originate in their own traditions of thought.
  • 5Seth Anziska, “Autonomy as State Prevention: The Palestinian Question after Camp David, 1979–1982,” Humanity vol. 8, no. 2 (2017): 287–310.. be”, ‘a copy remains a copy’” s Waarde. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2013. me echoes between his work and S it as a comedic regime inste
  • 6Arne De Boever, Plastic Sovereignties: Agamben and the Politics of Aesthetics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).
  • 7Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Anna Kornbluh, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).
  • 8I develop it, in fact, with reference to the very notion of bricolage that Christiaens also foregrounds here.
  • 9Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 2010).
  • 10Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Trans. George Schwab (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985).
  • 11Paul Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
  • 12Karl Ove Knausgaard. “In Search of Anselm Kiefer,” New York Times Magazine, 16 Feb. 2020.
  • 13Broodthaers qtd. in Knausgaard, “In Search. “
  • 14Arne De Boever, François Jullien’s Unexceptional Thought: A Critical Introduction (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).
  • 15Winnie Wong, Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  • 16Jones qtd. In Wong, Van Gogh, 12
  • 17Bianca Bosker, Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press/ Hong Kong University Press, 2013).
  • 18Stephen Barker, “Unwork and the Duchampian Contemporary,” boundary 2, vol. 44, 1 (2017): 53-78.
  • 19William Camfield, “Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: Aesthetic Object, Icon, or Anti-Art?,” The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, edited by Thierry De Duve (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 133.
  • 20Camfield, “Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain,” 162.
  • 21Ibid.
  • 22Ibid., 162-163.
  • 23Ibid., 165.
  • 24Ibid.
  • 25Ibid., 135.