Boris Groys’ “Under Suspicion”

Boris Groys: Unter Verdacht. Eine Phänomenologie der Medien. Munich: Hanser 2000, 232 pp.

“Nothing is itself”, declares Rilke in the fourth Duino Elegy. For Rilke, this sentence is less an ontological stocktaking than an incentive to seek a poetical form to be able to express the “authentic”.

If this sentence were to be the header for Boris Groys’ new book Unter Verdacht (Under Suspicion), it would serve more as an expression of an irrefutable hunch that something else is concealed behind everything than as a description of a state. Groys calls this hunch “suspicion”.

Everything that presents itself as a material symbol is necessarily subject to the suspicion that it is not authentic, that we are dealing with a deception, simulation, or manipulation.

The subtitle of Groys’ book seems to profess that the principle of suspecting every symbol should be applied to media theory: “The media lie”.

However, one can read this book from at least three more points of view, as Groys calls on a general theory of semiotics and epistemics and addresses himself to economy, market and temporality.

Last but not least, Unter Verdacht continues, in a sense, central ideas from earlier books of the author: the enquiry into avant-garde and totalitarianism from The Total Art of Stalinism (Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, 1988), into innovation from Das Neue (1992), and into the concept of the archive from Die Logik der Sammlung (1997).

The critique of the media is the point of departure. It is this critique that formulates the suspicion that everything the media conveys disguises, conceals, does not express something “else.” According to Groys, this suspicion is not specific for 20th-century media critique.

Rather, the suspicion that there is something else is a constant of the way a person deals with symbols on the whole. Wherever one encounters symbols, one cannot but have this suspicion; that is, “We cannot regard without suspecting”.

Moreover, it is precisely suspicion that constructs the human – if one embeds Groys’ anthropology in Descartes’ sentence: suspicor ergo sum. The subject is created when it senses an intention to deceive, which it ascribes to another subject.

For Groys, this holds true not merely for the media symbol and a suspected authority that controls them, but just as much for the “look of the Other” (Sartre). The Other might even be said to be a mere synonym forsuspicion.

Groys does not suggest that the medium itself lies, and that the message of the medium (McLuhan) is the other that one can discover behind the symbol. Groys is far from promulgating a simplistic media theory; suspicion for him is not related to the medium itself, but to “sub-media space”.

This suspicion is not directed against the signifier itself or against the channel, but against the signified. For Groys, “sub-media space” is behind the material medium. Whoever deals with symbols, the author insists, cannot but assume another subject’s intention to conceal or disguise, cannot but presume a deception or a conspiracy or a secret message.

Classic theories of semiotics have pre-formulated this concept – especially Origenes in the doctrine of the allegoric meaning of writing. Groys, too, does not occupy himself with media theory, but rather with a theory of media theory, which merges into a general theory of semiotics.

He wants to understand suspicion from the outside as a principle of looking, and to formulate a metatheory of media theory. If, however, suspicion belongs to the most general level of human cognition, it can only be the subject of media ontology.

If media critique and media theory engage in suspecting the medium, this is only one of the diverse historic expressions of the media ontology of suspicion. Post-structuralism, too, is historicized in this manner:

If deconstruction does not articulate a specific suspicion, but describes non-self-identity à la Rilke as structure, it tries to leap from the mere reflex of suspicion to a meta-level. Groys’ media ontology is a further variation of the leap to a meta-level.

According to Groys, the philosophical tradition of suspicion begins, at the latest, with Plato. The theory of ideas is for him the endeavour to discern the concealed.

Marx’ economic basis and Nietzsche’s will to power are thus merely later variations of speculation, fed by suspicion, on the concealed. Heidegger suspected existence itself, which is supposedly concealing itself. Unlike Heidegger, Groys wants to leave suspicion as a principle of cognition and to locate it exclusively in the dealings of the cognizant subject with the medium.

Even so, the reader cannot purge the suspicion that it is precisely Heidegger who serves as the most important source of inspiration for Groys’ “suspicion”. Expressions such as “clearing” (“Lichtung”) and the use of hyphenation to allow for several interpretations of a word (e.g., “Unter-stellung”) point to this track.

And in the moment of suspicion the Heideggerian existential care emerges. One who suspects is one who wants to know authentic existence: “Every suspicion is also a wait for revelation.

Suspicion only exists if a revelation of the concealed is thought to be possible and if one strives for such a revelation […].” Thus, temporality (the new) and economy (the market) enter the game: Suspicion of the old gives birth to the new. New honesty is opposed to old deception – but how can honesty appear to be credible if everything is under suspicion?

The attribution of honesty is an effect of the unexpected, of the unconventional. According to Groys, the new depends on its context. In order to appear honest and valuable, the new has to give the appearance of not deceiving.

Honesty can thus be produced artificially. According to Groys, this is only possible via the mechanism of reduction: If the new were to happen along with yet more complicated symbols,it would be taken as sophisticated deception yet again.

It is thus necessary to create the appearance that the new needs fewer symbols. Authentication is therefore an effect of reduction, kenosis. One is left to wonder:Is the entire history of ideas and the arts to be seen as a mere movement of continuous reductions?

If Groys develops the media ontology or, rather, anthropology of suspicion in the first half of the book, with the heading “Der submediale Raum” (“Sub-media Space”), the second half consists of readings of the economy theories of Mauss, Lévi-Strauss, Bataille, Derrida and Lyotard.

These readings are for the most part conventional, and one encounters the moment of suspicion only in passing – such as in Mauss’ concept of “mana,” and the suspicion of the recipient of the gift that he is being manipulated by the “mana”-energy enclosed in the gift, or in Derrida’s “ghosts”.

This may be due to the fact that “suspicion” is the first mover in Groys’ anthropology that does not subject itself to any economy, but creates the economy of innovation and market.

According to Lévi-Strauss’ reading of Mauss, “mana” is no more than a “symbolic zero value” that calls for filling up and thus offers suspicion a hole through which it can creep in.

As Groys says, one believes that one can see the medium itself through the empty symbol. Groys sees the empty symbol as a strategy of the “radical avant-garde”, which does not intend “shock” or “surprise”, but rather reduction to the medium itself, “monotonous, media boredom”.

Where the avant-garde pops up in Groys’ work, the experienced reader has learned to watch out for totalitarianism – and, indeed, Groys includes the “postdadaist Hitler”, after Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky, in the row of empty symbols through which one “has the impression of seeing the medium itself”: the emptier the media figure, the more it becomes the medium.

Groys, however, seems to think that the re-articulation of suspicion against media use of such “manas” and the pursuit of ideology and media critique are a historical stage that has been transcended.

The hero of “media culture” was the private eye, smiled at by Groys. If scolding the media becomes reflexive in the anthropology of suspicion, as Groys complains in the book iew, who might be the hero of media ontology?

This hero will hardly turn up amongst the characters of television whodunits, but perhaps good old Hegel could be persuaded once more to play the part.