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“I, We, One”

Joëlle Caullier
juin 2011Traduction de Natalie Lithwick


1The topic for this issue of Filigrane stems from our deep concern about contemporary phenomena of massification in the political, social, cultural and artistic arenas. Keenly aware of the civilian [citoyenne] responsibility shared by artists and intellectuals, we wished to examine the links between art as practiced and perceived nowadays – individually and jointly – and globalized society which, through intermingling of groups and people, is compelling cultures to constantly re-evaluate their outlooks on identity.

2Furthermore, democracy has so radically transformed over the past few decades, that the very term now encompasses realities that are often incomparable, spanning Michelet’s “Peuple”, the communist ideal of masses, media society, the individual of the Enlightenment, and contemporary individualism as described by Gilles Lipovetsky1. There is no common denominator and the concepts have undergone such metamorphosis as to render comparisons ineffective. In this shifting context, art must also redefine its standpoint.

3In addition to making borders more economically and culturally permeable, globalization has modified collective representations that had seemed deeply rooted in secular traditions. In Western Europe for instance, the distinction between lowbrow and highbrow has been toppled, both by the discovery of other art-conceptions beyond this divide, and by the standardization that the cultural industry has been implementing with alarming efficiency. The “aesthetic regime” of modern European art is thus subject to increasingly brutal attacks and is now being challenged by more functionalist approaches. The very notion of artwork is being targeted by a growing number of despisers, as is the specificity of artistic knowledge, often regarded as overly elitist. Ever since Bakhtine, followed by Barthes and more recently art sociology, artwork (when it endures) is plucked from the artist’s exclusive paternity to become a co-production that is either dual (with the receptor) or social. Moreover, interactive practices appeal to each spectator-listener, for better or worse, thus turning into an “agent” of the performative experience. Art has left the transcendent register (regardless that this latter has become secular) to fuse with a functionality that mostly wears the mask of entertainment. The notion of the public has also undergone radical transformation: the nature and behavior of the audience have nothing to do with what they were a mere half-century ago. It is thus crucial to utterly reassess the modes of diffusion and sharing of artistic activities.

4We wished to observe how music and its associated practices are currently experiencing political and cultural transformations, and how they comprise thought-in-action regarding the link between individuals and the societies they construct. These musical practices convey the values that individuals have established, the world they inhabit and the world they wish to inhabit. They convey the roles they assume in our world and the relationships they pursue with their equals here and elsewhere, past and future.

5The current issue of Filigrane was therefore dubbed “I, We, One”, in order to provide food for thought about the relationship (in the art ambit) between individual and collectivity, delving into both aspects from the angle of the European Enlightenment (rational subject, actor of the Social Contract) as well as in their more contemporary or culturally remote guises. Through precise observation of artwork, writings, artists’ backgrounds, attitudes, and even social practices, our aim is to reach a better grasp of how, by way of art, our contemporaries have applied their responsibility by constructing a common space, and upon what values they have founded a togetherness. In any event, our aim is to examine today’s world and its distinct way of encouraging, hindering or modifying the relational experience that ensues from collective reevaluation of the individual’s place and of the nature of social groups in which individuals participate.

6We wished to tackle these questions though the prism of art, its hallmark being to forge metaphoric space that is a complex meshwork, with individual autonomy and intimacy of feeling on one hand, and with collective values and unconscious behavior on the other hand. Despite contemporary individualist claims, all art, here and elsewhere, present and past, implies a collectivity that desires it, welcomes it and gives it meaning. Art, being thought-in-action, probes – at the core of its material and its formal procedures – the interaction between a more or less autonomous subject and its equals. Examining the art of our time in its diversity and its aesthetic and technical features thus becomes a precious font of learning. By taking a stance and setting up new sensible forms, art forces us to question our continually reassessed social rapports and the debates that kindle modern democracies. How does contemporary artistic thought grasp, though its own questionings, current psychological and social mutations, new forms of democracy, intensified communautarism, and the ongoing fabric of identities? In the footsteps of Filigrane’s two recent conferences devoted to musical outcomes of globalization2, these are the areas we wished to pursue in the current issue, which far from closing the subject, ultimately expands it and emphasizes the urgency of joint reflection.

7From one article to the next, the definition of personal pronouns considered as paragons of art-makers greatly varies. The pronoun I may be a conscious subject who invents, decrypts, feels, asserts its uniqueness or questions it, or may simply be a solitary experience within a more or less structured world that verges on the oppressive ; it may even recall the “man without qualities”, he who is, more so than a social actor. We also fosters various readings : it may embody the community of creators or that of receptors, or it may designate the ensemble of subjects rationally interlinked by common aims and needs. While One remains profoundly ambivalent : it may be a consuming force when referring to the anonymous and obscure voice of authority (individual or collective) or else it may be a connective force when referring to our age-old heritage or to the universality of humankind3.

8In any case, it is important to dialectize these definitions and realize that each of the three entities is dynamic and relates intricately to the other two. For instance, We’s lucid and deliberate posture rooted in experience is weakened by the very existence of One, which undermines illusions of free will ; the seeming uniqueness of I clashes with the lattices of its founding heritages and of the influences that shape it unawares, i.e. clashing with its secret multiplicity. However, the oft pejorative nature of One (due to its passive tendency) flips into its contrary when, split from experience, it designates the universal, and this latter, by means of abstraction, prompts “the rebellion of uniqueness”4. As a result, each entity is pulled beyond its limits by the other two, which map out its horizon and prevent it from congealing : for instance, without the salutary tension provoked by One, the We of shared experience loses sight of the universalist horizon and, growing withdrawn, it turns first into an exclusion factor and then into communautarism. Seen in this light, we are bound to spot the danger exuded by the pernicious concept of cultural identity5.

9In other words, reflection about the interaction between individual and group often intersects with today’s heated question of identity. Whether the singularity is individual or collective, one should never make do with conceptual edifices that prove to be tyrannical when one accepts a univocal definition and ignores each being’s necessary interdependence with others. In this vein, what happens to the I of the Enlightenment when it experiences the obscure multiplicity of the One that imbues it ? What happens to the universalist We of the Social Contract when, split by inequalities, it diffracts into dominant subjects and anonymous masses that get excluded from the collectivity and shared experience6 ? How in today’s highly mediatized western society does the illusion of a sovereign and autonomous We insidiously spread out, while blurring and eliminating singularities among the masses? How not to catch sight, behind European individualism (so often presented as specific), of a paradoxically holistic structuring of our so-called advanced societies? The question arises whether, by provoking diminishment of experience (Benjamin) and loss of symbolizing faculties (Debray, Stiegler), the modern world’s technical overdevelopment has not furthered procedures of massification typical of the videosphere, and whether it is capable, da capo – via art perhaps? – of catalyzing individuation processes (Simondon).

10We thus wished to observe these phenomena through the prism of art and in particular that of music. Despite contemporary individualist claims regarding the creative act, all art implies a group that desires it, welcomes it and gives it meaning. And to the contrary, although art constructs and conveys collective values, it is a founding act carried out by an individual who espouses meaning and liberates his vital forces. But as evoked above, it is at the very the core of its material and its formal procedures that art shapes the subject’s deep interaction with the world. Even the most individualist and iconoclastic artist of today’s world imparts shared values and refers to a common world, using material that, even if invented, stands on the shoulders of those who came before (cf. Adorno’s concept of “the historicity of material”) and clears the way for the posited shared utopia. It is within artistic activity and its resulting works or projects that a space is metaphorically erected where humans gather in order to exchange, think, feel and live together. By merging its force of abstraction with the sensorial surge crucial for affective and cognitive development, art enables individuals to exchange their world-experience. Rooted in the fleshly and spiritual intimacy of each being, art’s existence depends on sharing with others and on common construction of the sensitive; sharing values and heritages, sharing sensations and emotions, sharing skills knowledge? And beliefs, sharing utopias; in a nutshell, sharing experience and the human condition. The value attributed to the artwork’s uniqueness or to its interpretation in the western sphere symbolically tells the individual what price his culture gives to his human singularity. How to respond to certain tendencies nowadays, often ensuing from Anglo-Saxon culture that negate the artwork and even the artists, competitively duplicating or marketing them? It is thus by enhancing or denying art’s symbolic activity that art enacts its social responsibility. Not merely does art address each one in particular but, anticipating an aesthetic response based on a subject’s activity and faculty (individual as well as collective) to feel and interpret, it singles out this individual as a singular being capable of inciting the togetherness of the existential experience before transmuting it into a spiritual activity. In any case, this is the sort of civilian conception of art that we wish to put forward. Art thus succeeds in boosting man’s intimacy and solitude while continuing to connect him, through shared founding experiences, to the community of human beings, to their dreams, aims and collective actions.

11Nevertheless, grasping art as a relation does not strip our inquiry from its historical roots. The I and We of classical eras were unsettled by the major crises of the 20th century, which did not leave art unscathed. Crisis of reason, crisis of the subject, totalitarianisms, current crisis of democracy…how can one avoid reconsidering the inter-subjectivity bequeathed by the Enlightenment? In the wake of Camus or Lacan, can one ever make do again with I,master of itself as of the universe? Can one ever blindly believe in reason again, after Auschwitz and the musings of Adorno and Horkheimer? How to avoid problematizing the concept of masses (One) following the political catastrophes of the last century and the wild excess of media society? Is it not inevitable to question the multicultural We of globalized societies? And yet this is exactly what art of our time has proposed to do. All of these questions are familiar to art, and without them there’d be no open work, no music of chance, no “pluralistic art”7, no quotational practice, no conceptual art, no digital art, no interactive installations, no cross-over music… The many facets of art – invention, interpretation, improvisation, reception, diffusion, exhibition… – are intrinsically etched by society’s manifold reconsiderations of the link, albeit threatened, between individual and collective, whether regarding ways of feeling and expressing, in its rapport with technical objects (musical instruments, machines, “created-found objects”8…) or in its modes of thinking, imagining and shaping.

12How do music and the other arts convey the characteristics and illusions of identity? How do they forge the individual while simultaneously fortifying the individual’s faculty of connecting to others? How do they bolster communities while also, to the contrary, insulating groups – ethnic, generational, religious…– thereby plunging their forces into the core of ideologies? These phenomena are lastingly linked to art through art’s inextricable blend of rationality and irrationality. It is all the more important to arm oneself with critical tools and lucidity in order to denounce processes of identity-instrumentalization and universalist irenism.

13Not long ago, Philippe Dagen unleashed a cry of despair:

“I’d go so far as to say that art is the defense of name against number: of the personal name against the number’s anonymity. Art is what gives separate form to a human being and shields him from obliteration. In other words: art is keeping apart. Art is the voice of whoever affirms they are “he is”??? OK.Here, alone, so as not to be confused with anyone else and thus, through recklessness, empowering others to say that they too will refuse to get swallowed. It could be said that these definitions are merely negations. Indeed they are. But what could ever convince us to agree to the world order in its current guise?”9

14Now here’s an unequivocal position that entrusts art with a clear-cut responsibility to craft the subject’s uniqueness, to assert its value and prevent it from absorption by any group that does not consist of autonomous individuals. If this assertion draws on a fundamentally European conception of art that is fraught with appalled humanism, here it takes on a militant and even desperate form, precisely because it gushes at the core of a new era that is experiencing, behind constant democratic allegations, mass phenomena bedecked in tatters of individualism. Granted that today’s art can no longer ignore conceptions introduced by cultures alien to individualism and from whom there is much to learn. Granted that we have learned to think with new perspectives, indubitably due to modern anthropology and the world’s growing awareness. And yet isn’t it helpful to preserve, as a matchless virtue, the fecund tension that, through singular artwork, propels the individual to the common denominator of shared experience, and then elevates the common to the universal as a spiritual quest? Aren’t such dynamics precisely what constitute, within rigorous art, a criteria of aesthetic value that should be upheld in an age of increasing relativism? Doesn’t the singularity of art reside in its ability to unite individual and collective within the lush experience of a shared world, dreamed as well as lived, and thereby within the endless flow of life?


1  Gilles Lipovetsky, L’Ere du vide. Essais sur l’individualisme contemporain, Paris, Gallimard, 1983.

2  Musique et globalisation, 9-11 October 2008, international conference held in Paris by the journal Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société, the CDMC, the Cité de la Musique and the Universities of Montpellier (Rirra21), Paris 8 (Esthétique, musicologie et créations musicales) and Lille 3 (Centre d’Etude des arts contemporains), Publication of proceedings underway. Available online at http://www.cdmc.asso.fr/fr/ressources/conferences/enregistremnts/musique_globalisation

3  We point the reader to François Jullien’s book (De l’universel, de l’uniforme, du commun et du dialogue entre les cultures), which is the object of a review in this issue.

4  François Jullien, op.cit., p. 33.

5  Discarding Samuel P.Huntington’s theory of The Clash of Civilizations, F. Jullien (op. cit., p. 245) writes:

6  We have in mind for instance the caste of untouchables in Indian society or women in Muslim society.

7  Concept cited from Zimmermann.

8  Description of the transitional object according to Winnicott (cf. Jeu et réalité, L’Espace potentiel, Gallimard, 1975)

9  Philippe Dagen, L’Art impossible, Grasset, 2002


Joëlle Caullier, «“I, We, One”», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Numéros de la revue, L'individuel et le collectif dans l'art, mis à  jour le : 17/06/2011, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=242.


Quelques mots à propos de :  Joëlle Caullier

Univ Lille Nord de France, UDL3/CEAC.
Natalie Lithwick