– Summer 2011

Sympathy Is a Bridge for Ideology: Phil Collins’s Adventures in Marxism

Michèle Faguet

Phil Collins, marxism today (prologue), 2010, HD video, 35min. Courtesy Shady Lane Productions

Phil Collins, marxism today (prologue), 2010, HD video, 35min. Courtesy Shady Lane Productions

The nature of this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathise. The answer is inevitable: with the victor. […] Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate.

— Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History'1

In a recent essay Hito Steyerl extends Walter Benjamin’s critique of triumphalism inthe narrating of history to the production of documentary images. She emphasises the dubious nature of the documentary genre’s conventional claim to objectivity and historical verisimilitude, even when exercised in a purportedly critical manner — that is, when providing visibility or giving a voice to those who wouldn’t otherwise have it, or when registering the process and/or results of the kind of socially engaged, collaborative work that has become a staple of post-studio art practice since the early 1990s.2 The photographs and films of Phil Collins can, of course, be connected to this gesture with their expansive repertoire of portraits of people who may be seen as victims of particular historical circumstances. But no matter how engaging these images are and what they promise to reveal to us, the viewers, about their subjects — and indeed, about ourselves — ultimately they function as what Claire Bishop and Francesco Manacorda have called ‘residual traces of a larger aesthetic and conceptual scheme’.3 Typically staged in sites of geopolitical conflict, Collins’s work systematically extracts its subjects from the determining factors that bear down so heavily on their identities as

  1. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History', Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.256.

  2. Hito Steyerl, ‘Documentary Uncertainty’, A Prior, no.15, 2007 pp.2—3.

  3. Claire Bishop and Francesco Manacorda, ‘The Producer as Artist’, Phil Collins: yeah…..you, baby you, Milton Keynes and Brighton: Milton Keynes Gallery and Shady Lane Publications, 2005, p.26.

  4. Helen Molesworth, ‘Man with a Movie Camera: The Art of Phil Collins’, Artforum, vol.66, no.5, January 2008, p.236.

  5. In the mid-1970s, the ‘socialist personality’ was defined as ‘…an all-round, well developed personality, who […] possesses a firm class outlook rooted in the Marxist-Leninist worldview […] is thoroughly imbued with collective thoughts and deeds, and actively, consciously and creatively contributes to
    the shaping of socialism’. Wörterbuch zur sozialistischen Jugendpolitik, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1975,
    p.249. Cited in Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker,
    New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005, p.70.

  6. See John Rodden, Repainting the Little Red Schoolhouse: A History of Eastern German Education,
    1945—1995, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp.175—217.

  7. Richard Evans, ‘Germany’s Morning After’, Marxism Today, June 1991, p.23.

  8. J. Rodden, Repainting the Little Red Schoolhouse, op.cit., p.138.

  9. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (trans. Richard Howard), New York: Hill
    and Wang, 1981, p.8.

  10. Heinz Hasenkrüger, ‘Einige kritische Bemerkungen zur Sportschau 1956’, Theorie und Praxis der
    Körperkultur, vol.5, December 1956, p.962. Cited in Molly Wilkinson Johnson, Training Socialist Citizens:
    Sports and the State in East Germany, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008, p.143. According to Johnson:
    ‘These synchronised exercises were the most politically significant feature of the Gymnastics and
    Sports Festival as rituals of state. Designed to represent the key values of collectivity, discipline,
    and order, they received the most careful attention.’

  11. M. Fulbrook, The People’s State, op. cit., p.12.

  12. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (trans. Gabriel Rockhill), London: Continuum Books, 2004, p.37.