Newspaper “What is to be done?, # 8, January, 2005
The story of King Wei, who lived in China during the 4th century, tells us that the ruler's greatest pleasure was to observe the dance of the cranes. The movements of this bird were a paragon of unpretensious looseness of poise; in a broader sense, they were a constant reminder that one should never renounce one's freedom under the pressure of circumstance.
Yet the king paid dearly for his love of cranes. One day, he looked at one of them for too long while a battle was taking place, which he lost. The strength of his aesthetic experience was defrayed by his loss of command. Among China's men of letters, this fable became the object of discussion for centuries to come. Some scorned Wei, while others marvelled at his composure. Both one and the other interpretation of his conduct laid the foundations for entire schools of thought.
In my thinking, it is far more fruitful to discuss this event, which lies two and a half thousand years in the distant past, than to speak of the Moscow Biennale, the revival of censorship, the phenomenon of success or a thousand other objects that surround us. The maniacal obsession of King Wei is far more interesting than other forms of ecstasy because it is directed at the phenomenon of the beautiful. In the moment of a "state of exception", King Wei demonstrates what is already a limitless level of "exceptional behavior", most of all by virtue of its complete disregard of the "situation's emergency".
Let us ask directly: do our heads contain any human resource that might allow us to assess the emergency of the situation with one eye and to delight in the manner of the movements of the crane with the other? There is no such resource. There is, however, the possibility for delighting in the mannerisms of the "state of emergency's" makers, but one has to pay dearly for this focusing of vision as well. As one artist has noted, the crane stretches his neck to the sky and issues forth a lonely cry. It strolls without hurrying, with a light and comely gait. Its vast and desolate heart holds the memory of a thousand paths and lines of flight.
The excess of pure, uninterested contemplation is an assymetrical answer to "the clamor of emergency". It refuses to legitimate its pretenses, refuses to speak in one and the same language, and even refuses to notice it at all. Will this answer be convincing? This depends on the level of intensity and consistency of its articulation. To exist under circumstances when circumstances play no role whatsoever takes singular detachement, extreme concentration and ecstatic vehemence.
Translated by David Riff