In the 1890s, when anarchism and art were joined at the hip in Montmartre, a anarchist writer named Zo D’axa, who published a paper, Endehors, for which Felix Feneon and Octave Mirabeau wrote, ran an ass named Nul for the senate. He published his position paper in another journal, called simple pages (Feuilles). It is a pretty good position paper:
“Of an old French family, I dare to say that I am an ass of the race, an ass in the beautiful sense of the word – four hooves and hair overall.
My name is Nul, as is that of my competitor candidates.
I am white, as are the number of ballots that they will obstinently not count and which, now, count for me.
My election is assured.”
D’axa went on to point out that the chamber was composed of thieves, imbeciles, and non-entities – in other words, a perfect sample of the French public. D’axa claimed that on election day, the ass, sitting in a cart, was pulled along the streets of Paris so that Paris could see it – the perfect legislator. Paris, with “le people suffisamment nigaud pour croire que la souverainete consiste à se nommer des maitres.” As it passed along, it was greeted with cheers and jeers, including one man who shook his fist and called it a ‘dirty Jew.’ In other words, all was in order. But somehow the police took this candidate amiss, and issued out and arrested the candidate and its committee.
At one point in telling this cock and bull story, D’axa describes the ass as a “subversive animal.” This is my point (oh, the tedium that emanates from this weblog as LI pursues this bee in his bonnet!) in telling this tale – for it was the 1890s that the collusion between subversion and art became, well, codified.
We started out this string of posts last week to consider a sideissue that had popped up on the LCC blog, and the Parodycenter, about the subversive function of art. We were against it – or rather, we didn’t see subversion per se, without an object, as being a function at all. And in the stream of comments at those sites, some exaggerated statements seem to jump out at us, such as: all art is subversive. Or: all great art is subversive. This seems clearly wrong, and I can’t imagine an artist like, say Joshua Reynolds even understanding it – although Blake might have. But it has dawned on us that the more interesting issue is: when did subversion jump from a police category to an aesthetic one? How is it that subversion is now one of the critic’s routine words? And by routine, we mean a word that ceases to be read. And by ceasing to be read, we mean a term that proliferates.
Well, our investigation has so far been, we admit, a piss poor exhibition of false starts. Sometimes our brain doesn’t work so good. So sorry. Excuse us. Our deepest regrets. Pardon. Our forehead is in the dust. We will lick the heels of your shoes. Etc.
So in this post we are going to back up a bit, and go at subversion from another direction – from the policing perspective.
In the OED, the first senses of subversion, now obsolete are the demolition of something - a city, for example – or the turning of something upside down, or uprooting. So John Evelyn, surveying wind damage, could talk of the subversion of his trees. But it was also applied, by the 17th century, to systems of law. Burke speaks of subversion in his Impeachment of Hastings – in a passage that, of course, irresistibly reminds the modern reader of the habit and policy of the Bush junta:
For your Lordships must have observed that it is rare indeed, that, in a continued course of evil practices, any uniform method of proceeding will serve the purposes of the delinquent. Innocence is plain, direct, and simple: guilt is a crooked, intricate, inconstant, and various thing. The iniquitous job of to-day may be covered by specious reasons; but when the job of iniquity of to-morrow succeeds, the reasons that have colored the first crime may expose the second malversation. The man of fraud falls into contradiction, prevarication, confusion. This hastens, this facilitates, conviction. Besides, time is not allowed for corrupting the records. They are flown out of their hands, they are in Europe, they are safe in the registers of the Company, perhaps they are under the eye of Parliament, before the writers of them have time to invent an excuse for a direct contrary conduct to that to which their former pretended principles applied. This is a great, a material part of the constitution of the Company. My Lords, I do not think it to be much apologized for, if I repeat, that this is the fundamental regulation of that service, and which, if preserved in the first instance, as it ought to be, in official practice in India, and then used as it ought to be in England, would afford such a mode of governing a great, foreign, dispersed empire, as, I will venture to say, few countries ever possessed, even in governing the most limited and narrow jurisdiction.
It was the great business of Mr. Hastings's policy to subvert this great political edifice.”
Notice that in Burke’s passage, subversion has to do with the intentional act of an insider, operating harmfully on a system. The insider in this case, Hastings, is subverting a system for his own benefit. But this notion is open to another one that is in the offing – that of the secret outsider, the double agent, boring into a system only in order to overthrow it – with malice aforethought. The distinction between the insider and the outsider is carried by subversion into the 19th century, with varied effects.