Luleå Biennial 2020:
Time on Earth

Information regarding Covid-19

Last chance The Luleå Biennial 2020: Time on Earth

Wednesday February 10, 16~20 and Saturday February 13–Sunday February 14, 12~16
Galleri Syster is open. Group show with Augusta Strömberg, Susanna Jablonski and Ana Vaz.

Thursday February 11–Sunday February 14, 12~16
Havremagasinet länskonsthall in Bodenis open. Group show with Beatrice Gibson, Susanna Jablonski, Birgitta Linhart, Fathia Mohidin, Charlotte Posenenske, Tommy Tommie and Danae Valenza.

Saturday February 13–Sunday February 14, 14~18
The former prison Vita Duvan is open with an electro acoustic installation by Maria W Horn.

Saturday February 13, 15~19
The artist Markus Öhrn and the poet David Väyrynens sound installation "Bikt" is exhibited on the ice by Residensgatan in Luleå. Listen to older generations of Tornedal women and their testimonies.

Book your visit via Billetto. Drop in is possible as far as space allows.

For those of you who do not have the opportunity to physically visit the Luleå Biennale on site, a radio show including artist talks, sound works and specially written essays will be on stream on Saturday February 13–Sunday February 14. Visit our radio page here.

The exhibitions at Norrbotten's Museum, Luleå konsthall, Välkommaskolan in Malmberget and the Silver Museum are unfortunatly closed.

A Short History of the Marxist Philosophy of Language
Sezgin Boynik

“Is language our tragedy?”, asked Maria Janion in her book Romanticism, Revolution, Marxism. Her discussion of tragic motifs in Marxism inevitably boiled down to the idea that “capitalism is producing its own gravediggers”.(1) It is within this frame of the literary imagination that Marxist philosophers queried how the limits of our world was set by language. The tragedy of this dialectic was inherent in a language that had dual characters—while it reproduced ideology (subjectivisation) through speech, it also enabled emancipation from such ideologies. One could optimistically conclude that the oppressive language of capitalism also produced its own gravediggers. As Jean-Jacques Lecercle argues, the contradictions within Marxist understandings of language created a space for “abstraction that makes [it] possible to think real life and become conscious of it; and it also freezes and veils this same conscious, in the form of bad abstraction of fetishism”.(2) On a philosophical level, this conceptualisation was tightly connected to Marxist understandings of the dialectics between consciousness, history, language, and thought, finding its symbolic expression in the note Lenin wrote in the margins of Hegel’s Science of Logic: “the history of thought = the history of language?”(3)

Despite all these philosophical conundrums involving the question of linguistic abstractions, the Marxists’ focus was the practical aspect of language, or more precisely, how people used language to communicate. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels described language as “the production of the form of intercourse itself ”, evaluating everything through its capacity to socialise human activities. In this respect, language was only valued as a secular activity of social intercourse, meaning that any attempt for language to ascend “into an independent realm”, that could see “thoughts as the forms of words having its own content”, was interpreted as a reactionary position.(4) With this disclaimer, Marx and Engels essentially labeled the conceptual questions of formalism as non-Communist and asocial. They did this for the sake of criticising the specific and professionalised “philosophical language” used by Sancho and Don Quixote (their nicknames for Max Stirner and Franz Szeliga). They believed that this language attempted to explain complex social dynamics and entire contradictions through a “word”, which would “possess the miraculous power of leading from the realm of language and through to actual life”. In this “domination of Holy”, Marx and Engels identify a “domination of phrases” that seems to be motivated by a desire to save the world through proper “names”.(5) This “philosophical language” had many varied shortcomings, one of the most evident being Julia Kristeva’s right-wing validation of “poetic language” as an “aristocratic” and “elitist demand” of the speaking animal.(6)

These elitist demands received the most airtime in the seventies post-structuralist theory journal Tel Quel, led by Kristeva and others. The essence of the Tel Quel project was to support the act of enunciation as an “active mediator of language” that could challenge the structures of capitalist economic laws. One aim of understanding experimental enunciations and poetic and philosophical words in this way was to intervene in how capitalism was inscribed in language, by disturbing the equivalence between speech and money.(7) A tragico-comic element of this project was that it imagined it was possible to escape the implications of capitalist subordination by employing different registers within linguistic subjectivities. Put simply, their project opposed capitalist subjectivisation with linguistic subjectivities.

Maria Janion pointed out that the dead-end of this experimental linguistic Marxism was approached via its fundamental de-historicisation of theoretical concepts. She argued that in order to oppose the assumed teleology and linearity of how Marxist concepts progressed, those within the Tel Quel group had a tendency to simply eliminate history.(8) While the mono-linear determinism of this bourgeois understanding of Marxism was also something some Formalists fell victim to, I argue that a more accurate understanding can be found within the Leninist theories of uneven development and combined struggle. A journal called Change seceded from Tel Quel, and under the stewardship of Jean-Pierre Faye, sought to revitalise philosophical discussions about political language by introducing some Leninist concepts—revolution and transformation. The second issue of Change was dedicated to the question of “Destruction”, and was a wild mixture of Leninist polemics, Nietzsche, Marx, alchemy, Russian Formalism, Futurism, conceptual poetry, experimental writing, Eisenstein, and Noam Chomsky. A small paragraph on the metamorphosis of commodities from Marx’s Capital was retitled “The Fire and Change of the Forms”, alluding to a Heraclitean understanding of fire as a source for transformation. A particular emphasis was given to Marx’s elaboration of the “change in form or the metamorphosis of commodities through which the social metabolism is mediated”.(9)

This fire of change was the latest fever to strike the post-structuralist theorists, who were grappling with ideas around assemblage—they believed this to be more advanced than the Tel Quel speculations around rational aristocracy. By introducing Lenin and the revolution to their dialectic theories, they conceptualised form not as the sedimentation of intrinsic structures, but as a process of transformation, metamorphosis and change. Through understanding the forms language could take as being in constant flux—like history on fire—those writings for Change united around the claim that every language passes through the Revolution and its dynamics of destruction. One author included an epigram to his text—a quote from Yuri Tynyanov: “I would not understand literature if there had not been the Revolution”.(10) Linguistic propositions such as these were based on the idea that revolution transverses language. This aligned with theories that encompassed a Leninist position, which argued against Proletkult theoretician Alexander Bogdanov’s thesis that “truth is an ideological form”. Before becoming an advocate of revisionist totalitarianism theories, Jean-Pierre Faye defended Leninist understandings of the revolutionary capacity of words to act as razor sharp tools that could expose political truths.(11) This Leninist position was militantly expounded within sixties artistic spheres, in which destruction had the capacity to birth new truths. However, the Leninist language they wielded was undeniably more related to alchemy than to the complex dialectic of Productivism.

From the ashes of this avant-garde Leninism, a more nuanced revisionism emerged in the eighties. Ernesto Laclau was one of the leading post-Marxist theoreticians who played a crucial role in this turn—he described Leninism “as the surrealist moment of Kautskyism”.(12) He co-authored a highly influential book with Chantal Mouffe that worked through how to construct a non-Leninist hegemonic theory. Their core concept envisioned Leninism as a leftist deviation that misinterpreted the relationship between necessity and contingency (i.e. spontaneity). They argued that Lenin saw a necessary link between “social agents and class”, thus foreclosing the possibilities for contingency and articulation.(13) Instead of defending “class identity”—which they claimed Lenin did (!?)—Laclau and Mouffe proposed the conceptual operation of deciphering the precise “plot” and “narrative” of capitalist hegemony, which necessitated identifying between agency and class.(14) They argued that this hegemony could be opposed by a socialist strategy that called for a linguistic articulation of the “impossible suture between signified and signifier”. This also involved a parallel task: “the abandonment of the thought/reality opposition”.(15) In an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of Leninist identity politics, Laclau and Mouffe proposed a complicated theory combining Wittgensteinian “language-games”, Austinian “speech-acts”, and Lacanian “suture”, resulting in an even more surrealist Marxism.

Laclau and Mouffe’s articulation of language as a socialist strategy is just one of the intellectual positions Perry Anderson wittily criticised as the “exorbitation of language”, alluding to attempts to create absolute linguistic concepts that could be applied to entire segments of society.(16) This shift is especially recognisable within Tel Quel discussions of linguistic economic structures, as well as in the writings of Jacques Derrida. This contradicts Ferdinand de Saussure’s initial claims on the absolutisation of language, which are often put forward as the forerunners of this position.(17) Anderson wrote that this absolutist position resulted in “a contraction of language into itself ” and the “attenuation of truth”, severing any “possibility of truth as a correspondence of propositions to reality”.(18) The eighties’ post-Marxist turn resulted in this linguistic operation “decisively detaching politics from class struggle” by granting full autonomy to “discourse” as a “principal historical determinant”.(19)

Yet another outcome of this linguistic model was the “randomisation of history”, which relativised historical struggles as various speech acts. In his brilliant research on class struggles in the twenties within a Moscow Metal Factory, historian Kevin Murphy illustrates the limits of studies influenced by linguistics, “inspiring a call for close investigation of the ‘language of class’”, ultimately reducing class “to merely [one] of many ‘contested’ identities’”.(20) Instead of explaining the contradictions within the proletariats’ struggle and the bureaucratisation of Communist institutions with the “linguistic turn”, or “Bolshevik speak”, Murphy looks for concrete manifestations of class conflicts and their organisational context.(21) The result is a historical materialist study that separates revolution from representational regimes (identity, language, ethnicity, gender) by asking, “why did the most unruly proletariat of the century come to tolerate the ascendancy of a political and economic system that, by every conceivable measure, proved antagonistic to working-class interests?”.(22) It is impossible to answer this question via a linguistic postmodernism that situated the workers’ struggles as deconstructivist identity positions.

The Russian proletariat that revolutionised working class struggles did not endure worsening economic conditions because their identities were molded by the regime’s representational models (i.e. “Bolshevik speak”, “Soviet tongue”), but rather as a result of a long history of struggles that shaped their politics via completely different registers from those that compelled bourgeois understanding of economics. Simply put, the workers did speak with their own language that was different from the exploitative discourse of the bourgeoisie, but that was not conditioned by Communist institutions. The language of the proletariat was the sum total of their activism and experiences. As Marx and Engels wrote, a prerequisite of enacting revolutionary politics was to “descend from language to life”, although this could hardly happen through the miraculous power of words.

The reduction of truth to a language-effect—or what Alain Badiou named as linguistic idealism, or “idealinguistery”—was also strongly present within studies of the Russian avant-garde.(23) Boris Groys best represents this tendency, arguing that “in the Soviet period, language acquired a new unity, a new linguistic subconscious that had been artificially ‘drummed in’ by the party”.(24) According to him, that new Soviet-Party language became the natural background for the activities that informed the aesthetic or political avant-gardes. Thus, the real creator in Revolutionary Russia were not avant-garde artists, or Futurists, but Lenin himself, “the demiurge of his age”.(25) This is how Groys interpreted the Formalists’ analysis of Lenin’s style: as a canonisation of Lenin, who was the ultimate expression of the subconscious of the state. According to him, the LEFists and Formalists envisioned Lenin as a possible entry point into the government’s deep soul. Groys does exactly what Badiou described as an operation of modern sophists (or idealinguisters)—he attempted to “replace the idea of truth with the idea of rule”.(26) In his more recent book The Communist Postscript, Groys absolutises language as the tool of state to such an extent that it is granted the “capacity to connect base and superstructure directly and immediately… the capacity which was realized in a socialist, communist society”.(27) Language, according to Groys, was everything—it has a comprehensive logic, it is contradictory, heterogeneous, infinite, and paradoxical. It emulated the Soviet regime, which was “above all the administration of metanoia, of constant transition, of constant endings and new beginnings, of self-contradiction”. In order to historically validate the “linguistification” of Communism within the realm of the paradoxical state, Groys provided the example of Lenin’s 1908 decision to argue for representatives of the RSDLP (Russian Social Democratic Labour Party) to enter the Duma (parliament), while at the same time advocating for the Duma to be combated underground. It is curious how this Leninist gesture invokes a metaphysical conclusion about the paradoxical form of Bolshevik language, instead supporting Georg Lukács’ observation that “at the core of Lenin’s thought is the actuality of the revolution”, determined to be achieved with any possible means.(28)


  1. Maria Janion, Romantizam, Revolucija, Marksizam, Nolit, Belgrade, 1976, p. 75. The actual quote is from Paul Lafargue’s reminiscences on Marx.

  2. Jean-Jacques Lecercle, A Marxist Philosophy of Language, translated by Gregory Elliott, Brill, Leiden, 2006, p. 96.

  3. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 38: Philosophical Notebooks, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1963, p. 89.

  4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1968, p. 503.

  5. Ibid, pp. 504~505.

  6. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, Basil Blackwell, London, 1982, p. 33.

  7. Jean-Joseph Goux, “Marx and the Inscription of the Labour”, The Tel Quel Reader, edited by P. ffrench and R-F Lack, Routledge, London, 1998, pp. 50~69.

  8. Maria Janion, p. 120.

  9. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, translated by Ben Fowkes, Penguin, 1990, p. 199. Marx, “Le ‘Feu’ du Changement de Forme”, is published in Change, no. 2, 1969, pp. 81~83. Now, scans of entire issues of this journal are electronically available through les presses du reel.

  10. Léon Robel, “Notes fragmentaires pour une étude des rapports entre Eisenstein et Tynianov”, Change, no.2, 1969, p. 57. “Je ne comprendrais pas la littérature, s’il n’y avait eu la Révolution”.

  11. Jean-Pierre Faye, “Destruction, révolution, langage”, Change, no. 2, 1969, pp. 125~126.

  12. Ernesto Laclau, “Metaphor and Social Antagonisms”, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. by C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, University of Illinois Press, 1988, p. 252.

  13. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics [1985], second edition, Verso, London, 2011, p. 42.

  14. Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, p. 50. They also wrote that Marxism “must abandon its class ghetto”, p. 58.

  15. Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, p. 110, 113.

  16. Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, The University of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 40.

  17. Anderson quotes Saussure to support his criticism: “Language is a human institution of such a kind that all the other human institutions, with the exception of writing, can only deceive us as to its real essence if we trust in their analogy”, p. 42.

  18. Anderson, p. 46.

  19. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism [1986], Verso, London, 1998, p. 47.

  20. Kevin Murphy, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2007, pp. 2~3.

  21. The term “speaking Bolshevik” is used by Sovietologist Stephen Kotkin to describe “the obligatory language for self-identification and as such, the barometer of one’s political allegiance to the cause”. Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism and Civilisation, University of California Press, 1995, p. 220. Kotkin, on the other hand, takes the clue for this term from Victor Klemperer’s “speaking Nazi”.

  22. Murphy, Revolution and Counterrevolution, p. 2.

  23. Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, translated by Bruno Bosteels, Continuum, London, 2009, p. 188.

  24. Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship and Beyond, translated by Charles Rougle, Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 45.

  25. Groys, p. 68.

  26. Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy, translated by Norman Madarasz, State University of New York Press, 1999, p. 117. This is how Groys draws the line between the avant-garde and the state: “There would have been no need to suppress the avant-garde if its black squares and Zaum poetry had confined themselves to artistic space, but the fact that it was persecuted indicated that it was operating on the same territory as the state”. Groys, p. 35.

  27. Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript, translated by Thomas Ford, Verso, London, 2009, p. 61.

  28. Georg Lukács, Lenin, p. 11.

Radio 65.22 is an auditory cross section of the biennial’s theme and contents, which amplifies and makes accessible written texts, framed situations and artistic voices. Radio 65.22 also enables an encounter with chosen parts of the Luleå Biennial’s activities for those who cannot experience the biennial in situ.

With Radio 65.22, we want to inscribe ourselves into an experimental and exploratory radio tradition, where the media itself becomes a platform for our ideas on radio and its capacity to depict and mirror the world around us. The task of Radio 65.22 is to tell of reality, in further ways that may not be possible through the image or the text.

Under Fragments: Time on Earth you will find radio programmes and sound pieces in different genres and forms that reflect this year’s biennial in various ways. Spirit of Place is a touring series of literary conversations on language and place. The culture journalist Kerstin Wixe takes us along to places that have played a significant part in an author’s stories, or carries the story’s history. Woven Songs is a deepening series of radio programmes that accentuate singing, the voice and the role of storytelling in the creation of new world views and orders, produced in collaboration with Public Art Agency Sweden.

Listen, reflect, enjoy!