The most memorable instances of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms series (begun 1977) appeared as single phrases on billboards, jumbotrons, and public marquees. The fact that we’re accustomed to seeing the phrases in isolation might make us forget the dialectical nature of the series. When we instead see the Truisms anthologized as a long list on a poster, we cannot help but notice the contradictions between many of the maxims. Decades later, these collisions still allow for crucial tinkering and thought-production, as Holzer intended. Here I present ten of my revisions:
1. “Total submission can be a form of freedom.” Total freedom can be a form of submission.
2. Yes, “The new is nothing but a restatement of the old,” but also the reverse: History is nothing but a restatement of present ideology.
3. Alienation produces eccentrics, or revolutionaries, and everyone else.
4. If “unique things must be the most valuable” and “repetition is the best way to learn things,” then (unsurprisingly) the industrial reproduction of thought and belief in schools and through mass media cheapens the individual’s mind.
5. Everyone’s work is equally important commodified.
6. “Nothing upsets the balance of good and evil” + “Mostly you should just mind your own business” = Minding your own business maintains the balance of good and evil.
7. “Private property created crime.” Crime created private property.
8. “Habitual contempt or disgust doesn’t reflect a finer sensibility,” yet “Disgust is the appropriate response to most situations” means that, just as humor can progressively lampoon the elite or oppressively stereotype the weak, so also disgust can either signify and reinforce regressive politics OR it can foment change when directed toward the status quo.
9. “You must know where you stop and the world begins” You must know that all dualisms (mind/body, self/world, etc) are artificial and specious.
10. “Occasionally principles are more valuable than people,” said the man beholden to the shareholders.