A talk and guided discussion held at Left Forum 2013, at Pace University, on June 8th, 2013.
If it is true that the 'commodity-structure' (Lukacs) is the defining feature of modern capitalism down through the present, then it stands to reason that it has no less impacted the way art is produced, consumed, circulated, and exchanged. This shift in art's character happened both objectively (e.g., as in an article produced for exchange on the market), and subjectively (i.e., as a kind of experience and form of expression for the social and individual body). However, art's relationship to its status as a commodity is an ambivalent one: Art has become at once more free from past forms of domination, but its freedom is constrained when subject to the dynamics of capital. Art as a commodity is both its cure and poison, and has become a social problem for its practice. Since becoming aware of this problem, artists, philosophers, curators, and critics have taken various approaches in seeking to overcome it. How has art under a capitalist society changed from its pre-capitalist practices? What is the commodity-form, and what is art's relationship to its logic? Must art seek emancipation from the commodity-form, or is it at home in it? In what sense does art take part in the Left and emancipatory politics -- a practice also seeking to overcome the commodity-form -- if at all? By asking these questions, this panel seeks to reinvestigate art's relationship to the commodity form, and make intelligible how this problematic relationship still sticks with us today.
1. How do you define the terms ‘art,’ and ‘commodity?’ In what ways does art in capitalist society differ from art in precapitalist society? How would you posit the relationship between art and the ‘commodity-structure’ of capitalism? Is art already a commodity from the start, or does it get ‘commodified’ only when integrated in the market? Are there ways that art can resist its commodification, and if so, how?
2. Acknowledging that the issue of art and commodity is not a new question, what troubles this discourse today? How has art’s relationship to the commodity-form changed over time, and what does it look like now? Do we understand the problem better than our predecessors, or are we in a worse mode of understanding?
3. If emancipatory politics is the objective, does overcoming capitalism necessarily follow the abolition of art’s status as a commodity? Do contemporary attempts in ‘dematerialized’ or ‘process-based’ art practices (e.g., social practice, pedagogical projects, or institutional critique) challenge the commodity status of the art object, and if so, how? Should art even seek emancipation from the commodity? In what sense does art take part in the Left and emancipatory politics -- a practice also seeking to overcome the commodity-form -- if at all? 4. How do you position yourself as cultural production within this dialogue? If this is a question about the work of arts’ mode of production in society, and opens up the question of class, then in what ways specifically does your work—or other contemporary art work—respond to class consciousness? What role does criticism or art play towards an emancipatory politics?
A panel held by the Platypus Affiliated Society on Saturday, February 23rd, 2013, at the New School.
Transcribed in Platypus Review #58 (Click below to see):
The “death of art” has been a recurring theme within aesthetic and philosophical discourse for over two centuries. At times, this “death” has been proclaimed as an accomplished fact; at others, artists themselves have taken the “death of art” as a goal to be accomplished. So while this widely perceived “death” is lamented by many as a loss, it is celebrated by others as a moment of life renewed. For them, art is all the better for having disburdened itself of the baggage of outmoded modernist ideologies. Insofar as the “death” of longstanding cultural traditions has in the past typically been understood to signal a deeper crisis in society at large, however, the meaning of death necessarily takes on a different aspect today — especially when the tradition in question is modernism, the so-called the “tradition of the new” (Rosenberg). Because the notions of “death” and “crisis” appear to belong to the very edifice of modernity that has just been rejected, these too are are to be jettisoned as part of its conventional yoke. Modernity itself having become passé, even the notion of art’s “death” would seem to have died along with modernism.
We thus ask our panelists not merely whether art is at present “dead,” but also if traditions are even permitted the right to perish in conservative times. If some once held that the persistence of philosophy indicated the persistence of obsolete social conditions, does the persistence of art signal ongoing social conditions that ought to have long ago withered away? If so, what forms of political and artistic practice would be sufficient to realize art, and in what ways would realizing art signal something beyond art? Marx felt that the increasing worldliness of philosophy in his time (heralded by the culmination of philosophy in Hegel) demanded not only the end of philosophy, but also that the world itself become philosophical. If avant-garde movements once declared uncompromising war on art in order to tear down the barrier between art and life, would the end or overcoming of art not similarly require that the world itself become artistic?
1) Recently, Paul Mason of the BBC claimed that Occupy signals the death of contemporary art. This seems to articulate a general and significant (if vague) sensibility that certain artistic claims and theories over the past half century have become untenable. Is contemporary art dead today, and if so, what specifically has died? Is it art as such that has died, or just its present configuration? Even if art is not dead, then what is the significance of claims that it is? What has changed, and what new forms may be opening up for art in its alleged “death”?
2) If Occupy does have anything to do with the art’s death, then what extent does the idea of the “death of art” participate in extra-aesthetic, non-artistic discourses (e.g. is this claim social or artistic in nature)? Is the “death of art” related to other post-mortem diagnoses of the deaths of particular feilds in social life, such as the “end of history,” “end of ideology,” or figures of thought such as the postindustrial, the postmodern, the post-political? How does Platypus’ slogan “The Left is Dead! — Long Live the Left!” relate to the claim of the death of art, if at all? If the Left is truly dead, would this have any repercussions for the vitality of art? Would art even be possible in the absence of the Left?
3) Given the many deaths art is said to have gone through over the past 200 or so years — and its “death” would seem to have meant many different things depending on the situation at various moments — what does the narrative of the “death of art” look like to us from our current historical vantage point? Has art been successfully self-consciously killed, or fulfilled, or has art died due to a failure to complete its project? Adorno famously remarked that it is not entirely clear whether art can still claim a right to exist, even more calling into question whether our times are worthy of art in the first place. If this idea has any purchase today, then would it be a fair judgment to say that the declaration “art is dead” by now feels extremely repetitive? Has it become an empty claim, since it would appear to have died so many times before? Was the claim even that daring and provocative in the past?
Julieta Aranda was born in Mexico City, and currently lives and works between Berlin and New York. Central to Aranda’s multidimensional practice are her involvement with circulation mechanisms and the idea of a “poetics of circulation”; the possibility of a politicized subjectivity through the perception and use of time, and the notion of power over the imaginary. Julieta Aranda’s work has been exhibited internationally in venues such as Witte de With (2013), Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Villa Croce, Genova (2013), ArtPostions, Miami Basel (2012), MACRO Roma (2012) Documenta 13 (2012), N.B.K. (2012), Gwangju Biennial (2012), Venice Biennial (2011), Stroom den Haag (2011), “Living as form,” Creative Time, NY (2011), Istanbul Biennial (2011), Portikus, Frankfurt (2011), New Museum (2010), Solomon Guggenheim Museum (2009), New Museum of Contemporary Art, NY (2010), Kunstverein Arnsberg (2010), MOCA Miami (2009), Witte de With (2010), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2007), 2nd Moscow Biennial (2007) MUSAC, Spain (2010 and 2006), and VII Havanna Biennial; amongst others. As a co-director of e-flux together with Anton Vidokle, Julieta Aranda has developed the projects Time/Bank, Pawnshop, and e-flux video rental, all of which started in the e-flux storefront in new York, and have traveled to many venues worldwide.
Please note: due to a last minute emergency, Julieta Aranda was filled in for as a panelist by Anton Vidokle. Vidokle's opening comments were written by Aranda, but any subsequent remarks are his.
Gregg Horowitz is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and Adjoint Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. He writes on aesthetics and the philosophy of art, psychoanalysis, and political theory. His publications include the books Sustaining Loss: Art and Mournful Life (Stanford, 2001) and The Wake of Art: Philosophy, Criticism and the Ends of Taste (Routledge, 1998, with Arthur C. Danto and Tom Huhn) and, recently, articles on “Absolute Bodies: The Video Puppets of Tony Oursler” (Parallax, 2010), “The Homeopathic Image, or, Trauma, Intimacy and Poetry,” (Critical Horizons, 2010), and “A Late Adventure of the Feelings: Loss, Trauma and the Limits of Psychoanalysis” (in The Trauma Controversy: Philosophical and Interdisciplinary Dialogues, SUNY Press, 2009).
Paul Mattick, who teaches philosophy at Adelphi University, is the author of Art in Its Time and co-author, with Katy Siegel, of Artworks: Money. He has written criticism for Arts, Art in America, Artforum, The Nation, and The Brooklyn Rail, as well as catalogue essays for exhibitions at a number of museums and galleries.
Yates McKee is an organizer with Strike Debt and co-editor of the magazine Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy. His work as an art critic has appeared in venues including October, Grey Room, Texte Zur Kunst, Oxford Art Journal, The Nation, and Waging Nonviolence. He recently co-edited a volume for Zone Books entitled Sensible Politics: The Visual Cultures of Nongovernmental Activism.
Platypus Review 52 | December 2012–January 2013
On September 21, 2012, Chris Mansour interviewed Stephen Eric Bronner, a professor at Rutgers University and author of Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary for Our Times (1980), Socialism Unbound (1990), Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists (1994), and Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (2004), among many others. His most recent book is Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, and Utopia. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Chris Mansour: In Modernism at the Barricades, you mention that your first publication was on the relationship of art and politics, so that this book represents a return to your earliest intellectual preoccupations. What motivated you to write a book on modernist art reconsidering its history today?
Stephen Eric Bronner: “Art and Utopia: The Marcusean Perspective” appeared in Politics and Society in the Winter of 1973. It was probably the first article in English on Marcuse’s aesthetics. More specifically, it dealt with the interplay between culture and politics, highlighting the importance of the modernist avant-garde for critical theory. At the time, the Frankfurt School was still exotic and outside the academic mainstream. In large part because of Marcuse’s popularity that situation changed. Its most important thinkers have become part of the discourse, and subject to the usual esoteric textual pedantry and academic domestication. Though my views on critical theory have shifted over the last four decades, I am still inspired by it. The same is true of modernism. Learning about modernist painting, in fact, became a kind of hobby. The bohemian, cosmopolitan, and interdisciplinary character of modernism fits with my basic view of critical theory that integrates different forms of radicalism.
Whatever one may think about Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Marcuse, they were thoroughly modern. Culturally elitist though they might have been, they never sought a return to the past or the “good old days.” They embraced the new—new forms of aesthetics and cultural resistance—and that element of their legacy is worth preserving. The style of young radicals today is far too imitative of the 1960s. It’s time to move on. In their cultural outlook, radicals today should critically confront the 1960s in the same way that the 1960s confronted the cultural styles of the 1930s. Perhaps the young radicals of today can learn from the mistakes of the past. Modernism helped create the cultural preconditions in which political radicalism could thrive. But what Lukács termed its “romantic anti-capitalism,” its attack on the system without knowing how it operates, produced an uneasy relationship with all mass movements. Modernists understood politics primarily as cultural opposition to what they considered the (bourgeois) philistine, rather than understanding it as the economic conflict between classes or the political competition for institutional power. My new book explores the tensions between utopian developments in art, principally concerned with transforming what Benjamin termed the “poverty of the interior,” and the need to effectively challenge the existing imbalance of power and reactionary institutions.
CM: You have written much about the connection between modernism and modernity. If there was a period of time where the new was actually being yielded and people had to confront these new experiences, what was it that made this time propitious? Could you elaborate on this a bit more?
SB: Modernism, for me, is the culturally liberating response to the alienating and reifying aspects of modernity. There is much philosophical debate about how to define modernity but, ultimately, it is less a philosophical category than a complex of standardizing practices associated with the second industrial revolution and the rise of monopoly capital during the last quarter of the 19th century. This period witnessed the emergence of the labor movement committed to republican democracy and the rise of imperialism. This affected the formation of modernism in different ways. Modernism contested Victorianism and highlighted the experience of individual freedom rather than the liberal rule of law. It was more concerned with what Else Laske-Schüler termed “poor little humanity” than the proletariat. And it was far less interested in the rising social democratic movement than the existential impact of mass society and mass culture. Modernism also responded to imperialism by purposefully learning from non-Western forms of art. This is true almost across the board.
Enough major artists like Ezra Pound, the brilliant colorist Emil Nolde, and the founder of Futurism F. T. Marinetti were seduced by fascism. Ultimately, however, the exploration of individuality was the primary concern of modernists, along with the way in which people should treat one another. Oscar Wilde talked about “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” for instance, asking in effect: What are the new interpersonal values that accompany a genuinely radical transformation of society? That question has not lost its resonance amid the preoccupation with commercial life and the rise of what has been termed “non-conformist conformity.”
CM: You call upon my contemporaries to seek out or express the new, but this is much easier said than done. How does one even recognize the new anymore?
SB: By highlighting genuinely experimental attempts to deal with new developments and new problems in new ways. Modernism has something to offer here. Think of the famous Radical Light Exhibition: Paul Klee and August Macke went to Tunisia to paint in the stark sunlight of the region. They painted mostly in watercolors. When they came back to Munich and put on the exhibition it caused a sensation. What they had produced was neither African nor European, but something new. It integrated elements of different traditions and reconfigured them. So, the new is not something ex nihilo. It transforms traditions inherited from the past. This is true in politics and philosophy as well as in art, albeit each in their own fashion.
Paul Klee, Southern (Tunisian) Gardens, 1919; Watercolor, 9.5 x 7.5 in; Collection Heinz Berggruen, Paris
CM: Adorno—or perhaps a better example is Peter Bürger—said that since around 1930 culture has just been repeating the styles and discoveries made in the high modernist period. Why is it that our time fails to express or seek out the new?
SB: That view reflects critical theory at its worst. Radical art did not come to an end in 1930 any more than radical politics. The integrative dangers associated with the culture industry may have grown, but it’s ridiculous to make this kind of claim. The Frankfurt School never grasped the radical contributions of either the post-war era or the 1960s, whether in terms of literature, film, music, or style. None of them mention the great developments in film by Fellini, Godard, or other great directors. It is the same with the music of the time. There was a way in which the Frankfurt School almost purposefully insulated themselves from new experiments and developments. Adorno’s embarrassing essay on jazz is reflective not merely of a certain elitist dogmatism. It also evinces nostalgia for the new provided by modernism without reference to the new as it emerged in a very different context. Who can seriously doubt that writers like Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Pynchon contributed to a new critical understanding of our country—its past, present and even its future ambitions? You are right in suggesting that criteria are necessary to talk about the new—and here the “radical” philosophers of our time have been remiss in providing them. Postmodern preoccupations with subjectivity are holdovers from the past, and fashionable forms of cynical relativism obscure more than they illuminate. It’s as if the abdication of judgment has been elevated to a principle of judgment. Engaging in an immanent critique of this outlook might begin to provide criteria for illuminating the new, but that is up to a new generation of intellectuals.
CM: There is an essay simply titled “Critique” by Adorno where he is extremely skeptical of what is dubbed as “constructive criticism,” as if the act of critique must always serve a constructive purpose. Must critique always contain this positive function, or can purely negative critique be valuable in some other way, even if indirectly?
SB: Critique is different from simple criticism precisely insofar as it elicits a transformative and constructive purpose. The rejection of this stance is not unique to Adorno, although his view of the matter is probably the most sophisticated. The issue for him, of course, is the transformation of the totality. Either that is transformed or nothing is transformed. Like many modernists, Adorno felt that the proletariat is not up to the task. The transformative agent is lacking. Insofar as that is the case, so far as he is concerned, the primary purpose of critique is to affirm the fleeting experience of subjectivity in the face of a totality that is more and more defined by instrumental rationality and various integrative mechanisms. This may have been a legitimate position to take in the aftermath of Auschwitz and the Gulag. It’s now 50 years later. The problem today is not that subjectivity is being extinguished, but that it has become the over-riding preoccupation of radical thought. Radicals have to put something positive on the table rather than indulge in what Thomas Mann called a “power-protected inwardness.” Instead of obsessing about subjectivity and the cultivation of authenticity, we should be talking about the conditions in which people can exercise their freedom. Radical art has a role to play in that process.
CM: You note that it has been over 50 years since Adorno and Horkheimer published The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and that, while their take on the task of philosophy might have been right for their time, that time has passed. Things are no longer the same. What changed? Surely it is not simply a matter of time passing.
SB: The world has actually become a world, not simply a conglomeration of Western states. Consider the Civil Rights movement, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the popular recognition of the Orient. Pluralism, multiculturalism, and a kind of hybridity have flourished. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are on the defensive—at least in the Western democracies. New groups have entered the public realm. You can see things today that would have been almost unimaginable in the 1950s: two men walking together holding hands, gay marriage, and women enjoying sports and participating in public life. Interracial dating is evident in a way that it certainly was not when I was in high school and college. These are real points of progress. Even as cultural possibilities have expanded, however, the greatest upward shift of wealth in American history has taken place along with the effective disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people of color through a privatized prison system and constraints on voting. Dialectic of Enlightenment has nothing to say about any of this, nor does it have anything to say about the dialectical interplay between progress and regress.
CM: How do you understand this tension between progress and regress?
SB: My former teacher, Ernst Bloch, argued that history does not move in linear fashion, and that progress in one realm of society can occur while regression takes place in another. Extraordinary scientific breakthroughs are complementing the rise of religious fundamentalism. Cultural liberation is taking place while economic inequality is increasing. It is not as if some uniform and prefabricated teleological process is leading humanity to a happy end. Bloch had little use for the idea that the contradictions of one historical period are resolved before another historical period is introduced. Instead he noted the existence of “non-synchronous contradictions” that are carried over from one period to another while changing their form and function, thereby situating regression within progress. Clearly, for example, racism and sexism and religious prejudices are pre-capitalist in character, but they play an important role in capitalist society. New forms of solidarity are generated both to protect the inheritance of the past as well as and overcome it.
The German Marxist and Hegelian philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), also an early influential member in the Frankfurt School. Bloch wrote widely on the concept of Utopia, compiled in such books as The Spirit of Utopia (1918) and The Principle of Hope (1954).
CM: Tell me more about your education under Ernst Bloch. Who were your other teachers, and how did they influence your intellectual development? How do you reflect back on that period today?
SB: My first mentor was Henry Pachter who taught at City College in New York where I did my bachelor’s. A communist in the 1920s, then a radical socialist, he fought in Spain with the POUM, served in the anti-fascist resistance, as well as in the Office of Strategic Services. He wrote much about socialist history, the Weimar Republic, and foreign policy. He also taught courses in critical theory. He was an extraordinarily erudite political realist who enjoyed debating politics and provoking 1960s radicals like me. After CCNY, I attended the University of California, Berkeley where I received my doctorate in 1975. In 1973, I was awarded a Fulbright to study in Tübingen. I was very excited because I knew this would allow me to attend lectures by the literary historian Hans Mayer and, above all, Ernst Bloch, the author of The Spirit of Utopia and The Principle of Hope. Bloch was a major figure of European radical thought. Himself a communist until his departure from East Germany just before the construction of the Berlin Wall, Bloch was nonetheless a staunch defender of the modernist avant-garde with its utopian outlook. He saw kernels of atheism in Christianity and inspired liberation theology, integrated the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition with Arabic thought, and articulated a cosmological materialism that anticipated the ecological appreciation of nature. Bloch’s cosmopolitan knowledge blended nicely with his over-riding commitment to the utopian novum.
Bloch was an extraordinary philosopher. When he talked about politics, however, it was a disaster. He had a critical perspective on all fixed and finished philosophical systems, and yet, as he put it, he "swallowed" Stalin and the propaganda of Stalinism. Not unlike many other European intellectuals of his generation, he believed that Stalin's society was pointing towards the communist future. If it was not utopian now, it was still heading in a utopian direction. Bloch’s idea of communism was ultimately metaphysical. It was thus never really a question of turning theory into practice. The closest he ever came to discussing institutional politics involved a romantic view of the workers’ council. Bloch basically approached politics from the cultural-aesthetic standpoint of an “anticipatory consciousness” that projects “the best life” even while burdened with various forms of repression that make its full realization impossible.
The 1960s and 1970s were the most intellectually exciting years of my life. It’s still the case that, paraphrasing Goethe, "two souls dwell in my breast." My thinking is inspired by both political realism and critical utopian idealism. But I recognize the need to distinguish between them and what each provides for the radical, intellectual project.
CM: Are these two approaches towards politics mutually exclusive?
SB: I don’t think so. Every radical movement worthy of its name has had a utopian component. This was noted long ago by the sociologist Karl Mannheim in his classic Ideology and Utopia. The danger lies in failing to recognize the tension between utopia and reality, the power of the imagination and the demands of power. Radical politics is always infused with the religious or teleological longing for utopia. Socialism itself is a regulative ideal that provides an ethical way of keeping our compromises in check. No system ever fulfills the always untapped possibilities of freedom—and no movement does either. It is a mistake to think that the utopian ideals of a movement can be simply and operationally translated into reality. There is an inherent tension between the ideals associated with humanity that great works of art project and the political works in which humanity is engaged.
CM: So not even socialism could realize an authentic form of freedom?
SB: No. Henry Pachter once wrote that, “one cannot have socialism; one is a socialist.” I always believed that. Freedom always outstrips the real. There will always be new possibilities for expanding the enjoyment of life as well as still unexplored and unrecognized forms of oppression that new movements will need to confront. It is a question of remaining open to the prospect of previously unacknowledged forms of repression, and the liberating responses to them. Modernism anticipated later concerns with generational conflict, sexual liberation, abortion, incest, spousal abuse, date rape, and a host of other such issues. But this anticipatory consciousness ultimately required (among others) a women’s movement to turn what were considered private concerns into public matters that men would have to acknowledge and deal with. No one would have expected that these were issues of such importance in 1930, when you actually had socialist movements around. It was, again, a matter of being open to the always unfinished character of freedom.
No less than modernism, critical theory was fundamentally concerned with the authoritarian personality. It exists on both the left and the right. Erich Fromm noted in his study of German workers during the 1920s that most were imbued with a patriarchal and traditionally conservative character structure. Such studies need to be taken seriously. They confirm Bloch’s position insofar as they militate against the idea that solving the problem of class conflict will necessarily solve the problems of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. The liberal rule of law and its attendant notions of tolerance are irreplaceable when it comes to dealing with disenfranchised subaltern groups in a meaningful way. Changing society for the better does not simply involve a break with the past: there are compromises with history that need to be made.
CM: I want to talk more about compromises, about making compromises for the sake of making gradual progress. I am wondering how much that kind of ideology has a stranglehold on today’s Left. Many leftists today support the Democrats or try to focus on certain issue campaigns without any greater concern to transform the social totality. They simply devote themselves to reformist goals without revolutionary ends. How do reformist movements figure in and help provoke large changes in the social totality today?
SB: Every election in a capitalist democracy involves a choice between the lesser of two evils. There is much talk about the evils of capitalism but less about how it generates a structural imbalance of power that disadvantages working people. In a capitalist democracy, the interests of capital are served prior to meeting all other interests. That is because the employment of workers depends upon the private investment decisions of capitalists. It is just that simple. Those who consider it possible to engage meaningfully in electoral politics without making compromises with capital are utopian in the worst sense. At the same time, just because wealth is becoming centralized in fewer and fewer hands, capital is not homogenous and its various factions require allies in order to push their agendas in a democratic society. This creates the possibility for political interventions by subaltern groups and the working class. Social movements thus have a role to play. The apocryphal story of Roosevelt saying to radical communists, socialists, and trade unionists, “make me do it” (with respect to the New Deal) is a case in point. Social movements can pressure the establishment to move in more or less radical directions. We have all seen that recently with the Tea Party. Its impact on the Republican Party has been remarkable. The situation is different with Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Its core activists talked about abolishing politics as we know it through a new “horizontalism” predicated on participatory democracy. But the real contributions of OWS involved pushing the Tea Party off the front pages, introducing a new discourse of economic equality, and bringing class struggle into the streets. OWS pushed President Obama to the left with regard to his job bills and his willingness to challenge more directly the Republican obstructionists and the Tea Party. OWS did not build revolutionary consciousness but it did reinvigorate the Democratic Party. These are important contributions. Ironically (or dialectically), however, these realistic results could not have been achieved without the original utopian impulse.
An image of Occupy Amsterdam located at the central square in front of the stock exchange, 2011. In the background hangs a sign that declares "Occupy Utopia!"
CM: Many Left commentators have claimed that Occupy Wall Street brought the whole picture into view. The movement saw that the problems of capital are systemic, and it looked at a broader framework instead of just focusing on single issues. On the other hand, when reflecting on Occupy a year after its “occupations” disbanded, it is clear that the movement’s understanding of how to get from here to there, their strategic orientation, was inadequate. Does this express the tension between their utopianism and their realism you spoke of before? This might speak to why their “hibernation” ended up being a burial.
SB: Yes. In a way I agree with you, though I do not think any serious form of radical theory emerged. But we have to be clear about something: movements do not have the same function that parties do. Movements are there to mobilize the immobilized, inspire them, and maybe even raise hopes that cannot even be met. That is what movements do. Parties translate these hopes and ideals imperfectly into some kind of legislation. In order to do that, again, compromises are required. A basic strategic mistake was for organizers of OWS to assume forms of discipline that simply did not exist. Their inability to recognize that OWS was never a revolutionary mass movement contributed to its inability to sustain and organize itself. Their plan for massive civil disobedience and putting OWS (which began in the fall of 2011) into hibernation for the winter, so to speak, and reconstituting it again in the summer, was questionable from the beginning.
CM: In this case, what about the relation between reform and revolution?
SB: One can make the argument that what is required today is revolution: I think revolution is still necessary in certain nations and under certain conditions. But it is impossible to justify a revolutionary politics without being clear about whether mass support for such an enterprise actually exists or is on the agenda. Unless that support is imaginable in a meaningful way the ideal of revolution becomes a substitute for the practice of reform, and radicals thereby abdicate their responsibility with regard to the poor, the exploited, and the disenfranchised. The ultra-left simply asks people to wait for the revolution. But they cannot wait. New goals can be raised, new constituencies can be mobilized, and new utopian ideals can be articulated—but not at the expense of supporting what might help working people today—or, if you like, the lesser of the two evils.
CM: It might not be that certain political figures are asking masses to wait necessarily. It could be convincingly argued—and many Marxists have—that we are at a moment in history where it is totally confusing who that mass base, or agent, might be.
SB: But that lack of clarity with regard to agency clouds the substance of what the revolution should achieve. At the turn of the 20th century every socialist and Marxist knew what a revolution implied: a growing proletariat would substitute republican democracy for the monarchical regimes in which it operated; a new accumulation process would privilege the interests of workers through various social programs and nationalization of the major industries; and, finally, an enlightenment ideology would highlight how liberal norms and scientific experimentation would liberate them from religion and pre-modern superstitions. Without some clarity regarding the revolutionary agent, however, the idea of revolution becomes a mish-mash of apocalyptic hopes. Here is the connection with modernism, which so often confused cultural rebellion with political revolution. If you are right on the question of agency then, I think, radicals should be a bit more modest in their political ambitions and highlight the need for a new cultural discourse that might clarify the preconditions for future forms of radical politics. The inability to draw distinctions is debilitating for the left when it comes to both art and politics. It undermines the possibility of distinguishing between what is possible and what is not. Contradictions and distinctions continue to exist: they project both danger and opportunity. That is why radicals need to emerge from what Hegel termed “the night in which all cows are black.” |P
. See Theodor Adorno, “Critique,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005):
One continually finds the word critique, if it is tolerated at all, accompanied by the word constructive. The insinuation is that only someone can practice critique who can propose something better than what is criticized...By making the positive a condition for it, critique is tamed from the very beginning and loses vehemence. (287)
Platypus Review 45 | April 2012
On November 28, 2011, Chris Mansour interviewed Julia Bryan-Wilson, Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of California
The Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) has altered conceptions of the international socio-political environment on the left, and has accordingly sent shock-waves throughout the realm of art and culture. In solidarity with OWS, artists took their work to the streets, creating on-site carnivalesque performances as forms of protest. Artists globally designed posters and logos to collectively construct the aesthetic appeal of the movement, and more significantly, diverse groups of artists organized to "Occupy Museums," such as the MoMA, the Frick Collection, and New Museum, critiquing them as as "temples of cultural elitism." Occupy Museums claims that the mainstream art world circuit is complicit in neoliberal capitalism and caters to the interests of the "1%." Overall, OWS has renewed a sense of political urgency within the art world that has up to now been relegated to the margins. This panel critically investigates the role of art and culture in the Occupy movement, and how OWS has affected the infrastructure of the mainstream art world. What role does art play in the political struggles that OWS seeks to accomplish? In what ways is OWS a resource for creating change in the way art is produced, received, and distributed? These questions, among others, will act as the touchstone for artists and cultural theorists to asses how art and politics affect each other as the OWS continues to take form.
Noah Fischer is a Brooklyn-based artist originally from north of San Francisco. He has exhibited kinetic art installations, photographs, and sculpture in New York, Europe, and India. He has also worked collaboratively with the Berlin-based performance group andcompany&Co. Noah initiated Occupy Subways and Occupy Museums in the first weeks of OWS. Noah is the curator of the No-Eyes Viewing Wall at Brooklyn Zen Center.
Maria Byck is a video artist and activist. She was part of the Congress of the Collectives at Flux Factory. With the Occupy Wall Street movement, she has worked on programming RevTalks and the Empowerment and Education Open Forum series, and collaborates with the live streaming media team. She is a member of Occupy Cinema and Occupy Museums. Maria has been a member of the Paper Tiger Television video collective since 2005. She has a Masters in Media Studies from the New School.
Ross Wolfe is a graduate student at the University of Chicago focusing on early Soviet history, Marxism, critical theory, avant-garde art and architecture, contemporary political issues (activism, anticapitalism, environmentalism), and radical utopianism.
In the mid-19th century, Marx and Engels famously observed in the Communist Manifesto that a specter was haunting Europe: the specter of Communism. 160 years later, it is Marxism itself that haunts us.
In the 21st century, it seems that the Left abandoned Marxism as a path to freedom. But Marx critically intervened in his own moment and emboldened leftists to challenge society; is the Left not tasked with this today? Has the Left resolved the problems posed by Marx, and thus moved on?
With Platypus Affiliated Society member Chris Mansour.
Platypus Review 39 | September 2011
At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on the theme of Aesthetics in Protests. Panelists Stephen Duncombe (Reclaim the Streets), Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), Laurel Whitney (The Yes Men), were asked to consider: “What are the historical roots that contribute to the use of current aesthetic interventions in political protests? In what ways do they expand or limit the possibilities for protests to transform the social order? How does experimenting with aesthetic and artistic sensibilities influence our political consciousness and practice?” The same theme was the subject of another event held at the New School in NYC on May 23, which featured Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), A.K. Burns (W.A.G.E.), and Beka Economopoulos (Not An Alternative). A full recording of the discussion at the Left Forum can be found at the above link. Recordings of both events are available at the above links. The article that follows is a modified version of the opening remarks made by Chris Mansour of Platypus at both events.
The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position.—George Orwell
Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit, c.1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 23 1/8" x 28 1/4" (59 x 72 cm)
There is an interesting passage in Herbert Marcuse’s short book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, which aims to flesh out how art relates to politics. In reflecting on art’s role in revolutionary struggle, Marcuse writes,
In its practice, art does not abandon its own exigencies and does not quit its own dimension: it remains non-operational. In art, the political goal appears only in the transfiguration which is the aesthetic form. The revolution may well be absent from the oeuvre even while the artist himself is “engaged,” is a revolutionary.
Marcuse cites the example of Courbet, whose paintings signal the birth of modernism, and who founded a socialist club in 1848 and was then a member of the governing council of the Paris Commune in 1871. Yet, as counterintuitive as it might seem, Marcuse remarks that “[there is] no direct testimony of the revolution in his paintings…[and they contain] no political content.” The “weight and sensuality” of Courbet’s still lifes—which were painted shortly after the collapse of the Commune—are far more “powerful” than any “political painting” could ever be. Writing these statements in 1972—four years after the failed “revolutions” of 1968—it was becoming clearer to Marcuse that the politics of the New Left were losing their grip and its revolutionary energy was deflating. Likewise, the situation that Courbet found himself in after 1848 or 1871 was probably similar to, if not more tragic than, 1968.
The separation between art and political activity that Marcuse was pointing to in Courbet may appear a bit strange to self-proclaimed cultural radicals or art-activists today. From Marcuse’s point of view, art remains autonomous from any exterior motives other than itself, and art cannot—and should not—act merely as a functional device for putting forth political aims.  “Political” art, actually abdicates its status not only as an art object, but also as an object potentially producing a novel political effect. But, on the other hand, we can also see why this approach of treating art as autonomous seems especially fraught for a politically minded person; weighing in on art’s formal qualities is ostensibly apolitical in nature and has no direct link to improving the qualities of social life. Construed this way, Marcuse’s inclination is viewed as a retreat from politics during a time of political crisis for the Left, and any deep concerns over aesthetics are perceived to be staunchly conservative, as a distraction from the “real issues” at stake. It is this latter view that we should interrogate.
As art has continued to develop since Marcuse’s time, the perceived necessity and desirability of keeping art autonomous has been under increasing attack. More and more cultural productions under contemporary art have been given some kind of political function and are understood as the wave of the future in progressive artistic practice. I would like to categorize the projects that seek to directly influence political life under the umbrella term “cultural resistance,” irrespective of whether some of these projects are considered to exist in the realm of art or not. Regardless of what forms they may take, or what discipline they are considered to reside in, upholding a politics of resistance best summarizes all these practices—and it is this core politics that remains under-clarified but widely expressed.
Cultural resistance seeks to dissolve the boundary between art and political life by making art socially responsible (or “operational” in Marcuse’s terms). Historically, socially responsible art has taken many forms, from designed objects to artworks that incorporate direct commentary on political events, or even works that seek to become instruments in social life. Cultural resistance has its roots in the constructivist movement, which originated in the early stages of the October Revolution, and in the “committed” literature and theater of Brecht and Sartre in the early to mid-20th century. Whereas once the political commitment of art was contentious and sparked a whole series of critical debates between some of the most important Marxist thinkers of the day, art as cultural resistance has now successfully created a niche for itself in the mainstream art world and is generally left unchallenged. The examples are endless: there is art activism seen in protest groups such as the now defunct ACT-UP or the Guerilla Girls; public stunts and media intrusions under the rubric of culture-jamming committed by Reverend Billy or The Yes Men, which seek to satirize mainstream culture tainted by consumerism; in the performance arts, a movement known as relational aesthetics or social practice set up platforms for social interactions beyond the alienation brought about by capitalism, as seen in the collective Critical Art Ensemble or the artist Jeremy Deller; and finally, there are interventionalist practices that carry out Situationist inspired détournements that are meant to symbolically subvert the capitalist system, seen in performances by William Pope.L or the “subvertisments” of Adbusters magazine.
To survey these people and groups, one has to wonder why, at our current historical moment, so much political energy is put into aesthetic, often largely symbolic practices. Conversely, why must so much art, in order to justify itself as art, rely to such a large degree on a putative ability to perform political work? Despite its apparent place at the cutting edge, why is it that such practices oddly hearken back and even echo the quaint moralistic arguments about the social good art does, and how art is “good for the soul”? In short, what is actually at stake, for art as well as for politics, in intentionally blurring the boundaries between art and politics? Is art emancipated thereby? And are we? If we are going to assess the quality of such projects, it might do them better justice to analyze them on different standards, judging them on their aesthetics and their politics.
One, cultural resistance cannot simply voice support for a particular political program, or if it does, reduces itself to little more than a one-dimensional slogan. So in trying to escape this sort of pigeonhole, cultural resistance art aspires to educate its audience, provoking them to experience a new kind of “attitude” towards life. But in seeking to invite its audience to share a certain attitude, cultural resistance art unwittingly reinforces what may be one of the most disturbing aspects of the status quo that it claims to be disrupting, namely, the fact that so much of politics exists only at the level of subjective “attitudes.” It is thus hard to see how such art would adequately raise political consciousness in the service of overcoming the conditions that are supposedly being resisted.
A performative protest action by Reverend Billy and "The Church" in Times Square in New York City.
On the one hand, in the attempt to convey the “truth” of social reality through acts of cultural resistance, political questions of how best to respond to the dynamics of capitalism are trivialized, flattened out to suit the predigested message to be delivered. Art as cultural resistance often takes for granted precisely what a reflective political approach would seek to raise as a problem that needs to be worked through. Reverend Billy loses all his satirical force when it becomes clear that his politics are really no more than persuading consumers to “see the light” by resisting the urge of materialism and conspicuous consumption. He preaches a politics of lifestyle to combat the alienated dreamworld of capitalism, as if all one needs to do is snap out of it, as though the world were only just sleepwalking. In Reverend Billy’s rhetoric, what constrains our freedom in the modern world is understood as a mass addiction to consumption. In the language of politics, the utopian character of Reverend Billy’s performative activism is little more than a promotion of the petty bourgeois demand for “local economies” and the romantic return to a more immediate experience that was supposedly existent prior to the exchange-relation in capitalism, or else to an earlier configuration of capitalism—back in the “good old days.” However sincerely intended, Reverend Billy’s activism, in terms of form as well as content, is hard to distinguish from what a viral ad campaign stunt might look like.
On the other hand, considering cultural resistance purely by the criteria of art, or aesthetics, one cannot help but note that in its execution cultural resistance art typically strives only to transmit an idea or attitude. Its medium and form of expression merely becomes a vehicle. The particular qualities of the aesthetic object and its medium of expression lose their authority and become incidental, and thus largely insignificant in their individual, idiosyncratic qualities. Each new artwork offers only that which is shared, familiar, and redundant. Its material properties end up becoming an illustration for a political or ethical message. Even when the message is new, the relationship between the material and the message is seldom ever novel. Paradoxically, cultural resistance often takes the path of least resistance in terms of its aesthetic presentation because the mere presentation of a message precludes, a priori, those tensions, ambiguities, and deferments of resolution that distinguish art from advertisement, traffic signs, and smoke signals. Prioritizing the issue of transmitting its political message in the most efficient and accessible way as possible, the formal elements of cultural resistance willfully accommodate themselves to the status quo—that is, to the current political situation, in which all political groups, right and left, vie for the sleekest political package, and all ideas are mangled in order to fit this Procrustean bed before they have even fully formed. Form becomes a mere instrument for expressing content that is outside the experience it brings. Or, as one of the most predominate curators and critics of cultural resistance projects, Nato Thompson, writes, cultural resistance artists use aesthetics as “tools” in order to bring in “political issues to an audience outside the insular art world’s doors.”
Cultural resistance is often defended on the grounds that it creates “pre-figurative political space,” as if the work or performance is able to construct “temporary zones” of “freedom” that anticipate what a post-capitalist world would look like. Here the questions of art and politics are merged—it takes a certain aesthetic arranging to create a zone in which people can feel “free” or see the injustice of the status quo more clearly. Nato Thompson further describes this strategy to make cultural resistance projects to function much like a “spa” that can temporarily ease the modern subject from the overwhelming speed of life of neoliberal capitalism. As he says, “In this spasmodic era, we find the arts recalibrated as a temporal, spatial, and bodily escape." However, what is troubling about treating cultural resistance in this way is the fact that setting up alternative “spas” to clear out the senses functions no differently than going off on holiday only to return to the drudgery of everyday life once again. Cultural resistance is based in the notion that “pre-figurative politics” participates in the creating the semblance of momentary freedom rather than making legible the unfreedom that still remains, underlaying all apparent choices as well as any fleeting, ecstatic fantasies of escape. In the case of Reverand Billy, when one is “saved” from the veil of consumer culture one takes solace in one's ability to make sophisticated consumer choices while capitalism as an oppressive and exploitative system not only continues, but is primed to expand to a new frontier in the increasingly profitable market for “ethical consumer goods.” To imagine oneself as temporarily “free” or outside of bleak social conditions only strengthens the system all the more.
As I asked at the outset of my remarks, why is it that, in our historical moment, we find this urge to overtly link artistic struggles with political struggles, and subsume one to the other? Indeed, this a trope has been a theme since the early 20th century, but the absence of proponents arguing for art’s autonomy in the present day forces us to understand the political commitment of art as cultural resistance in a new light. While it was once thought that a new world and society was around the corner (in the case of the constructivists), today this is no longer the case. I take this trend to be an expression of the Left’s current political helplessness, as an eager and desperate urge to overcome very real social ills when all possible options to do so seem unreachable. In response, so-called progressive artists (and activists) have become impatient with the peculiar facets of their practices, and disenchanted with the failed goals of modernist artistic autonomy. However, it is not simply a matter of making a compromise between autonomous art and cultural resistance, as they can only exist antagonistically and are irreconcilable when brought together as a whole. The politically committed art of today is only a shadow of yesterday’s, partly because its audience is politically confused, while autonomous art remains an impossibility. Adorno identified a tension between Brecht and Beckett, as exemplars of “committed” art versus “autonomous” art. But today we are confronted with ever more obtuse aesthetic symptoms that further obscure the problem of freedom. Cultural resistance fails to transform history by overcoming its Brechtian phantasm, which was arguably a more provocative approach towards politically committed art than what we are presented with today. Meanwhile, contemporary, “formal” art has become routinely neo-modern and complacent with familiar styles. What used to be two opposite poles in productive tension are now two dismal resemblances of each other. Each is pastiche.
Cultural resistance art, in falsely synthesizing politics and art, assumes that art as an autonomous field has little of importance to actually say about politics, and vice-versa. To take the compatibility of politics and art, as they exist now, for granted is tantamount to naturalizing the impossibility of both. As Adorno reminds us, autonomous art fulfills the desiderata of politically committed art better than it itself can, since “non-conceptual knowledge” can communicate by signaling the issue of freedom, or the lack thereof. But even this might no longer be the case, as autonomous art, much like art as cultural resistance, has become a caricature of itself. Art and politics: each seeks to change the world, but in different ways. Their approaches are not incompatible, but they are not identical either. Though the “correct” approach cannot be worked out in advance, it is clear that art’s autonomy must be defended, as it is clear that any demand for art’s autonomy cannot be construed as resignation, nor merely as a call to imitate the art of another historical era. |P
. Herbert Marcuse, “Art and Revolution” in Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 105, emphasis added.
. Ibid., 106. Marcuse actually attributes this observation about Courbet to the surrealist André Breton. He is probably referring to Breton’s 1935 essay “Political Positions of Today’s Art.” See André Breton, Manifestos of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), 212-233.
. Marcuse quoting André Fernigier, ibid., 110.
. Ibid, 106-107. Marcuse further argues that art’s political effect resides in the ability to render new techniques or “translating reality into a new aesthetic form.” The creation of a new perceptible reality out of our existing one is where art’s political potential lies.
. Ever since the 1970s, the politics of resistance has been the battle cry from the activist left. As Žižek notes, the politics of resistance assumes that capitalism as a world-historical force stabilized itself as a form of social domination, and is now objectively impossible to overcome. In response, the Left assumes its role to “resist” certain aspects of capitalism, or to simply reform its structures in order to make a “better” more “humane” capitalism. From this perspective, human emancipation—and even political emancipation—becomes cynically viewed as a pipedream and ipso facto an impossible feat. See Slavoj Žižek, “Resistance is Surrender,” London Review of Books, Vol. 29 No. 22 (15 November 2007) . <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/slavoj-zizek/resistance-is-surrender>. Or, to see a broad historical outline of how the politics of resistance has come to be, see Stephen Duncombe’s remarks at the forum in “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and 'Resistance' — The Problematic Forms of 'Anticapitalism' Today," Platypus Review #4 (April 2008). A video of the event is available online.
. For the most exemplary debates on this matter, see Adorno et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007).
. See Nato Thompson, “Trespassing Relevance,” The Interventionists: Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 14.
. Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007), 193.
Platypus Review 34 | April 2011
On February 11, 2011—the day Hosni Mubarak resigned the office of President of Egypt—Chris Mansour interviewed Susan Buck-Morss, professor of political philosophy and social theory at Cornell University and author of The Origin of Negative Dialectics and Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, on behalf of the Platypus Review. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Chris Mansour: What were the stakes of introducing Critical Theory into a postmodern culture that widely considered its ideas obsolete? Are we in a similar climate today? How does Adorno’s critique of the authoritarian state speak to us now, after the dismantling of the welfare state over the last 30 years?
Susan Buck-Morss: First, I do not think of Critical Theory as something you apply or do not apply. I simply consider dialectics, as a philosophical tool, valid in the same way that mathematics, as a tool, is valid. I do not see it as belonging to a certain era. It is true that Marx and many Marxists argue that dialectics is the hinge that turns the critical analysis of the economy into a predictable scenario for the future, but that will not work, not today. I do not think a dialectical analysis of society will discover what Georg Lukács called the “subject-object of history”—the "new proletariat" or the necessary one. That is a strained argument to make in the present. The connection is broken. But it nonetheless seems theory can be beneficial for social change only if theory is attentive to a dialectical method, by which I simply mean a method that can embrace antithetical extremes without insisting that logic eliminate that antithesis. As Adorno said, the antithesis exists in reality. It is a contradictory reality that we cannot wish away in thought. Anytime we think we can, our thought is not capturing the world.
CM: Adorno also writes about the hope for a time in which dialectics are no longer necessary. Doesn’t this suggest that dialectics is a historically specific method, bound to capital?
SBM: By the time Adorno and Horkheimer wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment, it is not clear whether they considered capital the only antagonistic social form, and thus the only one to which dialectical analyses apply. What Adorno says in the first line of Negative Dialectics is that philosophy lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. By that he really means that if Lukács had been right, and revolution had, at a certain moment in history, been able to resolve the contradictions of class society, then dialectical philosophy might not be the necessary mode of attack. But reading Adorno, one begins to think that a moment of complete absence of contradiction is never going to come—nor should it. With dialectics we are talking about a mode of critique that reveals a rational capacity of humans exceeding the degree of substantive rationality that we have been able to realize in the social world. So long as we can look at reality and say, “It could be better, it should be better,” critique is a necessary part of theory. Dialectical critique affirms some possibility in the world through a critical negation of the present state of things. The world is heading towards catastrophe, but it is also less likely to get there as you critique its present forms. You have to keep both levels of analysis, positive and negative, in play.
CM: Do these different levels—the world is doomed, the world might be saved—also track with a distinction between postmodernism and modernism? Towards the end of The Dialectics of Seeing, you write that “postmodern” and “modern” are not necessarily markers of an epoch, but markers of a political disposition. Could you elaborate on that?
SBM: In brief, I think postmodernity is a conceptual dead end. I do not accept it as a stage of history. At best, “postmodern” is described by Fredric Jameson as being synonymous with late capitalism. But Jameson was enormously optimistic to equate late capitalism with postmodernity, as if this meant there still was a possibility of radical change. How late is late capitalism? It seems to me as if it is only noon. It just keeps going. Capital keeps feeding crises, and keeps restructuring itself when the crises are over. Nothing, it seems to me, is more true than the critique of capital as a system. Yet it is not as though we just criticize capital, and then it becomes obvious what we should do. We know that capitalism cannot solve certain problems of social inequality or the ecological limits to growth. We know that uncontrolled and unregulated, it inevitably pushes toward a greater gap between rich and poor. That is the so-called “free market” at work. There is nothing wrong with it from the neoclassical economist’s perspective, but there is something horrifying about the dominance of the profit-motive as the value of social life. “Postmodernity” has become, really, the word for the culture of capitalism today. My own feeling is that if you want to look for the seeds of what is presently, productively possible in social and cultural life, look to the postcolonial moment, rather than the postmodern Western moment.
CM: It is interesting that you make a distinction between the two, since it seems that “postmodern” and “postcolonial” are often treated more or less synonymously. How do they differ, in your view?
SBM: The problem for modern postcolonial artists, for example, was not “postmodernity;” it was how to be new and national at the same time. It was a problem of how to be modern without mimicking the West, because it was assumed that postcolonial artists could only be late arrivals to the places the Western artists already have gone. Instead, postcolonial artists produced a hybrid form of modernity with local traditions, which I find far more generative of what is possibly new and interesting today in the art world than following the line of "postmodernity" which, in the art world today, is too often simply another word for “the market has control.” In the work of Wilfredo Lam, for example, one sees an artist who was not simply following Picasso, but actually working out a new problematic in the context of being an Afro-Cuban, Asian citizen of Cuba who then spent time in Paris before returning to Cuba to do his best work.
To take a more recent and dramatic example, there are crowds today out in the street in Cairo. Those brave people are not “finally becoming pro-democracy, just like us.” Quite frankly, we cannot match them today. We Americans can barely get a crowd out to defend democratic reform. The Egyptians are in the vanguard of democracy today. It is not as though they are finally catching up, while we are “postmodern” and “beyond democracy.” We never made it. The reasons why we never made it are precisely why they might: In Egypt there are strong, independent unions out on the streets today, threatening what may amount to something like a general strike in the country. They might be able to close down the Suez Canal, or at least they can threaten to do that. One-tenth of the world’s trade goes through that canal. Now that’s power. A small group can really screw up the works. But all of this is happening there. They are in the forefront, and are not at all "postmodern."
Some elements of modernity were never realized, the fundamental one being the unresolved contradiction between political democracy and economic capitalism. Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia are at the forefront of that fundamental contradiction. We have to look to them for guidance, to see what they can accomplish and where they might go wrong.
CM: For Egypt to be in the vanguard for democracy today and represent the project of completing modernity, wouldn’t these uprisings have to be a global phenomenon?
Anti-Mubarak protesters praying in Tahrir square, January 29, 2011.
SBM: First, to clarify, I would say that Egypt is now in the vanguard of socialist democracy, because the workers are organized, and they are seeking to redistribute the wealth. And if you close down the Suez Canal, that is a global phenomenon, right? After the last economic crisis of capital, the movements that protested against structural readjustment in Greece, Spain, or Italy, all have reason to be in solidarity with the Egyptian protests. If you look at 1912, around the time of the Second International, there were a lot of demonstrations. At that time, unions were organized in national units that would send people to international conferences. The Second International and certainly the Third were organized nationally and tried—but had serious problems—forming an international organization on that basis. Now, from Tunis to Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, we already have international solidarity with what is happening in Egypt, but it centers on national goals—protesting the policies of their own, specific governments. That, to me, seems right, because you have to deal politically with your own country. What Egypt represents globally—international solidarity producing national political goals—is a better and potentially more successful model than the Second International. With Egypt we are talking about the autonomy of particular states and the universality or globality of the protest movement. This, in particular, is exciting.
The 1968 moment was also global in a way the Second International was not. It marked the beginning of an electronic network, inaugurated by live TV reporting, that allowed these movements to spread among people who were not in longstanding contact. With global media reporting, you didn’t need international meetings. That was the spontaneous part of 1968. However, when you get into a local context, you do need organization. You need the capacity to delineate a national territory as your domain of political action, because only as a citizen of a particular nation-state can you acquire power.
The turning point in media coverage was 1968, though we saw its power again with the fall of the Berlin Wall. After that, one by one, the leaders of the socialist countries fell out of power. Now it is the Arab countries who are producing a global effect at the level of a discourse of Islam, or a discourse of postcolonialism, shared by many different social groups. This is far better as a model today than organizing workers on the basis of what they have in common—namely, that they are workers. It doesn’t make much sense now, when so much affect is not around a category like “worker,” but ones like “youth,” "nation," "ethnicity," “women,” or whatever. Workers are one such organizational category, but not the exclusive vanguard.
CM: Looking back to when politics did center around the worker—or perhaps more precisely, the proletariat—do you think this focus was adequate then?
SBM: At a time when more people were organized as workers, they worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week. It was their life. Now we have a capitalist system that does not exploit the working class in the same crass way, or at least it primarily does so only locally. Instead it throws out superfluous workers, so you get rising unemployment, with pockets of the more traditional industrial working classes, in Western China, or in parts of Brazil and Mexico. These pockets do remain, but workers are now a much more nuanced, fragmented collective overall, with many different styles of life. Peasants have to play a part here, too, because they are still a huge part of the global working classes. Marx never had much hope for peasants' capacity to act, but in contemporary times things are very different.
CM: The political role of peasants was a major point of discussion in the First and Second International, but it also received much attention in the student movements, with the rising influence of Maoism in the New Left during 1960s and 1970s. How, if at all, do the ways the student movement theorized the importance of peasants figure into political struggles today?
SBM: I hesitate to use the term "Maoism," as it has such a bad name for anyone who knew what was going on in China at the time. But in India, for example, political awareness has been far more advanced than in the West concerning peasant exploitation under conditions of capitalism, and the potential political power of peasants. The key here is the old Marxist notion of ownership of the means of production. If you can produce the food for yourself and your family, you are ahead of things. South Korea is now buying up land in the Arab world and in Africa, claiming that the peasants who are pushed off the land can get other work. Perhaps so, but they will no longer own the means of production, with enormous social consequences.
But you spoke of the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s. What is left of this Left today? Intellectual debates have become scholastic. What are we in America, which has the best academic system in the world, doing right now? Often we are arguing over whether Deleuze’s notion of “planarity” is to be followed or whether we should be Agambenians and talk about homo sacer. These are perhaps politically powerful concepts, but they end up in such a hermetic discussion that they never get into the global public sphere.
CM: You have weighed in on political issues with greater public visibility, particularly the politics around Islam. How did you view the relationship of Islam to the Left in 2001, when you wrote Thinking Past Terror, and how do you see that relationship today?
SBM: What I called "political Islam" refers to a moment when the discourse of Islam became politically available as the basis for a powerful critique of the kind of modernity that Adorno and Horkheimer were also criticizing. What I have found increasingly important is the notion of “generations,” by which I don’t simply mean the moment of birth, one’s chronological age, but the moment in which one comes to critical, political awareness—the moment one enters history in this sense.
A number of figures seem to be part of a postcolonial generation dealing with a certain kind of critique of the West. Malcolm X, in 1964, dropped the Islamic nationalism and went for a more orthodox, universal notion of Islam. That year, Sayyid Qutb published his book Milestones, criticizing the established Islamic teachers and Nasser’s government at the same time. He also used Marxist concepts, talking about the “bloated capitalists,” and so on. Around this time, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha in Sudan was claiming that the Meccan revelations in the Qur’an advocate absolute equality among races and between men and women. He was accused of heresy and killed for it, but he was saying it nonetheless, and his theories are part of the legacy of political Islam. Then you have Ali Shariati translating Frantz Fanon into Farsi. All of these figures were critical of the idea that history necessarily went in a certain direction. Marx was just as guilty of projecting this telos as Adam Smith or Hegel. The Soviet Union as well as the U.S. adopted similar notions of history as progress, and with this came the assumption that "development" in an economic sense necessarily entailed “development” in a political and social sense.
CM: Seeing Islam as an integral struggle for the Left cuts against the critique of messianic visions of emancipation as well as against the secularism for which the Left has traditionally fought. Does the embrace of politicized Islam by leftists risk theocratizing leftism?
SBM: What you have to worry about is fundamentalism. Many capitalist economists are market fundamentalist, and they are as dangerous as Khomeini, if not more so. Orthodoxy, too—political or religious—is dangerous when it means there is only one right answer and all who disagree should be dismissed, or even die for being heretics or revisionists. That could be Stalin as well as Khomeini—the latter’s revolution, incidentally, was a classic French Revolution: It begins with a bloody overthrow and public executions, and then the attempt to sustain a reign of moral purity (as with Saint-Just). I do not see a radical break in strategy between these two revolutions. I do not think the Iranian Revolution was laudable, as Foucault did. What was bad about one was bad about the other.
We might consider today the political possibilities of the visibility of an event, in terms of the tactical power of nonviolence in the face of violence, which was effective in the case Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., and which seems to be effective on the streets of Cairo. From this you begin to see the possibilities of a different kind of revolutionary practice that does not involve beheadings or the silencing of multiple voices.
I am not sure the West has ever been secular. I am not sure that any sovereign power can be. What we saw in Mubarak’s last speech was a total disconnect between his presumption of sovereignty and the people’s understanding of him: On the split screen showing his speech juxtaposed to the angry demonstrators, the legitimacy of Mubarak’s sovereignty evaporated. The people became sovereign. Carl Schmitt was right: Sovereignty is the seat of legitimacy, not legality, and even for secular rulers, legitimacy has a religious aura. What causes that change, the assumption of legitimacy at the level of the people, is almost mystical. It is about our hope, our belief, in something more than we experience. That gets to the transcendent. Then we are not in the realm of secular science, which does not give this moment of enthusiasm any legitimacy, yet we feel it. In modernity the idea of “the people” itself is a religious, mystical idea.
CM: This makes me think of the idea of certain Marxists for whom utopia was something “out there,” something not yet in the present, but for whom utopia was secular. Does this understanding of utopia approach what you have been saying about Egypt?
SBM: No, because I do think we see it embodied, which is a very Christian notion. With Egypt we have the incarnation, the embodiment, of the idea of “the people.” I am not simply defending or affirming it. I’m just saying that even in the so-called secular era, it is still our reality, and I can become enthusiastic about it, too. Utopia is different, because it insists “I don’t see it now.” But when you look at those pictures of the protestors in Egypt, what excites you is that you do see people actually enacting an idea. There is a simply overwhelming promise of possibility. Politically it is the most sublime experience, and it is not graspable by a totally secular consciousness. Yet there is no denying this experience.
CM: There is almost an intoxication, it seems, to the excitement of this moment. It occurs to me that, to the amazement of the Left, Iran became a more repressive state in the aftermath of 1979, as did the newly independent Arab “socialist” republics in the 1950s–60s. Isn’t there good reason, then, to remain levelheaded? At what point does one need to sober his or her senses?
SBM: It is not always evident. Adorno was nervous about the student movement of the sixties, after all. This enthusiasm is not something I am simply affirming, but it is something I have experienced. How does one know when to trust such enthusiasm? For Adorno, any time euphoria makes a movement intolerant toward dissent, toward those who think differently, you have crossed a line into the wrong political space. I agree with that, essentially. It would be crazy, though, to say that the West is secular and therefore does not have this danger. Fascism was secular rule.
In addition to tolerating dissent, I would stress nonviolent tactics, which are utterly realistic in that they may even try to provoke the other side to violence. Nonetheless, it is about being prepared to be harmed rather than trying to harm others. The politics of nonviolence comes into its own with Gandhi. It emerges in the postcolonial context, at a time when cameras are there to record the violence of those who want to put down nonviolent demonstration. It is a new reality. Unlike the Old Left it does not simply take up arms.
CM: What about the anticolonial and postcolonial struggles that did pursue violent tactics?
SBM: Yes, there’s Fanon, Che Guevara, and so forth. But they may not represent the future of the Left. Nonviolent action that takes responsibility for all that it entails is rife with potential. The path to the future is in the way those millions of Egyptians refused fear and kept solidarity with all the citizenry, and even picked up after themselves at the demonstrations. They were so beautiful—showing a civic awareness and responsibility even as they put their lives on the line, and they won. That is very much in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. That is the future, and it came from that postcolonial moment. Compared to that, George Bush’s policy of sending in the troops to “bring democracy to Iraq” seems like a dinosaur. The postmodern future would be the drones that are even more inhumane than if there were pilots in them.
CM: Much of what you have said hinges on how we understand the Left after postcolonial movements, but what of the Left prior to that? Could you elaborate on how the long history of the Left figures into this, for you?
SBM: The whole discourse of “the enemy” or “the class enemy” in the Old Left was about putting people against the wall and shooting. I do not consider it progressive anymore, if it ever was, to justify violent insurrection on the basis that the state was not going to fall on its own. Fanon said the same thing in the context of postcolonial struggles, which despite his call for a break from Europe unfortunately often followed the same model as the Old Left.
CM: So the postcolonial paradigm is really the only place to look to, right now?
SBM: The postcolonial moment entailed shifts in culture and in politics—but in economics, I’m not so sure. There is no doubt that the global economy is totally out of control and is not going to rectify itself. I would make a distinction between the market and capital, here. Even the market is destroyed by capital.
So I find the critique of global capital convincing, but I’m not sure how the political converges with capitalism. There is a huge problem in how to bring together a critique of the global economy with politics and culture without the working class being the hinge that does it because, as we discussed earlier, I don’t think that can work.
CM: What do you think the role of leadership would be in these nonviolent movements? In particular, what do you think the intellectual’s role is globally with respect to them?
SBM: As far as leaders go, Rashid al-Ghannushi is an interesting figure. Tunisian-born, an early proponent of militant Islam, he lived in European exile until he came back to Tunis a few days ago. What’s going to be the role he plays? With President Obama you could see it coming: As soon as he took office, the power in the U.S. was going to be his worst enemy. He’s trapped in it. He can’t be the kind of leader he might have been. He is lost now.
Although I don’t agree with everything he says, more of us should take a cue from Slavoj Žižek. Recently I saw him being interviewed with Tariq Ramadan by al-Jazeera. More intellectuals need to get out on such a split screen. We should be brave enough to stand there in the naked immediacy of the political situation, rather than cloaking ourselves in academic scholarship before we dare to speak.
CM: So you are saying that more public debate and dialogue are necessary, so that contesting views could challenge each other in public?
SBM: But in order to show that they are not contesting. Identity politics would not have imagined them in the same place, but Žižek and Ramadan were absolutely on the same side! That’s more interesting to me than a “face off.”
CM: Perhaps Žižek and Ramadan do not have important political differences regarding Egypt, or else their differences remain opaque. But as the situation plays out, might differences in ideology not come to emerge and clash, and wouldn’t this actually be an important, politically salutary development?
SBM: I don’t think ideology is always so important. Žižek is against dictators because he lived under one. He knows what a dictator looks like. In one of the documentaries that came out of Iraq, a foot soldier in the American military says, “You know, if an armed guy who couldn’t speak my language broke into my house and got everybody in my family down on the floor, I could not see him as a liberator.” This soldier hardly needed a deep understanding of another culture, or a deep understanding of anything, really, to come to that conclusion. You are not a liberator if you invade a country and then come into a private home and terrify a family. You might think you are, just as Mubarak thinks he is a good leader—but you simply are not, and I think I can make that judgment. I do not think ideology comes first. Political judgment is not always, and does not always need to be, mediated by ideology. Often the judgment comes first, and I alter my ideology to allow it. We should be able to change our ideology, after all. We should be able to say, “We thought this, but look, this is happening. Maybe we were wrong.”
CM: And you think that the trouble with Marxism, or at least with the more orthodox Marxists, is that the ideology has hardened?
SBM: Right. The capacity to make a judgment is called ijtihad in Islam. Imams do that when they issue a fatwa. They say, “I’m looking at this particular human situation, and this is the judgment that I make.” The judgment that one imam makes, another may not agree with, and you never judge the same specific situation twice. Look at Lenin. He said, “We thought we would have the revolution first in Germany and the U.S., but we were wrong. We have to think again.” That is the mark of a non-dogmatic thinker. If they are not dogmatic, ideologies work, by which I mean that they can be effective ways to communicate collectively. As soon as they become dogmatic, however, ideologies are useless, whether or not they are secular, postmodern, premodern, multicultural, or whatever. It is a matter of judgment, and the leadership must consist of those who exercise good judgment. |P
Transcribed by Chris Mansour
. See Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 83–222. In particular, see section three, “The Standpoint of the Proletariat.” Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/index.htm>.
. Susan Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 359.
. Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Žižek, interview by Riz Khan, Riz Khan, Al Jazeera English, February 11, 2011. Available online at <http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/rizkhan/2011/02/2011238843342531.html>.
A panel discussion organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society, held on March 19, 2011 at Left Forum, Pace University.
Panel Abstract: This panel will focus on the aesthetic tropes that activists use to express political dissent. Theatrical gestures such as street art (e.g., glamdalism), dance parties (e.g., Funk the War), or costumes have found their way into protest tactics. Simultaneously, many contemporary artists create 'activist' or 'social' art by pulling off media pranks against the government or corporations (e.g., Yes Men), reenact past protests (e.g., Mark Tribe or Sharon Hayes) and other forms of public performances. What are the historical roots that contribute to the use of current aesthetic interventions in political protests? In what ways do they expand or limit the possibilities for protests to transform the social order? How does experimenting with aesthetic and artistic sensibilities influence our political consciousness and practice? Political thinkers and art-activists will address these questions in order to make sense of the various forms of protest today.
Chris Mansour - Parsons School of Design, Platypus Affiliated Society
Jamie Keesling - 491
Laurel Whitney - Yes Men
Marc Herbst - Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Reclaim the Streets
Stephen Duncombe - New York University
Platypus presents: Lessons from the history of Marxism
Please join us for the following panel discussions:
The Bourgeois Revolution: from Marxâ€™s point of view
//Saturday, March 19 | 10:00 a.m. â€“ 11:50 a.m. | room W603A
Sponsored by the Platypus Review
James Vaughn - University of Texas at Austin, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Richard Rubin - The Platypus Affiliated Society
Spencer Leonard - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Jeremy Cohan (chair) - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
//Saturday, March 19 | 12:00 p.m. â€“ 1:50 p.m. | room W607
Chris Cutrone - School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Paul Le Blanc - LaRoche College
Lars T. Lih - Independent researcher
Ian Morrison (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg
//Saturday, March 19 | 12:00 p.m. â€“ 1:50 p.m. | room W606
Greg Gabrellas - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Stephen Eric Bronner - Rutgers University
Ben Shepard (chair) - The Platypus Affiliated Society
//Saturday, March 19 | 3:00 p.m. â€“ 4:50 p.m. | room W607
Jeremy Cohan - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Marco Torres - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Timothy Bewes - Brown University
Timothy Hall - University of East London, U.K.
Chris Cutrone (chair) - School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Aesthetics in Protests
//Saturday, March 19 | 3:00 p.m. â€“ 4:50 p.m. | room E330
Chris Mansour - Parsons School of Design, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Laurel Whitney - Yes Men
Marc Herbst - Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Reclaim the Streets
Stephen Duncombe - New York University
Jamie Keesling (chair) - 491, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Debating Alain Badiouâ€™s â€œPolitics of Emancipationâ€
//Saturday, March 19 | 5:00 p.m. â€“ 6:50 p.m | room W615
Sponsored by the Demarcations
Bruno Bosteels - Cornell University
Chris Cutrone - The Platypus Affiliated Society, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Nayi Duniya - Demarcations journal
Saul Thomas (chair) - University of Chicago
//Saturday, March 19 | 5:00 p.m. â€“ 6:50 p.m | room W607
Ian Morrison - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Jason Wright - International Bolshevik Tendency
Susan Williams - Freedom Socialist Party
Spencer Leonard (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Marx and Engelsâ€™s Marxism
//Sunday, March 20 | 10:00 a.m. â€“ 11:50 a.m. | room W603A
Sponsored by the Platypus Review
Benjamin Blumberg - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Nathan Smith - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Pam Nogales - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Richard Rubin - The Platypus Affiliated Society
Tana Forrester (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society