If you can see past the advertisements for multiples and fancy real estate, Artspace has published a lengthy and interesting conversation between Benjamin Buchloh and Lawrence Weiner. Buchloh presses Weiner on the links connecting his work in a dizzying array of genres—from painting to writing to music and sculpture—while Weiner explain how the philosophy of language was instrumental to his artistic formation. Here's an excerpt from the interview:
BB: There seems to be a peculiar contradiction: on the one hand, you insist that sculpture is the primary field within which your work should be read, yet at the same time you have also substituted language as a model for sculpture. Thus you have dismantled the traditional preoccupation with sculpture as an artisanal practice and a material production, as a process of modeling, carving, cutting, and producing objects in the world.
LW: If you can just walk away from Aristotelian thinking, my introduction of language as another sculptural material does not in fact require the negational displacement of other practices within the use of sculpture.
BB: But why would it even have to be discussed in terms of sculpture, rather than in terms of a qualitatively different project altogether?
LW: What would I call it? I call them “works,” I call them “pieces,” I called them whatever anybody else was coming up with that sounded like it was not sculpture. Then I realized that I was working with the materials that people called “sculptors” work with. I was working with mass, I was working with all of the processes of taking out and putting in. This is all a problem of designation. I also realized that I was dealing with very generalized structures in an extremely formalized one. These structures seemed to be of interest not only to me but to other artists at the time. I do not think that they were taken with the idea that it was language, but we were all talking about the ideas generated by placing a sculpture in the world. Therefore I did not think I was doing anything different from somebody putting fourteen tons of steel out. I said it was possible that I would build it if they wanted, I said it was possible to have somebody else build it, and then I finally realized that it was possible just to leave it in language. There was not a skill; art is not about skill.
Image of Lawrence Weiner via FAD Magazine.
At Public Books, Sara Marcus reviews three novels set in New York City in three different celebrated bohemian periods: Cecil Dreeme by Theodore Winthrop, originally published in 1861 and republished recently by NYU Press, is set in the mid-nineteenth century; The Cosmopolitans by Sarah Schulman is set in 1958; and Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss is set in, well, 1980. Marcus writes that taken together, these novels show that the idea of New York as a bohemian hotbed has always been more of a fantasy than a reality. Here's an excerpt from the review:
Moby, Patti Smith, and a whole book’s worth of essayists have argued lately that New York has indeed become a place where risk-taking artists (not to mention middle-class civil servants) can no longer afford to live, and only the already successful or rich can thrive. In vowing to fight this situation, Mayor Bill de Blasio casts himself as something between a windmill tilter and a belated barn door closer. But even if we grant that New York is irrevocably at the end of an era, this only raises more questions. When did that era, of New York as “this magical place,” begin? Where did all the utopian municipal fantasies come from, when did they begin to crumble, and who do we become when we set ourselves against that crumbling?
A spate of recently published novels, which together deal with creative Greenwich Village dwellers across a 120-year span, offer us some perspective on these questions. Cecil Dreeme, written by Theodore Winthrop and originally published in 1861, takes place in the mid-19th century; The Cosmopolitans, by Sarah Schulman, is set in 1958; and Tuesday Nights in 1980, by Molly Prentiss, spans its titular year. The books point toward long histories for familiar phenomena such as the trust-fund painter, the frustrated artist with a crushing day job, and the rural newcomer. Cecil Dreeme and The Cosmopolitans, in particular, easily read as allegories for today’s city, with wealthy artists pursuing their dreams while everyone else struggles for survival. In fact, taken together, these three novels suggest that the 1970s–1980s downtown art scene celebrated in Prentiss’s novel (and in so many others) was only a brief aberration in the long life of the city, rather than the eternal birthright of urban dreamers everywhere. The idea of New York City as a haven for young artists, an open-air creative wonderland, may be nothing more than a tagline, encapsulating a cruel optimism that lures in young aspirants and imprisons them in art-handling warehouses to make custom boxes for collectors till daybreak. A longer view on the matter will help give New Yorkers—past, present, and aspiring—a clearer sense of where we really live.
Image via Public Books.
In Mute magazine, O. D. Untermesh writes about recent accusations that a London art gallery, LD50, has been covertly advancing a white nationalist agenda through its exhibitions and speaking events. Untermesh argues that the helter-skelter pastiche of much contemporary art is in fact uniquely conducive to the "rebranding" of fascism, since this aesthetic can be used to conceal fascist content that, if expressed more directly, would not be allowed in most galleries. He goes on to offer nine theses on how to recognize and confront the emerging "art-right." Read an excerpt below, or the full text here.
5.) It would be possible to argue that the dissolution of fascist symbols into a larger flux of anachronistic text and visual elements is reactionary only in the sense that the former conceal the latter, or because placing Pepe the Frog next to (e.g.) the Andrex puppy or a pixelated image of an elf indicates an indifference to the larger historical significance of the uses to which Pepe is now put. But the argument from disproportion misses the deeper receptiveness to fascist attitudes of much visually overloaded, deliberately obsolescent or backward-looking contemporary visual art, since the tendency of artists working in this mode to conceive of the past in terms of relentless nostalgia for a fantasised world of undamaged safety or protection (symbolised in old video games or TV advertisements), is perfectly continuous with the tendency of white nationalists to fantasise what was in fact a history of imperial aggrandisement and class struggle in the terms of undamaged communal integrity and social cohesion. In other words, in contemporary visual art, the larger the pixels, the narrower the range of historical intelligence.
6.) By contrast, the more fully self-organised and the more hostile to the marketplace of personal reputation a culture becomes, the easier it will find it to identity and to root out fascist tendencies.
7). Fascist artists are likely to proliferate over the next few years with traditional organic fecundity. The tendencies will be crypto and overt, technicist and pastoral, cyborg and social conservative, they will speak ‘from the left’ or they will claim to be apolitical, they will have great plans or they will be nihilists, they will emit notes of irony to perfume their racism or they will let racism waft insensibly into their irony. The dizzying variety of aesthetic tendencies will replicate at the level of the genre the formal overloadedness of the ideal-typical work of conservative post-internet art, and it will match the diminished attention span of an artworld whose own art of the deal is now defined by the principle that it will buy absolutely fucking anything. There are good reasons for this hyperactivity, just as, in yet another domain, a proto-fascist president has in his own terms good reason to proliferate with seemingly organic fecundity an endless series of hateful executive orders. Put simply: for those whose politics revolve around the defence of an historically regressive form of domination like the capitalist nation state, frenetic activity is the only possible means of simulating real historical dynamism. And just as with any other grotesque farce in the Rabelaisian tradition, the farce of national protectionism that Trumpism represents will lead to no more progressive development in art or politics than an unprecedented new growth in innovatively trapped wind.
Image via ld50gallery.com.
This piece was originally presented by the author at State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016.
by Andrew Stefan Weiner
Over the past several years it has become more common for scholars and activists to rely on the concept of structural violence, along with the closely related ideas of systemic and institutional violence. In the US, these concepts are typically invoked in critical analyses of problems like climate change, mass incarceration, and the complex networks of discriminatory oppression associated with class, race and ethnicity, able-bodiedness, and gender and sexuality. Although such thinking was once confined mainly to social scientists, it has become increasingly integral to the discourses of popular social justice movements, most notably Black Lives Matter and the prison abolition movement. Given the versatility, power, and utility of this discourse, it is no surprise that it has begun to inform much of the critical response to the Trump election and its aftermath, which have of course manifested any number of modes of violence.
Yet while many of us who work in art-related fields wish to align our practices with these incipient movements of resistance, if we want to do so effectively we must attend to the fact that the relations between art, aesthetics, and structural violence have yet to be persuasively articulated, especially in our new emergent conjuncture. Though there have been robust discussions of art, media, and violence for some time now—one thinks here of the American reception of Harun Farocki’s later work, or the many critical responses to the Bush-era War on Terror and its continuation by other means under Obama—these have tended to focus on warfare, torture, and confinement, and often fail to register different kinds of immaterial assault or abuse. By the same token, critical debates around structural violence typically discount or ignore the various ways in which such violence becomes manifest in various sensate forms; not necessarily as art, but through the countless technical operations of the mass media, as well as through the subject’s own perception and judgment, the very faculties that philosophical aesthetics takes as its object of reflection.
In what follows, I want to begin to think through some of the connections that link art, aesthetics, and structural violence in what we are now forced to call the Trump era. I want to propose that a better grasp of these relations can help us determine the most promising means of disrupting the realization of oppressive agendas, and, conversely, that such resistance will be difficult to sustain without an understanding of these transformed modalities of power. A quick note on terminology: I will use the term aesthetics in its general, non-philosophical sense, denoting the field of the sensible together with the many forms and phenomena that depend on it for legibility. From this perspective, “aesthetics” bears no necessary relation to art; while its broader range of reference makes aesthetics closer to what is usually called visual culture, it is not strictly linked to either visuality or to representation, at least not in the sense with which we typically use these terms. Though such questions are not our concern here, it seems entirely possible, even likely, that the aesthetic field as such is constituted through particular forms of structural violence, and moreover that our awareness and understanding of such violence depends on its assuming a sensible manifestation. Insofar as art is invariably and irreversibly caught up with questions of aesthetics, it would then appear that any attempt to outline the prospects of “art after Trump” would have to account for art’s relationship to the particular forms of power and violence characteristic of the incoming regime.
The concept of structural violence was first elaborated in the late 1960s by the Norwegian sociologist and pacifist activist Johan Galtung, who used the idea to describe conditions within which contingent social, economic, and political forms of domination prevent certain populations from exercising fundamental rights and accessing the means required to fulfill basic needs. Though I have yet to come across a genealogy or discursive history of the term (if no such study exists, one clearly should), my sense is that until relatively recently its usage was mainly restricted to critical social scientists and to social justice activists. What one might call the rhetoric of structural violence—the larger field of cognate terms and tropes pertaining to institutions, systems, cultures, and so on—was typically invoked in efforts to analyze and resist the sort of widespread, persistent oppression that is all too often manifest in public education, health care, or the criminal justice system. Over time, such forms of radical, comprehensive analysis were taken up by a broader range of actors, to the extent that references to structural violence are relatively common, even in general-interest publications like the Huffington Post.
Although this is surely a welcome development, one can nevertheless imagine several potential problems with the concept, at least as it is now widely used. The first is that it is liable to conflate different modalities of violence, which might well have distinct causes or conditions of possibility; this could naturalize types of oppression that are contingent, making them seem immune to resistance. Another issue is that the metaphor of “structure” can lend a transcendental and even ahistorical aspect to relations that are culturally situated and historically specific. A third objection could be that such language doesn’t do justice to other, concurrent types of violence that are decentered, networked, and dynamic, even chaotic.
Such problems cannot be wished away, and they deserve careful consideration. With that said, in the current conjuncture they appear to be outweighed by the powerful need for concepts and language that speak to the complex, even overdetermined status of violence as a nexus of forces that are at once physical and psychic, institutional and discursive, material and immaterial, singular and yet transindividual. It is equally critical to call attention to the ways in which violence can come to seem automatic, architectural, or somehow machinic; we also need to think about situations, like global climate change, in which its operation is so obstinate and imperceptible that it makes sense to speak in terms of what Rob Nixon has called “slow violence.” It could even be that in certain cases what might appear to be the liabilities of the concept of structural violence can actually function as assets; for instance, its propensity toward conflation might usefully capture the ways in which different types of violence can overlap or interact.
With these considerations in mind, I want to propose that Trump’s campaign was closely related to a specific form of structural violence, one that is mainly social and economic in character, and has become manifest through the progressive dispossession or precaritization of numerous demographics as a result of the macroeconomic changes of the last four or five decades: the progressive hegemony of neoliberalism, the transition to post-Fordism, the globalization and financialization of the world’s economies, and the loss of jobs through offshoring and automation.
The vulnerability of the US working class is not news; neither is the fact that this has increasingly become a problem for whites. What does seem new, however, is the extent and intensity of this crisis (along with the amount of publicity it receives), together with its increasing proximity to ascendant forms of white identity politics. Worsening matters is the fact that the forces that have historically protected workers from such dangers—labor unions and the Democratic Party—have become progressively more powerless, in part as a result of their own fecklessness or incompetence.
It may have appeared to many in the first part of the election cycle that this increasing inequality was only an issue for Bernie voters. After all, when was the last time a Republican politician spoke frankly about economic injustice? What became all too clear all too late was that Trump had stumbled upon a crucial change in mainstream American politics, namely that inequality has expanded to the point where Republicans can’t simply ignore it or invoke trickle-down economics to reframe it as the pretext for more tax cuts.
To many observers it seemed painfully obvious that as the beneficiary of such policies—not to mention the heir of a big-league shyster whose business plan consisted in large part of exploiting ill-gotten tax breaks—Trump was exactly the wrong person to campaign on a message of reducing inequality. Though of course perfectly sensible, what this position missed was that Trump’s status as an accidental, rogue Republican enabled him to broach topics that were considered off-limits by the rest of the GOP, whether in its “mainstream,” Christian fundamentalist, or Tea Party wings. Like Bernie, although for entirely different reasons, Trump foregrounded the fact that he recognized and empathized with voters’ sense of disenfranchisement.
Numerous pundits have claimed that the 2016 election was essentially about anti-Washington (or anti-establishment or anti-elite) sentiment and about a desire for change. Like most partial truths, this view is mainly important for what it conceals. Here, what falls out of the frame is economic inequality. Although Hillary was the only contender with a viable plan to address this issue, her perceived lack of empathy, not to mention her ties to Wall Street (Goldman Sachs) and to neoliberal globalization (NAFTA, TPP), destroyed her credibility among enough Rust Belt voters that Trump could eke out a small margin in the Electoral College. For enough voters in the right states, Trump’s promises to ease their suffering outweighed (or perhaps supplemented) the possibility that his presidency would act as a wrecking ball aimed at the nation’s capital. They may not have fully believed the promise to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, but they did allow themselves to hope that this reputed billionaire could at least pull enough strings to bring some decent-paying jobs back.
Trump’s genius—which is to say his cruelly cynical opportunism—was to sense the gravity of the economic situation and to encourage, then exploit, the hope to transcend it. The voters most exposed to this dispossession are those who live outside the cities and exurbs of the coastal “bubble,” which have tended to benefit from recent economic changes, of course not equally. Such voters have rightly insisted that people in the bubble have failed to grasp just how grim the situation has become in many places outside it. According to the most recent study by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, for American workers whose yearly income measures below the median, the average income is $16,000, which is under the poverty line for a family of three or more. For tens of millions of Americans, economic experience is not just defined by stagnation, but by a pronounced downward mobility that inverts the American dream. 2015 was the first year in decades in which the average US life expectancy was down; the reason for this was a sharp reduction in the life expectancy of whites, due primarily to opioids and gun-related deaths (the majority of which are in fact suicides).
If Trump managed to con large numbers of voters into believing he understood and could fix such massive problems, his highly mediagenic, ratings-bolstering antics meant that much election coverage tended to ignore economic policy, and instead framed the election as the kind of battle between nemeses one finds on shows like The Apprentice. This was especially true of the cable TV and internet-based outlets on which Trump compulsively relies. Within such a space, it was virtually impossible to find any meaningful, reasoned discussion of the pronounced split in the post-2008 recovery (and around which a more capable, less hated candidate than Hillary could have easily built a winning campaign). It was thus actually impossible to view this ever-widening gap as an intensification of the different forms of structural violence that have attended neoliberalism, first in its moment of ascendance and most recently in its protracted moment of crisis.
Plenty more remains to be said about the connection between this type of violence and others, particularly the many channels through which Trumpism manages to displace white reactions to economic and social dispossession. Closer attention must be paid to the intense ambivalence that characterizes certain modes of Trumpist political affect, which combines demands for dignity and help with vengeful fantasies of degradation, deportation, and retribution. Part of what has made Trump so appealing, so successful, and so dangerous is his ability to tap these desires and promise to fulfill them.
It could be said that Trumpism mobilizes its own kinds of violence, even that on some constitutive level it is a type of violence. Trump and his voters share a politics of discrimination, blame, victimization, and hatred. Never before, at least not in living memory, have political institutions and the media-entertainment complex served so transparently as instruments of collective aggression. This hostility is not just a form of acting-out, but part of a larger political strategy whose goal is to deny recognition to anyone who fails to conform to the most retrograde, normative fantasies of what it means to be American. Such a will-to-exclusion is ultimately its own kind of radical violence, one that operates on the aesthetic structures that are the condition of possibility for any kind of political association or action. If we are to resist the countless dangers posed by Trump and Trumpism—whether through activism, art, or thought—we will have to understand how profound and systematic these threats are. We will have to think rigorously, act bravely, and work together tirelessly while exerting the utmost vigilance.
At The Baffler website, Maximillian Alvarez decries the self-isolating tendencies of left-wing academia and argues that in the age of Trump, it's even more urgent for progressive academics to connect with a wider public. However, in contrast to others who've made similar arguments, Alvarez, who is a PhD student in History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, doesn't call for academics to "translate" their jargon-heavy discourse into terms that are easier for lay people to understand. Rather, he suggest that academics need to learn the language that non-academics use to describe their worldview and politics convictions. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
To be an academic in today’s America is to be plunged into a perennial identity crisis. And like most academic things, it’s a maddeningly elliptical, recursive, and small-bore sort of crisis. Fueling all our self-indulgent angst is a never-fully-acknowledged social contract, the one that, via countless professional canons and conventions, confirms your choice to be a so-called academic, to assume it not only as a profession, but an identity, and to wear on yourself the trappings that come with that identity without stopping to wonder how necessary they really are and whether they are actually killing your ability to be and do something better. Most the time this doesn’t even feel like a choice at all, but it is. At other times, how to deal with this choice may seem more or less like a personal matter. But, in the age of Trump, the public implications of this choice, the civic implications, have been exposed more than ever before, and the stakes are as high as they’re going to get ...
All of the persistent talk of tragically marooned academics seeking to engage a vanishing public exposes what is, perhaps, the most crucial point: what we’re talking about requires much more than finding more effective ways to “translate” our academic knowledge into something that will be able to “lift up” the public while also remaining legible to it. To limit this to a question of translation is to still presume that the toughest, most important, and mind-bending work must be done first in private and in one’s native academic tongue before it can trickle down to a more public arena. As if our primary task is to come up with Derrida for Dummies. But, in fact, the more important work starts with a deeply self-reflective consideration for when the academic heavy lifting is necessary and when it is pompous bullshit. Again, this is not to say that what is written and talked about in high-octane academic forums is vapid and meaningless. It’s about asking, very seriously, when you are packing hyper-complex sentences with loaded terminology and references to deep theoretical traditions: what is necessary, what is excessive, and whom are you serving? ...
To begin at the beginning: our goal should not just be to “translate” the more complicated and prohibitive language of our insulated scholarly circles into one that is more accessible to the public, but to develop a critical, workable language out of the non-academic spheres and “publics” we’re already a part of. This includes smaller spheres, like families, neighborhoods, local jobs, social networks, and increasingly larger ones, like city councils, unions, professional associations, major media outlets, etc. Such spheres vary widely, and a crucial part of this work will be accepting and engaging with the limits of local spheres instead of enacting the old academic conceit of having more universalist ways and means to address them all at once.
Image via The Baffler.
Writing for 3:AM Magazine, Louis Armand examines a handful of overtly political films by Godard and Fassbinder. He argues that these films, which are superficially militant in form and content, actually question the value of the kinds of political militancy prominent in the 1960s and '70s. Read an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.
It would be redundant to state that Fassbinder’s and Godard’s takes on the theme of “militancy” are unapologetically parodic, the question is rather what is it that is being parodied here, and how can parody itself constitute a militant/revolutionary stance? If the first responsibility of revolutionary consciousness is self-criticism, then the answer to the first part of this question is the genre of “militant cinema” itself. Both are “anti-cinema” to the extent that they are against the pomposity of existentialist cinéma engagé – in The Third Generation the cell members use the Schopenhauerian pass-phrase “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” to identify themselves, while Fassbinder employs Godardian intertitles comprised of graffiti found in various men’s urinals, the locations of which are duly cited). It is in no way an Internationale film: the question of “cinema” here is not the depiction or advocacy of militant struggle or violence by or against the state, but the militant capacity of cinema itself to affect a criticism of ideology in all its dogmatic forms (including those of the socalled left). Nor is it simply the indictment of an ideologically bereft and self-contradictory “intellectual” class (the Meinhofs of the world, being the direct product of the Marshall Plan and West German post-industrialism), whose seeking after “social emancipation” is really nothing more than either a lifestyle choice or a product of their own boredom, where “militancy” is really a form of infantilism, of a “generation” immured in consumerism and an expired culture, unable to creatively or “authentically” assume responsibility for their own existence – sublimely portrayed by Fassbinder’s ironic infusion of ”romanticism” into the motivations of the group (Schopenhauer), coupled with rampant chauvinism and exploitation.
Like Godard’s student “Maoists,” the actions of Fassbinder’s “Third Generation” (the post-war “disenfranchised”) are shown to be gratuitous rather than staked to anything like the revolutionary discipline at the core of The Battle of Algiers: their militancy is informed by the ennui of a theoretical (if yet untheorised) “social consciousness” – and yet, in this extended acte gratuit there’s something fundamentally as revealing as in the work of André Gide (Dans les Caves du Vatican (1914)), or André Breton’s revolution surréaliste (a shot fired randomly in the street (1929)). And here is the point: what ultimately concerns Fassbinder, in this and numerous of his other films, is the paradox at the heart of what “militant cinema” can mean if it isn’t itself simply a mirror to all those parodically flawed actions held up as the measure of “political engagement” (history accomplished as conscientious farce). And this paradox concerns the nature of cinematic engagement, of cinematic action, of cinema’s own radical ambivalence – and of the militant “potential” of this ambivalence – measured against the fetishism of any acte gratuit. We are confronted, in other words, by a militant impulse apparently sans ideology. In this, Fassbinder is perhaps at his most incisive, responding in a sense to Debord’s critical stance vis-à-vis The Society of the Spectacle: that the only authentically revolutionary act has nothing to do with avowed ideology, but with the radical unbridled arbitrariness born of its simulacra.
Image from Godard's Sympathy for the Devil via 3:AM Magazine.
A group of New York-based Left Accelerationists affiliated with The New Centre have published their polemics in a hyperstitionally-titled #AltWoke Manifesto. In their own words, the text is, “the work of ANON. We are a collective of “Other.” Some of us are sex workers, some immigrants, many of us queer. There are even a few privileged white cucks amongst us. Never the less, ANON is largely the work and brainchild of People of Color (PoC). Our social disciplines are as varied as our identities: from Journalists to dominatrixes. ANON are the intellectual cousins of #BlackLivesMatter divorced from liberalism.”
There is no term more ubiquitous, obnoxious, and self-serving in our current lexicon as “woke.” Woke is safety-pin politics, masturbatory symbolism, and virtue signaling of a deflated Left insulated by algorithms, filter bubbles, and browser extensions that replace pictures of Donald Trump with Pinterest recipes.
Woke is a misnomer — it’s actually asleep and myopic. Woke is a safe space for the easily distracted and defensive pop culture inbred. Woke is the Left curled up in a fetal ball scribbling think pieces about Broad City while its rights get trampled by ascendant fascism, domestically and globally.
Woke is a sanctimonious grammar-nazi who critiques the bully’s phrasing of “stop hitting yourself,” through toothless gums. Woke is too ethical for its own good.
Woke is the gospel truth of the new evangelical Leftist. Woke is the Left’s consolidated failures distilled into a monosyllabic buzzword. A whimper into the digital landscape prefixed with a hashtag, arriving at the same point each time: #Woke is the literal antithesis of progress.
Catalogue of The Woke Left’s Failures:
I. Moderate Liberal
The moderate Left misappropriated theoretical terms and concepts, divorced from any actual theory. Identity politics, despite its origins in academia, flourishes best on social media — it’s the most accessible concept for the moderate liberals to grasp.
“Well, if identity is only a game, if it is only a procedure to have relations, social and sexual-pleasure relationships that create new friendships, it is useful. But if identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think that they have to ‘uncover’ their ‘own identity,’ and that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is ‘Does this thing conform to my identity?’ then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility. If we are asked to relate to the question of identity, it must be an identity to our unique selves. But the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather, they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation. To be the same is really boring. We must not exclude identity if people find their pleasure through this identity, but we must not think of this identity as an ethical universal rule.” — Michel Foucault, “Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity” (1984)
Identity politics became an albatross, however. Both the moderate and radical were too eager to evangelize oppressed identities. There was no room for discussion, no place for debate. Call outs, clap backs, and other reality tv patois replaced dialectics.
Representation is the de facto litmus of society’s progress for the moderate liberal — society appeared more inclusive and diverse because “Orange is the New Black” has a female lead and a multiethnic supporting cast. They inhabit a never ending, curated echo chamber of think pieces, listicles, notifications, and retweets.
Everyone within their algorithmic ghetto shares their sentiments about society. The algorithm makes their small corner seem far more vast than it actually is, and as a result, the moderate extends this myopia to society at large.
The moderate midwifed the birth of the Alt-Right through bipartisan compromises. Moderate liberals are basically content to vest trust in their vaunted democratic party as it slides further to the right, thereby underpinning a level of discourse friendly to the far-right. It’s worth remembering that the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries were a period of diehard cooperation between liberals and conservatives in crafting today's authoritarianism.
Neoconservatism provided socio-political planning that complemented a neoliberal economic agenda. This is why the radical Left blames liberals as well as conservatives for 'command and control policing', mass surveillance and this century's rationale for endless warfare.
Moderate liberals provided and adopted theoretical frameworks that explained away structural oppression but retained an appearance of caring about racism and equality across spectrums of gender and sexuality.
This was an obvious farce that mystified progress and the far right took advantage of this because they actually suffered no serious political setbacks. Liberalism provided an incubator for the alt right to form by mollifying actual demands for change.
“If politics without passion leads to cold-hearted, bureaucratic technocracy, then passion bereft of analysis risks becoming a libidinally driven surrogate for effective action. Politics comes to be about feeling of personal empowerment, masking an absence of strategic gains.” — Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “Inventing the Future” (2015)
II. Radical Left
If the liberal is the evangelical, pearl clutching apostle of the woke Left, the radical, then, is St. Augustine -- the hierophant, the pedagogue. The radical is the vanguard inhabiting academia & activism, creating the language and atmosphere of critique.
Its ideologies trickle down from intellectuals at universities to moderate liberals on social media, and more recently, the Alt-Right (e.g. culture jamming by way of “meme magic” or the synthesis of identity politics and white nationalism by way of identitarianism).
Radicals scapegoated liberals to absolve themselves of any responsibility by being all critique with no tangible answers. The radical left in its current incarnation is somewhat fossilized in terms of strategies and needs an immediate remodelling.
The radical is too comfortable inhabiting only the periphery of academia & activism. Radical academics and activists are insulated not only by algorithms but also their obsolescence. The radical academic failed to bridge the gap between intellectuals & larger society.
That is, intellectuals failed to subvert hegemony and normativity. Academics did not do enough to reach beyond universities and make positive reforms to public education. Intellectuals failed to politicize the natural sciences early enough. Intellectuals lost programming and hacker culture to neoliberalism & libertarians. Computer science transitioned from cyberpunk to Silicon Valley venture capitalism.
Had radical academics succeeded, there might’ve been more legitimacy in the fight to combat climate change. Or traditional journalism wouldn’t have been so easily defeated by a post-facts information economy. What we have now is a new Scholasticism of students & professors who act as clergy, dominated by an agitated, anti-intellectual populist bloc.
The radical activist lost its sense of resistance. There are no radicals in Congress. There are no radical lawmakers. No radical judges. Community organizing is helpful, but it’s not sufficient. To remain relevant radicals have to widen their scope to adapt to the changing global climate.
“The idea that one organisation, tactic or strategy applies equally well to any sort of struggle is one of the most pervasive and damaging beliefs among today’s left. Strategic reflection – on means and ends, enemies and allies – is necessary before approaching any political project. Given the nature of global capitalism, any postcapitalist project will require an ambitious, abstract, mediated, complex and global approach – one that folk-political approaches are incapable of providing.” — Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “Inventing the Future” (2015)
What Is #AltWoke
AltWoke is a new awakening for the post-modern Left to navigate the protean digital era. Altwoke can be categorized as the new New Left. Or Second Wave Neo-Marxism. The Post- Truth Left. Anti-liberal postcapitalist left. AltWoke is antithetical to Silicone Valley techno-neoliberalism. AltWoke is not the cult of Kurzweil. AltWoke is not merely analogous to the Alt-Right. AltWoke injects planning back into left-wing politics. AltWoke supports universal basic income, biotechnology, and radical energy reforms to combat climate change, open borders, new forms of urban planning and the liquidation of Western hegemony. AltWoke sees opportunity in disaster. AltWoke is the Left taking futurism away from fascism. David Harvey is #altwoke. Situationist International is #altwoke. Jean Baudrillard is #altwoke. Roberto Mangabeira Unger is #altwoke. Edward Snowden is #altwoke. Daniel Keller is #altwoke. Chelsea Manning is #altwoke. William Gibson is #altwoke. Holly Herndon is #altoke. Franz Fanon is #altwoke. Alvin Toffler is #altwoke.
The organizational praxis of alt woke can be best exemplified by a dichotomous modal structure within the ideology. Right Hand Praxis and Left Hand Praxis. Or, The Hand That Strikes and The Hand That Repurposes. Right Hand Praxis disrupts the roadblocks established by our current hegemony. Left Hand Praxis progressively repurposes existing technologies to initiate a counter-hegemony.
In The Nation, Waleed Shahid interviews eminent political philosopher Chantal Mouffe. Although the interview took place before the recent US presidential election, it provides valuable insight into the socioeconomic factors animating support for Trump. In the excerpt below, Mouffe discusses strategies for left-wing renewal, including establishing a "populist frontier" and a "chain of equivalence." Visit The Nation for the full interview.
Waleed Shahid: What are your thoughts about the development and popularity of left and right-wing populism in the United States?
Chantal Mouffe: ... Trump’s base is also part of the popular classes because they have also been abandoned by neoliberalism. The white working and middle classes used to have more social and economic rights, and Trump is using a racist populism to appeal to that feeling and construct a new political identity beyond just left versus right.
In response, the left must create what I call a “a populist frontier” of all the popular classes against the elites and establishment. The only candidate who could have provided this alternative was Sanders.
In France, the majority of the working class is voting for Marine Le Pen. It’s easy to understand, because these sectors have become the losers in globalization. Le Pen has been able to articulate—in a xenophobic vocabulary—the demands of the popular classes. They are democratic demands. They are ordinary people who are suffering. But Le Pen comes with the discourse: “I understand that you are suffering. The people who are responsible are the immigrants.” She is establishing a frontier against immigrants. Le Pen says that she cares about the people while the French Socialist Party—like Clinton—has no discourse about people’s genuine problems with the status quo. People don’t trust the establishment leaders and parties anymore. They no longer convince.
It seems to me that this is what Sanders was trying to do. He was giving another answer. The adversary is not immigrants, but it’s Wall Street and financial interests. This is left-wing populism. But it’s not only about the demands of the working class. It’s also about establishing what I call “a chain of equivalence” between different sectors: the demands of the feminists, civil rights, and different movements.
A chain of equivalence is very difficult to establish on the left. It means that the groups in the chain each have their own particular relation to the power structure. But they are still able to act in a unified manner around some form of a common agenda. But the chain is not about uniting all demands into one single and homogeneous movement. This grouping of forces simply begins to see themselves in solidarity with one another and disadvantaged by the existing power structure. Each link in the chain remains distinct, but they begin to operate together, in concert.
But in order to for the chain of equivalence to be established, you need to define a common adversary. That’s how it becomes a united chain.
Image of Chantal Mouffe via kettosmerce.blog.hu
An earlier version of this piece was originally presented by the author at State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016.
by Amy Whitaker
One of the most interesting conversations I had after the election was with a couple I used to babysit for in Alabama. I’ll call them Ben and Jane Thomas. The Thomases were visiting New York the Saturday after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States of America. They invited me to lunch. After family catch-up, we cautiously put a toe in the water of political discussion. Ben had voted for Trump—for economic reasons, he said. (He also distrusted the Clintons; rumors of their villainy circulate in the South with the air of first-hand authority.) Jane did not vote for Trump, but all the women in her Bible study did. “I just couldn’t do it,” she said. “I could not vote for that man.”
After lunch, we walked to where they were staying, turned on a college football game, and kept talking about the election. Jane and I—both diplomatic middle children—tried to find common ground.
I should insert here how I know the Thomases. During a period of grave religious questioning at the age of twelve—in the churchgoing epicenter that is Birmingham, Alabama, but with rational humanist academics for parents—I struck a bargain that I would work in the church nursery looking after babies instead of actually going to the service. One day, the Thomases brought their son—I’ll call him Alex—to the nursery. He was bigger than the other kids but also more frail, and older than technically allowed in the nursery, but no one said anything. The Thomases and my parents lived backyard-to-backyard, and I started babysitting for Alex. That is how I learned his story. He was born three and a half months early, spent the first nine months of his life in the hospital, and had a twin brother who did not survive.
As the football game—and Alabama’s Crimson Tide—rolled on in the background, Jane and I continued our election postmortem. I said to her, “The thing that scares me most about Trump is the Supreme Court. I don’t want a minimum wage worker in the dead middle of Texas to have to drive three days, with parental consent, to get an abortion.”
She turned to me and said, “You know what’s funny is the reason the women in my Bible study voted for him is the exact opposite.”
Then she told me the story of Alex and his brother. Jane said, “I still remember when they showed us a video of him as, like, an eight-celled organism.” I tried to imagine what it could have been like going into the hospital in 1986, at twenty-four weeks, and delivering at twenty-six weeks, having in-vitro fertilization in the 1980s.
Their son Alex is now thirty. They went on to have another child. I babysat for them all through high school, and traveled to the beach with them every summer. I remember seeing a scrapbook they had of Alex and his brother in the hospital. I can still picture these two album pages, one with the smallest diaper I had ever seen, maybe six inches tall, across from photos of babies wearing diapers that went up to their armpits. I still know the name of the child they lost.
This is the frontier of empathy and its discontents. I want people to have clear and unassailable abortion rights. And then if they ever have to contemplate an abortion, I want them to hear Jane’s story. I want them to experience the tear-welling, open-heartedness I felt hearing her tell me, the emotional power and possible persuasion of her story and all its pain and hope and river-deep possibility and love. I want the structure of democracy to be ironclad—of individual choice, of autonomy, of institutional restraint. But once the structure is intact, to be fully inhabited by the human. Democracy is the house. Empathy is the furniture. Once the load-bearing walls are in place, the space comes alive with dignity and respect, kindness and imagination.
Before the United States existed, Adam Smith wrote about these questions of imagining your way into other people’s lives in The Theory of Moral Sentiment. That was the 1752 book he wrote almost twenty-five years before his The Wealth of Nations laid the groundwork for neoliberal economics—of a sort that has begat corporations as citizens and money in politics.
More recently, Paul Bloom, the Yale psychology professor, published a book called Against Empathy, in which he argues for “rational compassion” instead. Bloom says empathy is a flawed moral guide that invites our prejudices since we are more empathetic toward people like us. This entails a kind of detached cost-benefit analysis.
I think empathy is mislaid if it isn’t really a practice of curiosity—of moral imagination. Empathy is radical curiosity.
Arlie Hochschild practiced radical curiosity in the conversations that became the book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. The Berkeley sociology professor, perhaps most widely known previously for The Second Shift, championed the idea of “friendly respect” as the foundation for connection. At a time when so many Americans have starkly different sources of information, she engaged in radically open listening. People would tell her things like “I love Rush Limbaugh because he speaks out against femi-nazis and environmental wackos.” When she returned from her interview journeys, she said her old friend Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickle and Dimed, had to shake her back to her Berkeley self.
I left that conversation the weekend after the election thinking there should be more people like Jane in politics. (I also saw her once in church announce a pledge drive and even then, at an age when I didn’t understand much about the practical world, saw that she was one of those Southern women could run a multinational corporation if they weren’t busy raising a family.) Jane can also hold opposing viewpoints at the same time. She is a middle child of six—with a sibling on one end who is left of Bernie Sanders and one on the other end to the right of Mike Pence. It’s not that that empathy is more important than the structure. It isn’t. It’s that when the structure is broken or so deeply threatened, empathy and imagination are needed to rebuild it.
Epilogue: On Structure
When Trump’s executive action on immigration first circulated in draft form, I read it in its entirety. I believe that democracy can’t function if an informed generalist can’t read a government document. I was horrified. The action has nothing to do with empathy—or dignity—and everything to do with kicking the load-bearing walls of democracy itself. It isn’t just that the ban is draconian and misguided—embarrassing and heartbreaking and, may I say, un-American. It also grants the government power to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. As judges have pointed out to Trump, no one is above the law, even those trying to write it.
The structure itself is utterly in play. We are all crash test dummies in the car of democracy, figuring out how solid the frame is. Lawyers and judges are the structural engineers and defenders of the realm. The car going over the cliff is the most immediate thing. But since we are all trapped together inside it, maybe there is space for radical curiosity too, whether we are people who chose the current driver or not.
In that process of talking to each other, we might be surprised by what we have in common. We might learn how wide a swathe of people are moved by the woman on Pantsuit Nation asking if her military fatigues counted as a pantsuit. We might find that many people share a bleeding-heart libertarian view of live-and-let-live but provide a safety net. We might ditch the mish-mash of fiscal and social conservatism and look at the real underlying fissures of race and class, and discover truer conversations about values and community. We might find better ways to manage fear and instead of pretending the past can be recreated, try to build the future.
Amy Whitaker is an assistant professor of Visual Arts Administration at NYU Steinhardt, and author of Art Thinking (Harper Business, 2016).
Image via Mother Jones.
The journal Religious Theory recently published a newly translated interview with Giorgio Agamben. The interview begins with a quote from Agamben's book What is Philosophy in which he describes philosophy not as a discipline with a fixed essence, but rather "an intensity that can suddenly give life to any field: art, religion, economics, poetry, passion, love, even boredom." Agamben goes on to talk about his intellectual and personal encounters with thinkers such as Foucault, Debord, Heidegger, Italo Calvino, and Elsa Morante. The interview was conducted by Italian journalist Antonio Gnolio and translated from the Italian by Ido Govrin. Read an excerpt below, or the full text here.
AG: In recent years you have intensified your call on “biopolitics.” Is this a concept we owe in large part to Michel Foucault?
GA: Certainly. But just as important to me was the problem of method in Foucault, namely the archeology. I’m convinced that these days the only way to access the present is through investigation of the past, the archeology. It should be made clear, as Foucault does, that archeological researches are not just the shadow that the interrogation of the present projects on the past. In my case, this shadow is often longer than that sought after by Foucault and probes fields such as theology and law, which Foucault hardly looked at. It certainly may turn out that the results of my research are disputed, but I hope at least that the purely archeological researches I developed in State of Exception, The Kingdom and the Glory, or in the book on oath, help us understand the time in which we live.
AG: Another thinker who helped us understand the time in which we live was Guy Debord with his book The Society of the Spectacle, a text that still helps us comprehend our present.
GA: I read it at the very year of its publication, in 1967. I became friends with Guy many years later, in the late ’80s. But I remember, in the moment of its first reading, as through our conversations, the sigh of relief seeing how his mind was absolutely free from the ideological prejudices that had compromised the fates of the movements. In ’68 and in the following years, the friends of the movements I visited proclaimed themselves, without fear or shame, and with an absolute abdication of the faculty of thinking, “Maoist,” “Trotskyist,” etc. Guy and I had arrived at the same lucidity; he from the tradition of the artistic avant-garde from which he came, myself from poetry and philosophy.
AG: Debord said about himself: “I’m not a philosopher, I’m a strategist.” In your opinion, what did he mean?
GA: Despite this affirmation you cite, I don’t think that for him there was any conflict between being a philosopher and a strategist. Philosophy always involves a problem of strategy since, even if it searches the eternal, it can do so only through a confrontation with its own time.
Image of Giorgio Agamben via Religious Theory.
This is the second post of statements read at the antifascist speakout at the Whitney Museum on January 20, 2017. (For the first post, visit here.) The speakout was intended to inaugurate a new era of resistance made urgent by the concurrent swearing-in of a white nationalist demagogue down in DC.
This week we ask: How are art institutions responding to burgeoning American fascism? Connected to this theme, we publish the #J20 statements of Laura Raicovich of the Queens Museum, Mariam Ghani of the NoMaps network, Carin Kuoni of Vera List Center, Megan Heuer of the Whitney education department, artist Chitra Ganesh, the Guerrilla Girls, and our own (Occupy Museums) recent values statement.
In taking up this question, we note that the very idea of public institutions in the US is currently hanging on a dangerous precipice, and not only because so many public programs, including the National Endowment for the Arts, are now facing existential threats from the president and Congress. There’s now an official open contempt for the very notion of democratic institutions. The largest institution in the country, the federal government, has been occupied by people intent on discrediting the government itself: a process that echoes Hannah Arendt’s sixty-five-year-old reflection on Nazism, Origins of Totalitarianism.
How are cultural institutions both well-equipped and unprepared to resist this destruction of American public institutions and to reclaim vibrant and diverse public spaces that people trust? When the government stokes social, racial, and economic division, what can institutions do to push back with a culture that holds inclusion as a core value?
These are not always straightforward questions for museums to answer. With the American funding system relying on philanthropic support from hedge fund or big pharma partners and the like, aren’t museums tied into the very economic system of inequality which created the opening for proto-fascism to claim power in the first place? Can such museums make effective antifascist allies? We believe it’s important to think about different kinds of roles that institutions can take up.
Included below are statements of value from art institutions ranging widely in scale and mission: from an affinity group to a loose network to public and private mid- and large-scale museums. Behind these statements are processes and campaigns that are very much in motion in the present moment.
I’m Laura Raicovich, director of the Queens Museum.
The Queens Museum is a public museum embedded in a public park, and in two years we will also host a Queens public library within our walls. This nesting of democratic institutions could not be a stronger way to nurture a commons for art, ideas, and participation. We are also embedded, in every way, in one of the most diverse geographies on the planet. With over 165 languages spoken, Queens includes people from the world over, making all of our hyper-local work intrinsically international.
In this very specific context, and in a moment when reality is being expressed in myriad and confounding ways, it is essential to reaffirm our values as a cultural producers, artists, and institutions. To these ends, the Queens Museum has spent the last two months co-drafting a statement of values. Here’s what we have come up with:
The Queens Museum asserts a deep commitment to freedom of expression, and intentionally supports and celebrates difference and multiplicity as fundamental to our collective liberation. We also believe that art can shift the ways in which we experience our world, and therefore art, artists, and cultural institutions have a powerful role to play in society.
Therefore, the Queens Museum:
• advocates for art as a tool for positive social change, critical thinking, discussion and debate, discovery and imagination, and to make visible multiple histories and realities.
• supports and initiate projects and programs that are inspired by actively listening to the needs and aspirations of the communities we serve and consider to be our valued partners.
• works to engender respect for a diversity of cultures, broaden access to ideas and art, and connect the public to opportunities for civic agency; and
• uses our resources—human, financial, environmental, and beyond—to create greater equity, inclusiveness, and sustainability, both within our institution and in the broader society.
Today, I hope you will join us in reaffirming your core values and saying them aloud. The moment calls for it.
Many of us are here because we are afraid of what the next four years will bring. But fear is a weapon of oppression and frankly it is past time for us to shake it off.
We need to chase fear with radical understanding. We need to fight hate with radical love. We need to face bigotry with radical compassion. I say “radical” because we may have to dig down deep to find those reserves of understanding and love and compassion, enough empathy to last us through what comes next. Which is: we can’t stay on “our side” of those tidy little lines that have been drawn to divide this country up in parts and parties. We can’t talk only to people who agree with us. We can’t stay safe in our coastal cities. We need to make these kinds of conversations possible in places where they aren’t yet happening—and we need a framework of support for conversations like these in places where they might pose real threats to the status quo. In short, we need to make art dangerous again.
So I’m working on this with a big group of people, some from this museum, others in this room—and what we’re trying to do is build a national network of museums and other arts and cultural institutions interested in expanding or reimagining their roles as part of the public sphere. This new network—we haven’t figured out a name yet, but it might be a platform, or a co-op, or a coalition—would be a tool for sharing information and programs across geographical divides, an agent of resistance and change within institutions, and a system for developing and supporting inclusive programs that create spaces for protected civic discourse, dissent, and solidarity. It would also be a network of networks, linking institutions to community, civic, activist, academic, artist-initiated, and other groups interested in engaging critically with the possibilities and limits of the public space provided by art institutions. If you are interested in joining, collaborating, helping organize or think through this, please get in touch.
The last thing I want to say to you is that people talk about art as an empathy-generating machine, casually, like empathy is an easy and uncomplicated thing. But as Bakhtin so perfectly described, empathy is actually a continuum stretched between two terrible extremes. On one end of the continuum, I’m here and you’re there, and I decide we’re so different that it’s like I’ve built a giant wall between us, so high and fortified I can’t even see you. Or, if I don’t have the money to build a giant wall, it’s like you’re invisible to me—like your voice, your humanity, your personhood, your very existence have been erased. That’s what a total lack of empathy looks like, and it’s a kind of violence. On the other end of the continuum, I see you over there, and I think you’re just like me, your struggle is my struggle, and I not only take up your fight as my own, but I take over your story and tell it for you. That’s what empathetic over-identification looks like, and that’s also a kind of violence. Somewhere in the middle is empathetic understanding, the radical balancing point where I recognize you, I hear you, and I extend myself towards you; I take in what you say without taking over your position; I recognize both what may be the same about us and what remains different.
Another word for this empathetic balancing point is solidarity. So let’s try to be precise, in these days and months and years to come, about what art can generate. Let’s think about art as a space for building solidarity. And let’s also be precise about what it means to be in solidarity with each other—not that we forget our differences, but that we build on them instead of letting them drive us apart.
I am Carin Kuoni, director of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, a public research platform at The New School that investigates where, how, and to what effect political and aesthetic practices intersect. At least that is what we’ve done up to now.
My profound thanks to the organizers of this speakout. Now, I’ll provide a couple of thoughts on entitlement and why the core value driving my work is Inclusiveness.
Once before, in the days after 9/11, New York City came together around ideals of diversity, openness, and community—three terms that fall under the rubric of Inclusiveness. Most New Yorkers at that time refused to succumb to fearmongering advocated by some politicians. As an immigrant, who had arrived in New York City fifteen years prior, it was then, for the first time, that I too felt entitled to join a political movement: the city had become my own because the very idea of inclusiveness was at stake. Action was called for to try to implement the notion that ethical standards are not an abstraction, they are a reality both intimate and structural. A couple of years later, I became a citizen.
This feeling of entitlement, this sense that I have not only the right but the obligation to participate, the demand for immediate yet nuanced action, is now back, in the face of insidious, perverse, violent, and relentless attacks on what I care about most—inclusiveness. Only this time, the threat comes from within.
But how does one nurture, practice, and sustain Inclusiveness?
So far, at the Vera List Center, we’ve considered the intersection of art and politics, and inclusiveness is pursued through strategies shared by many of you as well: free admission; public convenings that are accessible in actual space and online; new modules of collective and shared learning; interdisciplinary approaches in order to dismantle hierarchies of knowledge and expertise; cheap publications; learning libraries; child care, and more.
So, what is changing with a Trump presidency?
The imminent assault on our civil liberties is of such magnitude that these strategies no longer seem sufficient. And I believe that if I want to remain effective and advance inclusiveness, I need to turn to art and declare art itself a political practice.
Not because we can afford to turn our backs on traditional political structures; we need to be present there as well. But if we declare our artworks, our exhibitions, our critical discourse a political practice, we can meet the challenges of this incoming administration—and post-democracy in general—much more effectively because inclusiveness will be implemented along a multitude of criteria:
If we declare art a political practice, we can operate along different timeframes simultaneously, pursuing immediate impact as well as long-term nurturing, such as education.
If we declare art a political practice, we can spell out goals at different scales, from super-localized to global, and define distinct yet aligned sets of deliverables. If we focus on the formal qualities of art as well as its literal, material foundations, we can explore entirely new orders of an inclusive political practice that can reach beyond the human.
Defined as political projects, our artworks become the enactment of a new politics of inclusiveness. For the next two years, at the Vera List Center, we will dedicate ourselves to Art As Politics. This is my pledge for upholding the value of inclusiveness.
The Whitney decided to participate in the J20 art strike by remaining open today and offering special programming as an affirmation of our commitment to open dialogue, civic engagement, and the diversity of American art and culture. The importance of art and artists in those pursuits was affirmed by the Whitney’s founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney when she said, “It is so much simpler to let others think for us than to think for ourselves.” She believed that art helps us to do that thinking. We are grateful to Occupy Museums for organizing this speakout and for helping to bring conversations about what this new era in the United States means for art, for artists, and for museums like the Whitney.
For my three minutes today, I’m going to talk about the values of the Whitney’s education department, which is the context in which I do my work as the director of public programs and public engagement.
The first value is one that permeates the whole museum: the Whitney is an artist’s museum. What that means to us is that artists are deeply involved in shaping all aspects of what the Whitney does. Educators work to ensure that the Whitney is and continues to be a gathering place for both established and emerging artists and a supportive space for artists.
For visitors, programs and resources developed by and with artists offer compelling alternatives to conventional ways of thinking and making sense of the world. By working collaboratively with artists, the Whitney’s educational programs underscore the value of creativity and critical thinking. They also foster a deeper appreciation and understanding of what artists do and the important role they play in our culture.
The second value is that artworks are material singularities. They offer alternative experiences that encourage us to slow down, to pay attention, to reflect. The Whitney’s education department strives to make the museum an environment that fosters close looking, sustained attention, and direct experiences with art.
Third: we value critical thinking about art. We seek to create a space where visitors can learn, question, and make sense of the artworks on view, fostering open-ended thinking and acknowledging that there are no easy answers. Instead of the traditional emphasis on the transmission of ideas from expert to public in one direction, or simple art appreciation, the Whitney strives to make the museum interactive and to emphasize the viewer’s role in creating a work of art’s meaning. We are committed to exploring new approaches and to developing interdisciplinary, multidimensional programs and materials.
Who are we doing this for? At the Whitney we are committed to making art a right, not a privilege. Art plays a transformative role in society. By helping to build and broaden cultural participation, an art museum like the Whitney can have a powerful role in sustaining and advancing a democratic society. We believe that access to art should be a right, not a privilege.
A great museum is much more than a collection of objects. The educator and museum scholar George Hein writes, “Museums were founded as educational institutions. One way or another, museums inevitably interpret their collections for visitors. To assume they aren’t educational institutions is to shirk their basic responsibility. A museum is only a warehouse, an archive, or a storage place for objects if it doesn’t welcome visitors and, in some form, attempt to educate them.”
I’m happy to be here in solidarity today, as we collectively march forward into uncertain times.
Much of what I say, probably even the precise language I use, echoes what has already been said today. And this is a very good thing—for we need to amplify our voices and our beliefs, in every way possible, over the next four years, at least. Many of the aggressions we experience today, including the racism, the homophobia, misogyny, anti-Muslim violence, and more, are finally coming to the fore in a broader sphere. All of these also exist right here, within our sacrosanct spaces of art.
What has emerged from this polarized climate are increasingly claustrophobic ideas of what it means to be American—who gets seen and legitimized as American, which bodies are rendered illegible, which ideas are legitimately national, as well as the countless numbers of people threatened by both physical and discursive erasure.
Presumably, many of us came to this art space precisely for art’s potential to offer complex, layered, and nuanced perspectives that this reality couldn’t hold or take, precisely for those possibilities that lie within this sphere, to complicate and broaden categories that inflect the scope of contemporary art, such as “American,” “woman,” and “modernism.” Part of our work here within this and similar institutions is to deeply introspect and reflect on the spaces we ourselves inhabit and help to produce every day. In other words, I am saying that, rather than seeing the current political climate as an external threat, we all have to take responsibility for the ways that this climate resonates with aspects of the art world in which we all participate. The events transpiring around us bring to light the predicament of ongoing exclusions and erasures in the art world itself, which some of the people in this room have experienced for years.
Most of you, I’m sure, were also addicted the roller coaster of the spectacle that preceded this day, which had me on the edge of my seat. I watched and read a lot more news than I normally would have. I was really struck by one moment in all of this, the speech that Khizr Khan, Humayun Khan’s father, made during the Democratic National Convention. Humayun Khan was in the American army and was deployed as a captain during the Iraq War. He was killed on the battlefield in 2004 at the age of twenty-eight. The spectacle of Khizr Khan’s speech at the DNC really stopped me in my tracks because this was the first time I had seen on national television a person of South Asian descent acknowledged as a citizen, as brave and heroic, as someone who had contributed to American history. Not as crosscultural exchange, a byproduct of the melting pot, or a foreigner, but as a subject who built upon what we have, participated in, and acted on behalf of this nation.
(Author postscript: Something I didn’t elaborate on in my talk earlier were the equally troubling conditions of Humayun Khan’s visibility. Not only was the first mainstream presence of a South Asian subject embedded within a militarized context, but it raises another question, that of why the acknowledgment of Humayun Khan himself, a fallen soldier and war hero, could only be legible under such extreme circumstances as a patriotic death for this nation. Does this ultimately send a message that the best American Muslim is one who has given his life for the American imperial machine?)
I thought a lot about Khizr Khan’s speech and wondered, could the DNC possibly be ahead of the art world in the way that it rendered South Asian subjects legible, even if we disagree with the terms of that legibility? For a long time some of us have been having these conversations amongst ourselves. And now we find ourselves in a moment of emergency, and so I want to share in conversation with you.
One of the things we have been discussing is, what gets constituted as American and how does art contribute to this? Born and raised in New York City, I’ve been coming to the Whitney since I was a kid. I love the Whitney; I have had an ongoing relationship with the Whitney for decades now, and know it to be a place where the idea of what is American is constantly being interrogated. I was really excited about “America is Hard to See,” the inaugural show of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, the first exhibition after the museum’s massive renovation and relocation.
I was curious about what “America is Hard to See” as a title would offer or suggest in terms of the content of the works in the show. There were 406. Of those participating artists, only about twenty of them were of Asian descent. Of those artists, there were two, maybe three artists from the South Asian region—that is, if you actually opened up the idea of South Asia to include countries such as Iran.
This makes me consider the nature of the work we have in front of us, and the nature of the conditions that many of us have been experiencing for years, if not decades now, before this presidency rolled along. It’s great that we are raising money for Planned Parenthood, I am really happy to be going to the civic meetings in my own neighborhood, and it is crucial that we continue doing the local work and fundraising for causes and positions that are currently under threat.
At the same time, a lot of the work has to be done right here. Because it is not about “us,” in the art world, and “them,” everyone else. Rather, this space is a microcosm of that space, and it’s all of us. It means more that just adding more brown bodies to the next show, the next speakers series, or to an institution’s executive staff. It also means expanding our understanding of the movements, theoretical positions, and aesthetic frameworks that govern our evaluation of what constitutes meaningful, long-lasting interventions within the contemporary art field. This includes undoing binaries of theory/practice, figuration/abstraction, and conceptual/decorative.
This moment presents not only a call to resist at every turn, but also an opportunity for introspection, and examining how fundamental questions around art and art history in the United States have both reflected and contributed to the place where we find ourselves today. As such, I look forward to being in conversation with you over the next few years, and to seeing the world, with our eyes open, together, as painful as that may be.
(Please read this as if you were a fortune teller in a NYC storefront that hasn’t yet been replaced by an art gallery.)
THE GUERRILLA GIRLS DON’T KNOW WHAT THE FUCK IS GONNA HAPPEN WITH TRUMP, SO WE WENT TO A FORTUNE TELLER AND SHE SAID: HONIES, THE ART WORLD IS ALREADY TRUMPIAN TO ITS CORE. HERE IS WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS:
MUSEUMS WILL CONVERT THEIR WHITE WALLS TO GOLD LEAF, AND HOST BEAUTY PAGEANTS.
CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS, GAS COMPANY EXECS, AND TRUMP ADVISORS WILL BE WELCOMED ON MUSEUM BOARDS, EVEN THOUGH PEOPLE LIKE YOU HAVE SPENT YEARS TRYING TO GET THEM KICKED OFF.
LOWER TAXES FOR BILLIONAIRES WILL MAKE IT EASY FOR THEM TO SPEND EVEN MORE MONEY ON THEIR COOKIE-CUTTER COLLECTIONS OF THE SAME TEN SUPERSTAR ARTISTS — WHO ARE MOSTLY CIS WHITE MEN. BIGWIG GALLERIES WILL BECOME EVEN BOLDER WITH THEIR TAX EVASION SCHEMES.
ART COLLECTORS ON MUSEUM BOARDS WILL NEVER GO TO JAIL FOR INSIDER TRADING OR CONFLICTS OF INTEREST. OH WAIT, GIRLS, DID THEY EVER?
ART COLLECTORS WHO SECRETLY SUPPORT TRUMP’S MUSLIM BAN WILL PRETEND TOLERANCE FOR ISLAM BY GOING TO ART FAIRS IN DUBAI AND QATAR.
ART SCHOOLS WILL FINALLY ADMIT THAT ONLY RICH KIDS CAN AFFORD THEM, AND WILL ADD FINANCE TO THE CURRICULUM. MFAs WILL BECOME MFAIs—MASTER’S OF FINE ART INVESTING.
INTERNS PAID FOR THEIR WORK? A LIVING WAGE FOR MUSEUM AND GALLERY EMPLOYEES? FUGGEDABOUTIT!!!
CURATORS WILL STOP DOING SHOWS OF PROVOCATIVE WORK BY DIVERSE ARTISTS, AND GET BACK TO WHAT BRINGS IN THOSE BIG, WHITE CROWDS: VAN GOGH, PICASSO, AND MATISSE!
WAIT, HONIES, I’M GETTING A MESSAGE ABOUT THE FUTURE FOR ACTIVISTS LIKE YOU: DON’T LET ART BE REDUCED TO THE SMALL NUMBER OF ARTISTS WHO HAVE WON A POPULARITY CONTEST AMONG BIG-TIME DEALERS, CURATORS, AND COLLECTORS. IF MUSEUMS DON’T SHOW ART AS DIVERSE AS THE CULTURES THEY CLAIM TO REPRESENT, TELL THEM THEY’RE NOT SHOWING THE HISTORY OF ART, THEY ARE JUST PRESERVING THE HISTORY OF WEALTH AND POWER.
January 20 is not a day for business as usual. It is a day of reckoning: a day when we must step back stand together and acknowledge how far we have fallen from the values that we supposedly uphold as individuals, communities, and institutions. At the same time, however, we must recognize that this occasion is exactly business as usual in the United States of America. It would be naive to suggest that the advent of fascism is representative of one man or one woman or one administration. This moment has finally landed following decades of Reaganomics. It landed after centuries of living in a house with a flawed foundation built on slavery, stolen labor, and bloodshed; maintained through the normalization of systemic injustice. It has landed as the full legitimization of cultural homogenization, techno-militarism, and life inside the atomized logic of corporatism. It has landed after the sequestering of money and political agency into fewer and fewer hands. We have become a country of red and blue: a separatist mentality that replays “the people” as demographics, driving wedges between “races,” classes, regions, genders, education levels, and worldviews.
Our values—values fought for tirelessly over the generations, values that we believe to be sacred—have proven to be as fragile as they are precious.
Facing this reality, we bear much responsibility and seize this moment of national coming-into-consciousness as an opportunity. Occupy Museums calls on our communities—in this case artists, cultural practitioners, and institutions—to directly name and confront this truth: we are living in a fascist state. Fascist propaganda exacerbates the racism and misogyny embedded in our culture for cynical political ends; it is the enemy of art. This can be seen from the new administration’s plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts—a last vestige of truly public support of the arts. Their vision of art is reduced to luxury trappings for oligarchs. Although the same financial sphere that has largely brought us to the current precipice stands behind US museums as their primary means of support, this doesn’t devalue their potency as public spaces and repositories of collective mythologies. Their civic function depends not on philanthropy but on struggle. Museums require artists, activists, and global citizens to challenge them, demanding that they hold true to their missions to serve the public, not just the 1%. That is why on #J20 we invite our communities to join us inside the museum, which we demand function as public space, to declare our common values, to make undeniable our demands, and to render our truths unmediated and unavailable for contortion, interpretation, or abstraction. Then we head out into the streets.
Occupy Museums reflects on the values behind our mission and in solidarity with all arts workers commits to continuing the struggle for the following:
Racism and xenophobia are real and alive today. Misogyny and homophobia are real and alive today. White nationalism is growing in political, economic, and symbolic power. We value cultural institutions who are able to name the severity of this political zeitgeist and join the fight for dismantling white supremacy. We declare that one cannot be neutral on a fascist train. We commit to joining in efforts to organize an antifascist resistance.
Arts within neoliberal economies have long been stripped of social organizing force and community accountability. We have witnessed a transparent bid to transform art into an asset class for private speculation, upending its political autonomy; art has become a tool of propaganda. As this incoming administration dramatically reduces or eliminates public funding for the arts, museums will be relying solely on compromised private funding. We uphold the value of art and cultural production independent from financial and political coercion, free from appropriation and exploitation.
We reject a culture that ignores or celebrates US war and imperialism. We reject a culture that fetishizes, essentializes, and flattens the layers of our shared reality. Such a culture reflects a shallow politics where sycophantic hype replaces public discourse. We value art that is authentic, layered, diverse, and unafraid of delving into the complexity of our shared experiences. We commit to a struggle against the reign of hegemonic power brokers in the arts and in support of a more committed art and discourse. Museums must move toward greater social justice to be relevant.
Since their inception centuries ago, the collections of art museums have consisted of objects stolen from indigenous and oppressed peoples whose cultures were appropriated and/or decimated to reify whiteness. Even though museums partially embody the democratization of art, they are also sites embedded with white supremacy and patriarchy. We will not separate our appreciation of museums from the ongoing need to shift the power that is codified into this mode of cultural representation. We commit to the ongoing struggle for increased presence of black and brown people, immigrants, and women in museum administrations, collections, events, and viewership, and in the return of stolen cultural heritage and objects.
White nationalist populism thrives from the perceived (and often real) elitism and exclusivity of the “art world.” Yet it is a right for every human being to partake in and benefit from the cultural wealth and heritage composed from our collective history, regardless of economic or social status. We believe that access to cultural institutions should always be free and we commit to a long struggle to take back institutions from the exclusivity of philanthropy and high-ticket-price corporate models.
Economic precarity stemming from the devaluation of labor and increased corporate profits from extractive debts drives a wedge between members of our society, pitting us against each other in ruthless competition. We look to democracies across the globe who affirm the right to a living wage and even a basic income and call on our nation’s cultural institutions to pay all employees, contractors, and exhibiting artists a living wage for their labor.
The transformation of public spaces and our neighborhoods and homes into speculative instruments increases the already dire state of class anxiety. The economic precarity suffered by artists puts them at risk of being both affected by and a catalyst in the gentrification of poor neighborhoods. Cultural institutions play a major role in gentrification that must be addressed; it is imperative that institutions use their cultural and financial capital to support their communities of arts workers and their local publics rather than enable gentrification by participating in development schemes.
Intellectualism and cultural experiment are considered as dangerous and unpatriotic to fascists. Nazi poet laureate Hanns Johst famously wrote: “Let’em keep their good distance with their whole ideological kettle of fish … I shoot with live ammunition! When I hear the word culture … I release the safety on my Browning!” Our cultural institutions must fortify themselves against the coming onslaught by deepening and declaring their commitment to and support of artists, critical discourse, freedom of expression, and their immediate communities. We call on all museums and cultural institutions to stand in solidarity with the artists, art critics, art workers, and public who will not stand by in silence as power is handed over to fascists. Cultural institutions can begin (as some have already begun) by collectively reassessing their institutions’ statements of ethics, making amendments, addenda, and revisions that specifically address the institution’s role and responsibility to treat its workers fairly, to protect them from state repression when threatened, and to support the creation of bold and progressive works of art.
All videos: Owen Crowley, 2017.
“Think we must,” wrote Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas, “Let us never cease from thinking – what is this ‘civilization’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them?” These passionate words urging us to think critically about the price that “we” are prepared to pay for being part of this civilization, and of the male-dominated institutions that govern it, resonate loud and clear today. They seem as relevant now as when they were first uttered in the 1930’s, at another crucial turning point in our political history.
One always thinks against one’s times, in spite of the times and out of concern for one’s times. This insight rings painfully true today, as we pick up the pieces of our broken dreams about electing the first woman to the presidency of the USA. As Donna Haraway put it – ever so eloquently – on her Facebook page on November 9, 2016:
"Well, I thought we'd be together battling for a progressive agenda in the context of a neoliberal, partially progressive Clinton administration. I thought climate change and extinction and so much else could be central issues. They must still be. But now we will be together battling fascism, unleashed racism, misogyny, antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-immigration, and so much else. I feel heartbroken and re-radicalized.”
The operative word here is “re-radicalize” – trying to cope with this traumatic defeat, acknowledging the pain and learning from our and other people’s mistakes, in order to go on and build a new political praxis. I am reminded immediately of Derrida’s comments on the suicidal character of the democratic system, which echo Nietzsche’s thoughts from the previous century. The sobering awareness that democracy in itself is not enough to save us from its electoral majority is crucial at a historical time when the political momentum seems to be on the side of rising populism. In the 1930’s – Virginia Woolf’s time – far too many people voted “democratically” for the national-socialist movements, for fascist and Nazi leaders who then went on to deprive them of their basic rights and to commit atrocities. The repetition of these tendencies in the western world today makes me wonder whether representative democracy is at all immunized against its own reactionary elements.
I am thinking for instance of the manipulative use that has been made of the referendum as a political instrument, not only in the UK, but also in the Netherlands and Italy. A lot of commentators are currently writing on the uses and abuses of the referendum as a tool of government: isn’t representative democracy about allowing our democratically elected representatives to research and pass the suitable legislation to confront the complex issues of the days? Why call a referendum on intricate constitutional or international relations issues? I think it would be far more useful to set up a serious educational program, backed by a full-scale information campaign, talking to people and fellow citizens, also about difficult subject matters. I am not at all sure that the media and social networks are to blame for the misinformation that dominates public debate. What are we to make of the fact that the so-called advanced economies fall for “post-truth” politics, while a country like South Africa opts for the dialogical model of “Truth & Reconciliation” commissions? Maybe it is time to learn from the South?
The electoral victory of a misogynist, unexperienced and unskilled, white male supremacist like Trump, however, reveals far more than the limitations of representative democracy. What we are witnessing is the return of sexist and racist language and practices in the public sphere, coupled with an instrumental use of ideas like the decline of the West, the crisis and the necessity of state violence in times of emergency. Trump capitalized on the frustrations and fears of the former middle classes, badly hit by the fallout of economic globalization. The politics of resentment has quite a long history: Bush himself pursued a similar strategy at the turn of the millennium. Today, new populist movements follow suit, introducing some interesting variations on this old theme.
Contemporary populisms, whether from the Left or from the Right, are the same to me. On the Right of the political spectrum, abstract appeals to sacralized notions of cultural authenticity have replaced or reinforced the rhetoric of blood and soil. Cultural essentialism – or ethno-nationalism – disguised as civic pride, is the refrain of today’s Right-wing populism. On the Left of the political spectrum, classes devastated by decades of economic decline and enforced austerity, have endorsed the public expression of “whitelash”: white people’s – mostly men’s – anger, producing a virulent form of neo-nationalist populism. Racist by visceral reflex, isolationist by default, scared at heart, the “neo-nativist” movements, in their urban as well as rural versions, long for the restoration of an era gone by. They express a sharp sense of threat – of wrongs and injuries translated into political disenchantment and they seem to assume that the only pain that matters in the world is white men’s pain. It makes them misogynist, homo and trans-phobic, as well as xenophobic. Moreover, all populists – at the far Right just as the far Left – have turned against the European Union, as a trans-national space. Why is it so difficult to imagine a post-nationalist Europe? It would be interesting to compare the different kinds of European populisms and interrogate their representations not only of the nation and of the people, but also of the idea of Europe itself.
I cannot accept either the Rights or the Left-wing versions of populism, as they both brutally re-assert whiteness and male supremacism as core values. Just consider the enthusiastic support that a Left-wing intellectual such as Slavoj Zizek has lent to Donald Trump in the few crucial days before the American election. Zizek’s misogyny is well-known, but this time he truly surpassed himself by asserting that Trump is “less dangerous” (to whom? where?) than Clinton. He should be held accountable for it. There is a clear correlation between having or not having access to the resources and advantages of the global economy and the loss of a sense of self-esteem and belonging. But is this enough to plunge us into the abyss of “post-truth” politics?
In the USA as elsewhere, the organized political Left has its share of responsibility to account for. The mistakes of previous generations of leaders and of their old “democratic” coalitions ended up helping the Republicans. Nonetheless, the Right-wing populism of dubious characters such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson is a nauseating form of political manipulation, because it affects most directly those who are economically worse off. These exploitative politicians only “empathize” with the pain and despair of their electorate to the extent that they encourage them to scape-goat their built-up anger onto women, the LBGTQ community, migrants, foreigners, asylum-seekers and other figures of despised “otherness.” The appeal to strong nationalist leaders who basically promise to solve the problems by building more walls around every single constituency produces what Deleuze and Guattari call micro-fascism. Whether they are they Left or the Right, they are micro-fascists. How many new walls have gone up since the Berlin wall came down? Fortress Europe is one of them, and that’s our immediate and direct responsibility.
In a philosophical perspective, it is almost inevitable to interpret these events through the lenses of Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche. We find ourselves in a “democratic” political regime where factual truths play no role at all: in Brexit, as in the Trump campaign, people were shamelessly lied to. What mattered most to them was expression of negative emotions and violent passions, like hatred, intolerance, rage, cynicism and opportunism. As a teacher, I believe firmly that my task is to fight untruths and injustices with the instrument of critical reason, but also by speaking truth to power both in classrooms, and in the public sphere. Lies are lies, no matter how many may actually believe them, or much backing they get from the powers-that-be. It is important to advance a radical critique of the vulnerability of representative democracy as a system, starting from two main sources. On the one hand a critical reappraisal of collective action aimed at affirmative forms of social and ethical interaction and the respect for freedom, and on the other hand the historical experiences of feminisms. We need to move beyond dialectical oppositions, beyond the logic of violent antagonism, to develop an operational politics of affirmation. This requires accurate political cartographies of the power relations that we inhabit and by which we are structured. That’s hard work.
Violence, pain and resentment are conducive to paralysis, not to change. I am even more convinced of this the day after Trump’s victory. More than ever we need forms of political opposition that are rich in alternatives, concrete in propositions and attached to everyday projects. This is not a simple or pain-free process, of course, but anger alone is not a project, as Hillary Clinton so lucidly put it. Anger needs to be transformed into the power to act; it needs to become a constitutive force addressed not only “against,” but also in favor of something. It is obvious that Trump and Johnson represent the pit of negativity of our era and that, faced by their dishonesty and violence, we will echo Deleuze and say: No, thank you, we would prefer not to follow you. The crucial question however is: who and how many are “we”? “We” may well be against the alliance of neoliberalism with multiple fundamentalisms, but we need to compose together a plane of agreement about what our shared hopes and aspirations are. We need to agree on what we want to build together as an alternative. Critique and creation work hand-in-hand.
Even more so in the current context, with its xenophobic rhetoric of the state of emergency, governance by fear and perpetual warfare. In the western world the defense of women's and LBGTQ human rights seems to be a last resort, for instance when we are confronted by the rise of violence against women, rapes included; or after the mass murder in Orlando, Florida. Far too often feminist and LBGTQ causes are enlisted in a civilizational discourse that manipulates them in order to assert the alleged supremacy of the West over the rest: emphasis on human rights as a pretext for war and occupation. Within the same western world, however, the resurgence of neo-fundamentalism induces new, subtler but not less violent forms of exclusion and discrimination. They are articulated around the axes of ethnicity and whiteness, gender and sexuality but also around dominant cultural values such as youth and slimness, health, able-bodiedness and access to advanced technologies, to name only some of the components that define the complex phenomenon of contemporary “class” differences.
Postcolonial and race theories have been challenging white privilege for decades, arguing for the need to undo racialized hierarchies and to question the ethnocentric assumptions about what constitutes the basic unit of reference for being human. They join forces with feminist and gender studies to bring home a simple point: that we are not all vulnerable in the same way or to the same extent, and that no group has the monopoly over pain and social exclusion. Non-male, non-white, non-heteronormative, but also non-anthropomorphic beings know on their bodies what it means to be exposed to all sorts of fundamentalisms, racisms and reactionary politics.
Thus, while denouncing the exacerbation of misogyny, racism and cynicism in the present political context, I want to repeat the question I asked before: who and how many are “we”? To what extent can “we” say that “we” are in this together? I want to express solidarity, while avoiding hasty recompositions of one “humanity” bonded in fear and vulnerability. I prefer to defend complexity and multiple ways of being human, that is to say an affirmative definition of what binds us together. I think it important, for instance, in the era of the Anthropocene, to see the close links between neoliberal economic politics and a system of disenfranchisements and exclusion of entire layers of both the human population and the non-human agents of our planet.
The way to handle these issues is to start from the project of composing a “we” that is grounded, accountable and active. This is the collective praxis of affirmative politics, which Spinoza encourages us to embrace against the toxic negativity of the social context. In the midst of our technologically mediated social relations and in response to the paranoid rhetoric of our post-truth democratic leaders, how can we labor together to construct affirmative ethical and political practices? How can we work towards socially sustainable horizons of hope through resistance? What tools can we use to resist nihilism, escape consumeristic individualism and get immunized against xenophobia? The answer is in the doing, in the praxis of composing alliances, transversal connections and in engaging in difficult conversations on what troubles us. “We” need to re-radicalize ourselves.
And it is high time that the Left – or what is left of the Left – listens respectfully and seriously to the thought and the practices of feminists, the LBGTQ community, anti-racists and trans-national justice movements. It is time to re-radicalize also the politicians on the Left, by making them understand the enduring effects of their own sexism and their violent dismissal of feminist affirmative politics.
“We philosophers” have at hand powerful theoretical models: from Spinoza to Donna Haraway, from Foucault to Deleuze. And “we feminists” have rich practical precedents as well: from Olympe de Gouges to Sojouner Truth and Hillary Clinton, from the Riot Grrls to the Pussy Riots, via the cyborg-eco-feminists, the Xeno-feminists, the anti-racist and the post-anthropocentric activists. They constitute a multitude of “bad girls” aspiring to self-determination, capable of triggering new social imaginaries and igniting unexpected political passions. These sources of inspiration for alternative forms of subjectivity are built on affirmative praxis. They teach us that resistance to the violence and injustice of the present requires the creation of modes of affirmative relation and of ethical interaction – that is to say of alternative communities – based on the pursuit of shared desires for transformative politics and social justice. So don’t agonize, organize, because there is just so much that needs to be done.
*Image of Pussy Riot via VOA News
In Foreign Policy, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes write that in cultivating Trump as a not-so-secret ally, Putin and his government may have gotten more than they bargained for. They point to Russia's fear of global "turmoil and uncertainty" provoked by Trump's erratic foreign policy and hostility towards global trade. They also suggest that as Trump's opponents—not only in the Democratic Party but also among Republicans—strive to use his ties to Russia against him, this may only heighten the tension between the US and Russia in the long run, whereas Trump's election was supposed to ease it. Here's an excerpt from the article:
Now that Trump is in power, political elites in Moscow have stopped cheering. They recognize that Russia’s position has become abruptly and agonizingly complex.
It’s true that Trump’s accession opens up the possibility of “normalizing” Russia’s relations with the West, beginning with a reduction or even elimination of sanctions. It also validates many of Russia’s ideological criticisms of the liberal order and may perhaps foreshadow policy reversals that Moscow has long hoped for: from Washington’s disengagement from the Ukraine crisis to its dissolution of the Cold War Western alliance. Russians also celebrate Trump’s unfiltered stream-of-consciousness diatribes as signaling a welcome end to America’s hypocrisy and condescension.
But Trump’s revolution is also ushering in a period of turmoil and uncertainty, including the likelihood of self-defeating trade wars. Still traumatized by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia’s present leadership has no appetite for global instability.
With Trump in the White House, moreover, Putin has lost his monopoly over geopolitical unpredictability. The Kremlin’s ability to shock the world by taking the initiative and trashing ordinary international rules and customs has allowed Russia to play an oversized international role and to punch above its weight. Putin now has to share the capacity to keep the world off balance with a new American president vastly more powerful than himself. More world leaders are watching anxiously to discover what Trump will do next than are worrying about what Putin will do next. Meanwhile, using anti-Americanism as an ideological crutch has become much more dubious now that the American electorate has chosen as their president a man publicly derided as “Putin’s puppet.”
What the Kremlin fears most today is that Trump may be ousted or even killed. His ouster, Kremlin insiders argue, is bound to unleash a virulent and bipartisan anti-Russian campaign in Washington. Oddly, therefore, Putin has become a hostage to Trump’s survival and success. This has seriously restricted Russia’s geopolitical options. The Kremlin is perfectly aware that Democrats want to use Russia to discredit and possibly impeach Trump while Republican elites want to use Russia to deflate and discipline Trump. The Russian government fears not only Trump’s downfall, of course, but also the possibility that he could opportunistically switch to a tough anti-Moscow line in order to make peace with hawkish Republican leaders in Congress.
Image via Foreign Policy.
The Guardian has a very moving piece by Chelsea Manning in which she thanks the fellow prisoners who supported her during her six-year incarceration for leaking evidence of US war atrocities. Manning is due to be released from prison in May, after President Obama commuted her sentence days before leaving office. Read an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here. (Chelsea Manning also figures prominently in another piece publishing on e-flux conversations today, "Hacking Biopolitics" by Heather Dewey-Hagborg.)
I never would have made it without you. Not only did you teach me these important lessons, but you made sure I felt cared for. You were the people who helped me to deal with the trauma of my regular haircuts. You were the people who checked on me after I tried to end my life. You were the people that played fun games with me. Who wished me a Happy Birthday. We shared the holidays together. You were and will always be family.
For many of you, you are already free and living outside of the prison walls. Many of you will come home soon. Some of you still have many years to go.
The most important thing that you taught me was how to write and how to speak in my own voice. I used to only know how to write memos. Now, I write like a human being, with dreams, desires and connections. I could not have done it without you.
Image via the Guardian.
This piece was first presented on February 2, 2017 at Goldsmiths, University of London, as part of "Informatics of Domination," the Spring 2017 Public Program of the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths. The program is organized by Zach Blas. For the full program schedule and an introduction by Zach Blas, visit here.
In 2012 I was sitting in therapy and I was staring across the room at this print on the wall, hovering above the therapeutic couch, when I noticed that the glass covering the print was cracked, and there was a hair stuck in the crack. I found myself imagining the patient, who must have had long dark hair, sitting on the couch, leaning back, and getting it caught. It was something I had done countless times myself. I related to this person, this stranger. I wondered who they might be and what they might be like.
When I left I just couldn’t help noticing things all around me, cigarette butts and chewing gum on the sidewalk, hairs on the subway bench, saliva left on the rim of a coffee cup; I started seeing evidence—everywhere. And it occurred to me that the very things that make us human, the messiness of the human body, become a liability as we constantly face the possibility of shedding these traces in public, leaving artifacts which anyone could come along and mine for information.
And so that is exactly what I did.
In my project Stranger Visions (2012–13) I obsessively collected those hairs, chewed-up gum, and cigarette butts from the streets, public bathrooms, and waiting rooms of New York City. I extracted DNA from them and I analyzed it to computationally generate life-size, 3-D-printed, full-color portraits representing what those individuals might look like, based on genomic research.
To do this I looked at traits that are considered fairly well established, like eye color, and I looked at contentious loci correlated with ancestry, where the production of genomic knowledge about populations is highly disputed. I looked at genes that are not often considered controversial but which I think demand further analysis and deconstruction, like sex. And I looked at speculative science, preliminary studies of things like weight, freckling, and facial shape.
When I started this project I knew next to nothing about genomics or about molecular biology. I had a question—how much can I learn about a stranger from a hair?—but I had no knowledge of how to answer it. I also had almost no money to invest in fancy equipment or lab services. Luckily for me, Genspace, the world’s first community biology lab, had opened two years earlier in downtown Brooklyn. So I brought my samples to Genspace, where I extracted the DNA and sent it for sequencing. Then I analyzed regions that I could extrapolate as correlating with appearance to create a kind of genetic profile, which I used to parameterize a morphable model of a face, extended from an open-source Matlab model, Basel Morphace, which you see below. I appropriated and then retrained and reworked this model, which was normally used for 3-D facial recognition.
Basel Morphace, “Directions of Maximal Variance” →
I generated approximately five randomized variations of each sample and chose my favorite, which I then 3-D printed to produce a life-size, full-color model. So what I was doing was drawing on both established and speculative scientific research to forecast where this technology (DNA phenotyping) was going, to call attention to new vulnerabilities of surveillance but also to the impulse towards genetic determinism—the all-too-common tendency to reduce the complexity of the human to the execution of genetic “code,” as if all we need to do is decipher the code and there we will find ourselves, and our futures, written.
The first sculpture I produced was a self-portrait. People always ask about the accuracy of this kind of technology and the truth is it's very subjective and varies tremendously case by case. How much do I look like a woman of Northern European ancestry with blue eyes, freckles, and less tendency to be overweight? And what is meant by “looking like”? It’s one thing to see similarities and differences in two faces side by side; it’s another to pick someone out of a crowd as a match.
The project was intentionally very controversial, from all sides. Stranger Visions enacts a problematic practice to make this very practice visible. It was clear to me that DNA phenotyping research was already happening behind closed laboratory doors. By doing it very publicly, I wanted to demonstrate that this future was just around the corner, and that we needed to start debating it now. And that has been the most interesting part of working on this project: that it broke out of the art context, infiltrated mass and social media, and brought me into all kinds of places I never expected, like public policy meetings about genetic privacy.
So if Stranger Visions aims to expose the fact that we are entering an era with the potential for mass biological surveillance, the obvious question is, what can we do about it? In 2014 I met Allison Burtch, Aurelia Moser, and Adam Harvey at an art-hack day in Brooklyn. We were all working on different projects related to surveillance and we wanted to make something together. In our collaborative work, DNA Spoofing, we took a playful look at the ways in which anonymity can be enabled in the age of genetic surveillance: DIY techniques, and ways friends can help each other out.
While meant to be playful and humorous, it got me doing some serious research. In 1993 Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a method for amplifying subsections of DNA which has become one of the most common techniques in molecular biology and forensics. In 1995 he joked about creating a company called “DN-anonymous” that would sell amplified solutions of DNA that individuals could use for masking genetic identity. While he was joking about actually creating this company, he predicted the someone would actually do this within the next ten years.1
In 2014, drawing on published research about DNA mixtures, I worked in the lab to develop a set of sprays that could be used to wipe away and cover up DNA traces. The artwork Invisible is a working genetic privacy product and set of open-source protocols offered by the imaginary biotechnology company BIOGENFUTURES.
That May I was invited to give a keynote at an industry conference, the Bio-IT World Expo, which would be attended by thousands of professionals. I thought this would be the perfect place to announce my new company and launch our premiere product. After describing Stranger Visions, I said: “You wouldn’t leave your medical records on the subway for just anyone to read. It should be a choice. You should be in control of how you share your information and with whom: be it your email, your phone calls, your text messages, and certainly your genes. That’s why I developed the first ever tool kit to protect your genetic privacy—and it’s called Invisible.”
Technically speaking, Invisible is a suite of two complementary products. The Erase spray—bleach and water —wipes away 99.5% of the DNA. But you don’t want to put bleach on everything, so the Replace spray cloaks biological material with DNA noise. Derived from over fifty different DNA sources and utilizing a special preservative to keep DNA stable at room temperature, Replace brings the electronic privacy method of obfuscation to the biological. Erase is good for hard surfaces, while Replace is good for soft or sensitive ones.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg, from Invisible, 2014
On the one hand, Invisible is a functional counter-surveillance product, following in a tradition of such artistic gestures meant to call attention to biosurveillance risks. It is also an exploit insofar as it points out a security vulnerability beyond surveillance in order to interrogate the alleged infallibility of the DNA “gold standard.” It poses the question, could a spray that is easy enough to make in your kitchen at home really help so-called criminals get away with it? Or put another way, if DNA evidence can be hacked, forged, and planted like any other evidence, does it deserve its elevated status?
Speculative Future to Problematic Present
So it’s 2015 and I am working away on my DNA counter-surveillance projects when this happens:
No, I had nothing to do with it. HK Cleanup Challenge, an NGO, partnered with an advertising agency on an ad campaign to call attention to Hong Kong’s littering problem. But in enacting this campaign they hired a real company, Parabon Nanolabs, that had just launched a new service called DNA Snapshot. According to the website of Parabon Nanolabs, DNA Snapshot “is a revolutionary new forensic DNA analysis service that accurately predicts the physical appearance and ancestry of an unknown person from DNA.” Marketed to police departments around the US, Snapshot promises to “produce a detailed Snapshot report and composite profile that includes eye color, skin color, hair color, face morphology, and detailed biogeographic ancestry. Armed with this scientifically objective description, you can conduct your investigation more efficiently and close cases more quickly.”
I expected this in five years, but this was too soon. I knew the science wasn’t ready. After all, I had just been generating handfuls of different possible faces based on DNA and choosing the ones I found artistically appealing. What would Parabon’s criteria be?
Look closely at this profile they are offering (at great expense) to police departments around the US. What do you see?:
This is not a detailed list of facial features, but rather a portrait of what Parabon considers to be a generic black man. This is a stereotype. The very pressing and very real risk here is that identity categories like race become reduced to data which can be “read” from the body, using black-box algorithms, and that these tools, in the hands of the police, become a new form of racial profiling, propped up by the apparent authority of DNA, of science. If things keep moving in this direction it is entirely likely that in the next five years phenotypic predictions will include an even broader swath of dubiously scientific traits like sexual orientation, intelligence, criminality, and maybe even surname.
So while Stranger Visions began for me as a project to make an invisible risk of surveillance visible, it took me in a new direction as well, to attempt to excavate these kinds of hidden stereotypes that are built into the structure of so many of the tools we use everyday as black-box algorithms. (If you want to read more about this, see my piece “Sci-Fi Crime Drama with a Strong Black Lead” in The New Inquiry.)
In her “Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway argues that “bodies … are not born; they are made … The various contending biological bodies emerge at the intersection of biological research, writing, and publishing; medical and other business practices; cultural productions of all kinds, including available metaphors and narratives; and technology.” Today, in the wake of Trump and Brexit, when identity has so visibly become a battleground, it is more important than ever that we realize the construction that goes into identity categories like race and sex. We mustn’t allow them to be recast as “nature”—as something written in the “code” of our being, of our bodies. We need to be especially vigilant that biology does not become used as a way to segment people into groups which are subject to differential treatment—to harassment or special forms of attention.
So I was thinking about all these things and then in July 2015 Paper magazine contacted me to ask if I would create a DNA portrait of the American whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Chelsea is currently incarcerated for information she made public that exposed, among many other things, the scale and prevalence of torture and civilian deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Chelsea has been completely isolated from public view since her sentencing hearing in 2013, and due to the military’s harsh policy regarding visitors, virtually no one has actually seen Chelsea Manning since she transitioned from male to female while at the prison. I realized that by using her DNA to give her a public face, I could also give her back some of the visibility that she has been stripped of for years. And I was thrilled at the prospect of working with her.
So, the next time Chelsea was getting a haircut she snatched up some hair clippings. Then she swabbed the inside of her cheeks with a Q-Tip and mailed these items out of the prison. I extracted the DNA and sent it for sequencing, and I analyzed it just like in Stranger Visions, but with one crucial difference: I decided not to profile Chelsea’s genetic sex. She was worried about appearing too masculine and I thought her portrait provided a perfect way to call attention to the shortcomings of DNA phenotyping, which relies on stereotyped ideas of what different kinds of faces are supposed to look like—including sex.
The technique that I use allows me to generate lots of different possible versions of a person's face and then to choose the one I find the most compelling. I generated probably fourteen different Chelseas before settling on the one that spoke to me, and then I generated two variations to represent her: gender neutral, and female (how she self-identifies). These virtual portraits were printed in Paper magazine to accompany the interview with her. The 3-D-printed versions premiered at the World Economic Forum in January of 2016, giving Chelsea Manning a presence at one of the most elite and inaccessible events of the year.
The portraits continue to travel the world, but of course Chelsea still hasn’t seen them in person. I wanted to mail her high-quality 2-D prints of the portraits so she could see them, but I was worried about getting her in trouble. I wasn’t sure what she might or might not be allowed to have. So, I wrote to her first to ask if it was okay. I couldn’t believe her bravery and incredible resilience when she wrote back (almost immediately): “When they chill your speech then they’ve won—so never shut up! Send me whatever—let the lawyers work the free speech angle if there is a problem! (ACLU rocks!)” So of course I sent her the pictures (and she responded that she really likes the androgynous one).
Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Radical Love: Chelsea Manning, 2015
The title of the work, Radical Love, attempts to embody some of Chelsea’s spirit, which I have found so inspiring. In her Paper interview she said: “I don’t consider myself a ‘radical.’ Is it radical to seek justice? Is it radical to be rescued by love? It is subversive to be sweet? Instead of trying to be ‘radical,’ I just try to be true to myself! Is it radical to be true to yourself?” Chelsea resists the idea that her or her ideas are “radical,” a term that can be polarizing and alienating. Instead, she points to how incredibly common it is to love and to simply want to be oneself. For me, Radical Love points to a hope of moving past divisive political boundaries, to building community and new forms of knowledge and policy guided by compassion and empathy—a position which is profound in its simplicity.
But the story doesn’t end there. In November of 2016, with Obama’s exit from the White House looming, I wanted to work on something to assist with Chelsea’s campaign for clemency. I was doing a residency at a company called ThoughtWorks and I was approached by an illustrator who worked for them in India named Shoili Kanungo, who saw my artist talk online and wanted to help. Together with Chelsea we worked against all odds—Shoili in India, me in New York, Chelsea in prison—to create a graphic short story in less than two months documenting our collaboration on Radical Love. The story is called Suppressed Images. Everyone said we were crazy, it was pointless, it would never happen. But we did it anyway.
The comic goes over the whole story I’ve been telling here, in abbreviated form. Written as a dialogue between Chelsea and I, drawing on our actual letters and communications, it narrates our process of working together. But it ends with a speculative twist on the last page: Chelsea’s sentence is commuted by President Obama, and she is released and comes to visit an exhibition of her portraits in person. We published the comic in the early morning of Tuesday, January 17. And then that afternoon, it happened: Obama commuted her sentence. (Clearly, Obama likes comics.)
Needless to say, after working with Chelsea for 1.5 years, I was overjoyed and so proud to have been a very small part of the amazing team that fought so hard for her release.
The takeaway: listen to your gut. People always say things are impossible, but every once in a while really positive things do result from a struggle for justice. And we should never stop envisioning and incanting the future we want to see, because those visions have real power.
Radical Love is a work about forced invisibility. In describing our collaboration, Chelsea said: “Our society's dependence on imagery says a lot about our values. Unfortunately, prisons try very hard to make us inhuman and unreal by denying our image, and thus our existence, to the rest of the world. Imagery has become a kind of proof of existence. Just consider the online refrain ‘pics or it didn't happen.’” Visibility is an assumption. It comes with certain privileges and power. To be invisible is in a sense to cease to exist. Radical Love attempts to give Chelsea Manning back some of this visibility that has been taken from her.
But visibility can also be perilous. Millions of people in government-operated “criminal” DNA databases around the world are already subject to an especially dangerous form of bio-surveillance, which disproportionately targets minority populations, reflecting the racial disparities which permeate the entire “criminal justice system.”
Because people who are biologically related tend to have more similar DNA profiles, partial DNA database matches widen this discriminatory net to encompass entire families. This means that not only is a person who has been arrested or incarcerated subject to bio-surveillance, but their parents, children, siblings, and possibly even more distant relatives are additionally surveilled by extension. This matters because it turns these people into statistical suspects; their presence in the database, or their connection to someone who is, brands them as suspicious. The aim of these kinds of DNA databases, and their measure of success, is always to re-incarcerate. So from these projects, a complex relationship begins to emerge around visibility and vulnerability, and the ways in which today’s technologies demand visibility as, in Chelsea’s words, “a proof of existence.” Yet that very same proof can be exactly what puts you at risk.
People with records in DNA databases or samples in biobanks are obvious examples of genomically visible populations today. This includes customers of direct-to-consumer genetic tests, research subjects, hospital patients, newborns, arrested or incarcerated individuals, and many others. Further, as I show in Stranger Visions, we are all potentially visible and can be made knowable in this way by anyone who is determined enough. This situation in which visibility is compulsory, in which it can even seem desirable (where we want to make ourselves visible and knowable to power), is described by Foucault and others as biopolitical. It describes the way in which power and knowledge entwine to control and shape us, often in almost imperceptible ways.
What I think we need then is a form of biopolitical art which utilizes visuality to expose and undermine the paradox of visibility—a form of art which operates in seemingly contradictory ways, to make the disappeared visible and the apparatus of visibility problematic. It critiques its own form, and it engages biopolitics at the level of materiality, using the medium itself as a site of artistic research to understand and question its dominant position. If art as institutional critique strives to problematize the institutionalization of art—to make visible the political economy and social relations underpinning the field of art, ranging from galleries and museums to curators, trustees, and sponsors—art as biopolitical critique problematizes the biopolitical apparatus in which it is produced, making visible or experiential the power/knowledge relationship that it relies on. It makes power visible in knowledge—in the sense that it creates objects or experiences of knowledge that question dominant power structures, or it reveals the way in which power is enacted. It opens new ways of thinking and experiencing dynamics of the biopolitical, and hopefully, in doing so, it shows a path not only of resistance, but of something other. It isn’t only about critiquing or deconstructing; it’s also about illuminating alternate visions and parallel knowledges, which opens science, and culture more generally, to a possible future which is truly egalitarian.
NOTES1 William C. Thompson, “Forensic DNA Evidence: The Myth of Infallibility,” in Genetic Explanations: Sense and Nonsense (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 252–53.
At Public Books, Tobias Kelly and Sharika Thiranagama review two books that try to outline a radical form of civility: How Civility Works by Keith J. Bybee and Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Philosophy by Étienne Balibar. Pointing out that calls for "civility," which we hear almost daily in our present moment of political acrimony, are often intended to merely uphold the status quo, Kelly and Thiranagama find in these books a kind of civility that can serve opposition politics. Here's an excerpt from the review:
Yet at this of all times, asking for civility seems to miss the point. Calls for civility can be staid and conservative, perhaps even reactionary and acquiescent. What the supporters of right-wing populists deserve is not respect, but confrontation. Being civil when facing gross injustice appears simply hypocritical and inauthentic. Advocating civility can place etiquette and manners above equality and justice, and the call for us all to “get along” risks glossing over serious and important political divisions. In a world of civility, we must wear a mask, hiding our anger from view. Given Trump’s victory, and the xenophobia unleashed by Brexit, for example, we should not be restrained at bigotry and prejudice, but openly and defiantly outraged.
Civility can be deeply enmeshed in forms of exclusion. What counts as civil behavior has historically favored white, bourgeois, male, and heterosexual ways of being in the world. This is not something we need more of right now. Civility is never neutral, but can instead be central to violent and entrenched forms of domination. What can appear as an equable form of respect to some can be threatening to others. When a police officer, for example, stops a car and calls the driver “Sir,” that most polite form of address can either signal a mutual intimacy, or a semi-ironic gesture toward the potential of violence. Long histories of class- and race-based inequality determine the resonance of even seemingly civil utterances.
Still, we should not reject civility entirely. It important to remember the ways in which incivility matters too. People like Trump are not afraid of hurting others’ feelings—and have no hesitation in calling immigrants criminals, Muslims violent, and women ugly. Indeed, that is a large part of their attraction to many supporters. But for those subjected to such disrespect, civility can have its virtues. Outside of the most belligerent forms of populist politics, inequality is experienced and perpetuated by microaggressions: casual denigrations, verbal insults, subtle snubs, and insensitivity. Such incivilities can also serve as the background to more violent acts. Shootings by police officers, for example, do not take place in a vacuum, but are often prefigured by harassment and disrespect. Before we jettison civility entirely, it is important to remember that the burdens of incivility are unequally distributed.
Image: Civil Rights protesters at Woolworth’s Sit-In, Durham, NC, February 10, 1960. Via Public Books.
The January 20, 2017 inauguration ceremony in the US marked a transfer of immense military, financial, social, and legal power to explicitly white nationalists. Highly formalized and symbolic, ceremonies such as these are geared toward fixing power into place. That is why Occupy Museums felt it necessary to call for a counter-ceremony on #J20 that would unfold simultaneously at an American museum. While the ceremony down in DC empowered a figure with an unquenchable drive to dominate and pillage, we felt it was important to inaugurate an era of heightened solidarity and resistance.
More than thirty artists spoke out at the Whitney Museum on #J20. Artists and activists long committed to struggling toward greater justice spoke, sang, and read statements and poems proclaiming values forged through protest and organizing and art-making. These values are not an academic matter: without question we’ll be fighting in the streets to defend them in coming years. They are a beginning.
We have compiled many of these statements and now offer them as tools in our common work ahead: a collective manifesto containing both contradictions and the wisdom of the art community. Starting this week, we will release them in groups and propose themes to help uncover connections between them. This week's statements are by: Gina Beavers, Aruna D’Souza, Avram Finkelstein, Naeem Mohaiemen, Aaron Burr Society, Pamela Sneed, and Dread Scott.
We begin this series thinking about the value of citizenship. How can we accept citizenship in a nation that now officially targets its most vulnerable? Should we think about reclaiming or reframing patriotism? Was American identity ever something that we in the art community and beyond could be proud of, and if so, in which moments? Is there a citizenship of resistance? And what is our intellectual role as citizens: Can we become more discerning with our news consumption, more strategic with our organizing and protesting? How might we position a notion of artist-citizen in the Trump era? How do we on the left connect ourselves to affinity groups, connect affinity groups to larger communities of resistance, and on to the larger picture?
Hi my name is Gina Beavers and I'm an artist. I wanted to wear a “I was alright with the status quo” t-shirt today but I couldn't get it made in time.
The truth is of course that I'm not, there were always things I wanted to change or things that were not improving fast enough: police brutality, the disenfranchisement and oppression of black, brown, and immigrant communities, how easy it is for men to rape women and get away with it, the endless toying with women's health care as a political pawn, the lack of protection against discrimination for LGBTQ people in the majority of our fifty states …
But … there is improving on what we have and there is fighting to get back to where we were on November 8, 2016.
Occupy Museums asks, what can cultural producers do to oppose facism? Whatever kind of work you MAKE, cultural producers need to become better THINKERS. We need criticality, not only for institutions and the quote-unquote “1%” but also amongst ourselves.
How many artists with master’s degrees forwarded me blatantly false “news” items during this election? People who were moralizing and vehement about Haiti or Honduras because they read a single article on the internet. If you had asked them about the state of affairs in that region twenty-four hours earlier, they would have had nothing to say. That is dangerous. Both because they don't care about the developing world until it suits their narrative and because their passions can be turned on and off like a faucet, by master con-men.
Artists! We need to learn how to read skeptically, need to learn about our history, what is happening in the world even when we might not have a stake in it, read opposing viewpoints, analyze different leaders’ motivations for ourselves. We need to study how our mechanisms of government function, need to read up on what our Constitution says, a Civics 101 for artists.
This is not a joke, we got played by our ignorance of all of these issues, by our inability to think constructively and analytically and our inability to focus on the big picture. We got conned. Science writer Maria Konnikova, who wrote the book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It … Every Time, says, “the more we want something to be true, the more skeptical we need to be.” If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are no shortcuts, no purity, no easy paths.
We stand here looking at what we face from the afterglow of the relative safety of an Obama presidency. Sadly, I think it’s still hazy to us how severely we have shot ourselves in our collective foot. But this will become way too clear in the years to come.
The truth is that we need to become better thinkers to become better citizens and better citizens to become artists who can resist fascism.
ARUNA D’SOUZAToday is January 20, a day that many of us will have been anticipating with dread since November 9—indeed, we may have been trying to stave off its arrival by starting to organize, by taking part in protest, by becoming engaged, by becoming enraged. By dreaming of emoluments, by imagining recounts, by poring over intelligence reports, by analyzing voting data, by writing, signing, emailing, phoning, tweeting. By trying to deploy shame against the shameless. By groping for the reset button. By clinging to hope.
This day has arrived anyway, despite our best efforts and our moments of magical thinking. Its arrival doesn’t mean the hope was misplaced or those efforts wasted. We need hope more than ever—the irrational, quixotic, desperate hope that things can get better, even if we know that for so many of us, this moment is just another point in the long march toward the worse, not the beginning of the decline.
The 2016 presidential campaign—the misogyny, the crassness, the silencing of voices, the gaslighting, the violence and the hatred, the racism and the xenophobia, the claims of corruption that obscured actual corruption, and did I mention the misogyny?—was traumatizing. I heard someone compare it to holding one’s breath underwater for too long and then rising to the surface on election day to finally take a gulp of air—only to find the surface frozen. We are caught, collectively, in this impossible, paralyzing, airless state. Our only choice is to adapt, to evolve—or maybe to devolve, to learn again to breathe as we once did, back before we emerged from the water and the mud eons ago. To learn from those artists and activists and citizens who have been declaring “We can’t breathe” for a long time now, and to recognize—too late, but still—that their plight is ours, too. To learn to write and make images and create sounds and forge ideas that provide oxygen in an atmosphere that is choking us.
I speak out today and I march tomorrow not because I want to declare my opposition to what will come to pass. I do it as an acknowledgement that everything we fear has already happened—for people of color, for women and queers, for immigrants, for the poor, for Muslims here and abroad, for victims of our wars, for victims of our economy, for so many others.
I do it now because I should have done it before. I do it now because the singular threat we face is not that of a single man or a single party, and it’s not even that people will suffer—people have already been suffering. I do it now because this may be the last moment to exercise our freedom to resist unless we resist. I speak out today because speaking out is the most potent weapon in a democracy—and I will use it now. I speak out today because speaking out makes me part of a “we”—part of a collective gathering of souls, part of a messy, indefinable coalition that will, I hope, shamble its way to a better place.
Thank you for being here with me. I’m sorry it took me so long. But don’t worry—I’ll catch up.
According to The Guardian, an art strike today is futile. I get that: I’m a pitchfork-and-torches guy myself. But no political action is futile. Ever.
Analyzing the efficacy of political action might be useful for journalists or social historians, but referring to the ebb and flow of political resistance as a success or a failure is to frame it in the language of capital.
To imagine political resistance as an accomplishment is to imagine it as a “thing.” Resistance is not a thing, or an object, or even an objective. It’s a project, and it can’t be acquired. It can only be activated. It needs no endpoint to express its efficacy. And although it dies when we cease participation in it, it’s instantly reborn when someone else takes it up.
In 1981, the man I was building my life around started showing signs of immunosuppression, before AIDS even had its name. By 1984, he was dead, before Rock Hudson was outed by the disease and died, and three years before the formation of the AIDS activist coalition ACT UP.
The isolation I felt compelled me to form a collective with five of my friends, and propose we do a poster. We had no idea what might happen, but we raised our voices anyway. We knew we couldn’t be the only ones who were enraged.
What we discovered, of course, is that we weren’t. Within weeks of wheat-pasting the Silence=Death poster in the streets of New York, we found ourselves surrounded by a community of AIDS activists, a community we didn’t realize existed, a community in search of its voice as well, one that went on to find it through the activation of our shared spaces.
Our collective designed Silence=Death, but it was actually this activist community that created it. Without this community, the poster could have come and gone in the night and you might never have heard of it. This image, as we currently understand it, is a product of collective political action, which can be transformative.
So, why am I here today? In 1968, when I was sixteen, a student came into the common room at the Quaker school in my town, wanting to copy a poster he’d brought back from the May ’68 Strikes in France. He asked me to help him, and that was the day I learned how to silk-screen. That fall, I designed a political poster of my own, when I was learning to use the printing press in shop class. It’s what gave me the idea to suggest making a poster to my collective eighteen years later.
Instead of staying home and writing about shutting the system down during the art strike, as I had planned to, I’m here in the off chance some other sixteen-year-old, visiting the museum with their family today, might hear me say that political resistance is a project every one of us has a part in, and it might push them to change our world in ways we have yet to imagine.
We can’t predict the impact of a political act before we express it, so political agency can ever be referred to as futile. Futility is a word reserved for when we do nothing.
I often look to the past as a prologue to the future. Today, I want to think of pairs of years in the past, as bookends and tidal changes. To remember how far people traveled in their bodies and minds, and as a way to think past this moment of reversal.
The first set of years are 1924 and 1967. The United States Racial Integrity Act was passed in 1924, banning interracial marriages. 1967 was the year of Loving vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that struck down the racial integrity act. The 1967 case was brought by Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man. They had been sentenced to prison in Virginia for marrying each other.
In pleading the case, Richard, a bricklayer with a blond buzzcut, told his lawyers only this: “Tell the court I love my wife.”
The Loving case came back in 2013, when it was cited as precedent in court rulings striking down restrictions against same-sex marriage in the United States.
The second set of years are 1924, again, and 1965. The National Origins Act and Asian Exclusion Act were both passed in 1924, restricting immigration of Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans, especially Jewish migrants. It also restricted the immigration of Africans and banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians.
This was the law of the land for forty years until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 finally removed the national origin quotas.
We are in a time now when political forces want to return us to 1924, or even earlier. Perhaps the true meaning of that red slogan is: MAKE AMERICA 1860 AGAIN.
This is a time when ethnonationalist forces want to decide who we can love, who is welcome in this country, and who should be brutally expelled.
But it is never actually possible to run back forever to the past, much as some may dream of that.
In this context I remember two recent moments in my own experience. In October 2013, I became a naturalized US citizen. The presiding judge at the ceremony was the granddaughter of a Russian Jewish emigre who came over on boat steerage. Cameras were not allowed so I made a quick sketch, copies of which I’ll leave with you. The room was filled with white migrants and migrants of color, precisely the groups some play fear politics with.
In 2016, a week after the election, I attended a Philadelphia wedding. In the couple’s presence on stage—a South Asian Muslim man and his Virginia-born white male partner—I could see the sum of all fears for those who want to march back to the past.
It is necessary to talk about the past within these times. To remember how far this country traveled, and how it may find its way again.
Remember that while some talk about “again,” we can also dream about “again”—in a very different register. The “again” as a place of return can and must be sharply different for us. Ours can be a place of imagining that is the antithesis of fear. In the coming years our future depends on being able to imagine better.
AARON BURR SOCIETY
I’m Jim Costanzo of the Aaron Burr Society. Our namesake shot and killed America’s first capitalist, Alexander Hamilton. However, the Society is nonviolent.
I am going to read a short text from a work in progress. It’s titled wall street in black & white: fotos & text of an occupier.
generations of artistic aristocratic plunderdivine right of kingsinvisible hand of the marketnever raising all boatsmaximize profits no matter the costcontemptuous of the othervariations of white supremacy redefinedalways extracting from the bottom upcorporate systems of exploitationembedded in ancient empiresmad king george hamilton reaganartificial bush(s) neocons neoliberalsclinton(s) obama capitalists alltrumped by fascists turningconsumer against the state
no living wageno dignityloss of identityoutsourced imprisoneddivided conquereddisenfranchised generationsred lined credit deniedno credibility no humanityechoes of genocide slaveryindentured servantsimmigrationsubjugation
Things are bad, very bad.
But this is not the first time that America has had racists, the Klu Klux Klan, corporatists, and fascists in the White House. Many presidents owned slaves. Andrew Jackson owned slaves and deported Native Americans during the Trail of Tears. Woodrow Wilson showed the film Birth of a Nation in the White House. That film inspired the rebirth of the KKK. Wilson then fired all African-Americans working for the federal government.
Vice President Dick Cheney started a war for oil that enriched his company Halliburton. And remember that both of the Bush presidents owned oil companies.
I know many of you from Occupy Wall Street and other movements. We are here in solidarity to refuse and resist. We will not normalize fascism. We will work harder than ever for a universal common good paid for by the commonwealth.
For Sandra Bland
I had just begun to relax celebrate the marriage equality ruling I had just begun feeling with Obama I was watching Ali in trouble off the ropes delivering to his opponents the rope-a-dope my father’s eyes excitement I was just beginning to breathe air feel exhilarated at images of Joe Biden and President Obama running down halls of the White House with rainbow flags like boys with kites-soaring I was just beginning to forgive deaths of my brothers to Aids not forget there should still be tribunals for them and every woman abusedby the medical system I had just begun to turn a corner on Mike Brown, Freddie Gray Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, The massacre at AMEnot think of it all everyday Then the police kill this young Black girl in custody in Texas claim she committed suicide I remember we're a war nation in war times I imagine how James, Bayard, Nina felt seeing a nation turn its dogs, teeth, gas, hoses, bullets, on children, adults, humans I can’t stop thinking about Steve Bikohis battered face they say he hung himself too the world’s outrage who will pray now for us America
16 years oldfrom the suburbs, BostonI’d go into the city shoppingwith my cousin and friendsWe’d venture into Boston Commons, the Park.There were hustlers there, I didn’t know thenwith a set-up table.They played some sort of game with shellshid money under a shell or a plastic cupmoved their hands real quickmade it purposefully look so easynaïve 16 years old, I bet50 dollars, a lot of money for me then.They made it look so easy.You just had to pick the right one.Of course, it was riggedI lostfelt dizzy,sick to my stomachlost my gaze.On Tuesday night after this electionI felt the same way heisted in a shell game.Walking outside on Wednesday, in my neighborhooda white woman who barely ever speaks was cryingasked, “What do we do?”I answered earnestly, a teacher, an artist, professorwho always tries, “I don’t know.”Later, I walked up the street, a white man in an SUVwith the window down drove by.He wore an expensive business suithad a big brown cigarlike when babies are bornexpensive seen only in gangstah films like Goodfellasor on the Sopranos after a kill.He looked happy, smug,that’s when I realized the Trump Presidency is a hustlers gameBallers clubPlayers onlyPimp paradiseWives with teased hair and lots of plastic surgeryon the white BET. They made it all look so easylike a choiceWho knew The American Dream was a side hustle for big businessmenwith all their ugly red white blue striped flag merchandisingavailable at Walmart and Target, I’ll never buy into againWho knewFreedom was a marketing idea/consumer productHallucinatory drug cooked up in some Rove-ian as in Karl type of laboratorysweatshopMaintained by the architects of apartheidFreedom like air if you’re white and male and rich enoughto keep breathingToday, I started to cry as I wroteto my studentsknowing that in everything so far, I’ve tried to protect themand realizing there are places in this worldeven my maternal hands can’t reach.In Poland, the Warsaw ghetto against a Nazi fascist regimeOn Southern Plantations, in fields, in HaitiOn shores of Africa,UprisingThe 60sThe streetsJamesNina BayardMiriamJuneNikkiLorraineAudrePatMalcomMartinBettySekouThe unnamedArtistsPoetsTeachersAlwaysUprising.
From Pamela Sneed, copyright 2017.
I’m Dread Scott(holds up sign and reads from it)“By Reading this, you Agree to Overthrow Dictators.”
It’s a new conceptual artwork I made. It doesn’t have any particular form, the text can spread via email, via written statements, via hand to hand, via whatever way you want. But enough about art. Actually I want to read something by Refuse Fascism. Refusefacsim.org is an organization that called for stopping the Trump-Pence regime before it consolidates fascism in America and it opened with “No! In the name of humanity we refuse to accept a fascist America.” We must stop the Trump-Pence regime before it takes power. That’s happening right now but we still have a very short time before fascism gets consolidated. And their statement, which is a recent statement, said, “The Trump-Pence regime will be more than the sum of the abuses and outrages it plans to perpetrate. If not prevented from ruling it will be, as a regime, fascist. A blatant dictatorship relying on open terror and violence, committing atrocities against groups of people identified as ‘enemies,’ ‘undesirables,’ ‘dangerous to society.’ A Trump-Pence regime would not only be illegitimate; if allowed to go forward, it could be catastrophic for humanity. Protest is important but more than protest is needed. We must actually go all out now to prevent this regime from ruling. We are, this weekend, hundreds of thousands protesting: through staying in the streets to disrupting business as usual for the next few days and into the next week, it could grow together into millions and bring into being a major political crisis to which all the factions in the power structure would have to react.”
We need more than protest. I am glad that the Whitney Museum has opened their doors to us, it would have been better if they closed their doors to us. The #J20 art strike called for museums to be on strike—not to have a better version of what museums do every day. We need to disrupt society. If you believe me and agree that Trump is a fascist—and that term has been used a lot today, very thankfully. But if this is fascism, what would humanity have given if people in 1933 said, “Yes, Hitler, the Nazi party was democratically elected and Hitler was democratically appointed to be chancellor but we’ve read Mein Kampf. We know what’s in that book. We don’t give a damn about your democracy and your systems. If your system put forward a Hitler we will ge rid of that regime.” And in that spirit, any system that puts forward a Trump is illegitimate. I’m sick of people saying we have to have a peaceful transition to power. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders are all actually saying we must collaborate with this fascist. We must not do that. We must make choices about where our allegiance lies and what we will do. Perhaps tomorrow DACA will be ripped up and the Dreamers will start being rounded up and deported. There are millions of people who signed up after coming to this country as children, brought here by their parents from different countries who registered with lists to actually protect themselves and now they are facing deportation by a man who has threatened to register millions of people on databases and deport millions of others.
Trump has gone after some of the most prominent culture in the land, targeting Saturday Night Live and Hamilton. He said that people who burn the American flag should not only be punished with imprisonment but should lose citizenship and become stateless people. As someone who has burned a flag on the steps of the capital, resulting in a landmark court case, I feel this very directly. But I also feel more people should burn flags. These are very dark times and again I’m glad to be here today in solidarity with you. I hope that some of you after this event will come out and demonstrate in the streets—we need to be in the streets. We cannot just sit quietly by and think that even just by meeting here we aren’t normalizing fascism. Fascism gets normalized by individual choices that ordinary people make. When people are asked to make a Muslim registry, some of them are going to say yes. Hopefully, some of them will have the courage of the Edward Snowdens of the world. When some people say, “Look, I am coming to that school or that place of worship to round up people who are undocumented,” other people have to hide them or not hide them. That’s a choice. When a museum like this and other museums are asked to go on strike, it is a choice to say, “We will open our doors wider.” I like the Whitney Museum: they collect my work, I’m friends with some of the curators. I really appreciate what it does in society. But we all are making choices with the work we make, the work we show, the conversations we have, the work we write about. I’m speaking again to the arts community right now because that’s who my colleagues and peers are. That’s mostly who is gathered in this room. And what do we do to not just quietly go by perhaps complaining here and there, but actually stop fascism? This is very very serious. We don’t have a lot of time.
In 1933 things were bad but you could still protest. I was talking with a survivor of the Holocaust who actually escaped Germany in 1938 and some of her family didn’t and she told me just two days ago that by 1936 you couldn’t speak out. People couldn’t speak out. People couldn’t resist. Someone earlier said basically same thing: we have the freedom right now, I don’t think its so much freedom that is granted by the constitution but that’s a whole different question. I don’t want to go back to November 8. This country was a nightmare before, it’s a country founded on slavery and genocide and we actually need revolution to get to a society that would actually benefit the majority of humanity but to do that we actually need to stop fascism. And we really need to recognize that the activism that we have done in the past, the art that we have done in the past, the poetry that we have done in the past, the songs that we’ve done in the past, the communities that we’ve built in the past, are not enough. We have to act differently. We have to aim higher, we have to be willing to risk, we have to be willing to go much further. And the final thing I’ll end on is a quote from Pastor Niemöller, not the famous one of “first they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist,” and ending up with “then they came for the Protestants and there was no one left to speak out for me.” But a quote that he said actually after he was arrested and imprisoned and got out of Nazi concentration camps. He said: “Look, if the Protestant church had resisted in the ’30s, it would have cost lives—probably 30 or 40,000 priests would have died. But wouldn’t that have been worth it?” And that’s the question that is before us today. How will humanity look at this time and how will we be judged? Did we do everything we could to stop this regime, including driving it from power. Driving it from power. I don’t want to talk about what we’re going to do in 2018 or 2020. This regime needs to be stopped now. Nixon won by a landslide; he was gone a year and a half later. They can be drive from power. We are millions but we’ll have to act on that with courage. Thank you.
All videos: Owen Crowley, 2017.
ARCHITECTURE CONVERSATIONS: JON GOODBUN RESPONDS TO DANIEL BIRNBAUM AND SVEN-OLOV WALLENSTEIN, "SPATIAL THOUGHT"
Who or what are the Immaterials? What is their nature? What is their culture? And how and why did they come to inhabit a labyrinth on the fifth floor of the Pompidou Centre for a number of months during 1985? What did they do in there? And what did they say? What was the meaning of their occupation of that building, in that city?
In seeking to answer the questions above, we must consider the primary artefacts and texts through which the Immaterials emerge. In “Spatial Thought,” Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein suggest that the project of Les Immatériaux has two main components: the exhibition itself and an essay by Lyotard published concurrently, entitled “The Sublime and the Avant-garde.” However, as soon as these two components are engaged with, a network of other documents, records and artefacts emerge. In addition to the exhibition catalogue texts, there is an experimental interactive text inspired by the work of British cybernetic artist Roy Ascot entitled “Les Immatériaux—Epreuves d’écriture” in which twenty six intellectuals (including Jaques Derrida and Isabelle Stengers) recursively riffed upon fifty keywords given by Lyotard. Furthermore, there are a series of commentaries by Lyotard and others given before, during and after the exhibition, all of which become fascinatingly complicated when considered together with any attempt to critically comprehend the building and institution within which they take shape.
In this brief response I will argue that a specifically abstract spatial analysis is necessary to grasp what is at stake in Lyotard’s conception of Les Immatériaux and why we need to study their host structure to fully understand the double interiority of their nature. More than thirty years after their occupation and on the fortieth anniversary of their architecture, the questions that arise from Jean-François Lyotard’s spatial thought continue to be, as Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein suggest, superhuman.
Writing in 1977, Alan Colquhoun reminds us via Raymond Williams that the development of “culture” has, following the industrial revolution, become a task of the bourgeois state. In his essay "Plateau Beaubourg," Colquhoun notes that the Pompidou was the product of “a government intellectually honest enough to admit the reality of political power and vigorous enough to act upon it.”¹ He argues that the briefing documents of the Pompidou constituted a distinct political project that attempted to give both spatial and urban form to the production of a modern mass culture and voice to “aspirations, still latent” of “the people.” Reflecting upon this problematic reassertion of principles from the historic avant-garde as a means of producing a new mass culture, Colquhoun writes: “we are presented with a conception of functionalist and expressionist art which is a rehash of the catchphrases of the twenties as if nothing had happened in the intervening forty years.” Importantly, for Colquhoun, this means that the Pompidou was formed around a double contradiction. Firstly, it was an institution performing the cultural tasks of the historical bourgeois beaux-art that adopted the avant-garde and populist stance. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, within the conception of the avant-garde itself was an unresolved contradiction in its desire to create a new human subject by giving form to forces—of modernization—that destroy the possibility of an autonomous human subject.
In the essay, Colquhoun demonstrates how the unique design proposal developed by Richard Rodgers and Renzo Piano further figures and intensifies these issues in ways that are important for our understanding of the Immaterials. Notably, he argues that by organizing the building around a paradoxically functionalist conception of radical flexibility and transparency, the architects suggest that it is not possible to give direct formal expression or mediation to any conception of culture. This left only the building services and movement of people as material for architectural expression, and “according to the schematic plan, human circulation and the movement of mechanical systems belong to the same category.” In the same gesture, it’s noted that the production of an interior landscape of flexibility demands “the invention of a new kind of bureaucrat—the programmer.” Reflecting at various points upon what all of this means with respect to the possibility of architecture to give form to, and to assert the “positive values” of modernization, Colquhoun concludes that we are confronted with a building determined by:
two fundamental decisions: that the building should be conceived of as a well-serviced shed and that its symbolism should be concerned with its mechanical support systems. The first has resulted in too schematic an interpretation of the brief … the second has resulted in a building which idealizes process to the exclusion of any idea of what this ‘process’ should be aimed. Both decisions presuppose that ‘culture’ is an absolute which cannot be mediated by any final form and that its achievement must be indefinitely postponed. If this were true, all language, not only that of architecture, would be impossible.
What then, is meant by “the immaterial” in Lyotard’s exhibition, associated texts and ideas? We must start by stating that the immaterial is not the non-material, the virtual or the abstract, or at least not in any simple sense. In fact, if we are to use single terms from the binary pairs of western enlightenment thought—where matter is found coupled with pattern, form or energy—then then the immaterial is actually closer to the non-pattern or post-form. But even this does not entirely capture what is in play, for it is the experience of the end of this entire “modern” world view constructed out of binary oppositions—such as pattern/matter, form/substance, nature/culture, art/science, abstract/concrete, energy/matter—that is at stake. In the exhibition catalogue, Lyotard states:
In the tradition of modernity, the relation of the human with materials is fixed by the Cartesian program: to become master and possessor of nature. A free will imposes its ends to the given sense data to divert them away from their natural sense. It will determine their end with the help of language which allows it to articulate what is possible (a project) and to impose it upon what is real (matter).²
This “relation of the human with materials” has been transformed through the cybernetic transformation of production in the post-war period, bringing about “new modes of perception, representation and symbolization, corresponding to new means of decision, conception and production.” While it was not that our binary perception was wrong as such, we do experience the insights of a cybernetic or ecological perception as a more truthful or accurate account of our world. Yet as the one thing we cannot easily see is ourselves looking, we are only dimly aware that the systemic complexity of matter revealed by contemporary practices is not in any simple sense more “accurate,” but also a labor; a condition of the ever more ecologically extended and technical metabolism of capitalism in nature.
If the project of Les Immatériaux is to move beyond the various modern dualisms, it is not a simple negation where immaterial equals non-material, but rather an enfolding, where the immaterial stands for a conception of the immanent-material or immanenterial. It is in this sense that the immaterial or immanenterial, as immanently patterned or informed matter, is one way of conceiving what we mean by information (in-formed-matter); a hylo-semiotic ecology of mind.
In this way, the Cartesian worldview becomes enfolded within a more complex recursive model. And this more complex model is our mode of perception insofar as it is the form of our contemporary mode of production (of nature, of ourselves…) Thus the insights of (radical, second-order) cybernetics have a double character: firstly, in the post-war period, they technically facilitated the total reorganization of the “three ecologies” (personal, social, environmental), and secondly, they allowed us to see the nature of this condition anew. In a certain sense it is therefore cybernetics that has played out the program of the avant-garde. Thus for Lyotard, “The insecurity, the loss of identity, the crisis is not expressed only in economy and the social, but also in the domains of the sensibility, of the knowledge and the power of man (futility, life, death), the modes of life (in relation to work, to habits, to food … etc.).”
So, how did Lyotard attempt to bring this complex condition into popular experience? First of all, initially entitled Création et matériaux nouveaux, the exhibition was first conceived as a collaboration between the different departments of the Centre Pompidou (specifically the CCI (Centre de Creation Industriel) and the MNAM (Museé National D’Art Moderne and IRCAM) long before Lyotard came to be involved. Lyotard’s re-imagining of the exhibition as Les Immatériaux was thus achieved by two primary moves: firstly, the adoption of a labyrinthine and distinctly urban form for the experiential organization of the exhibition, and secondly, the adoption of a hylo-cybernetic communication model as the structuring principle of the labyrinth’s semiotic organization.
The exhibition was organized according to the cybernetic communication theory diagram developed by Claude Shannon and Norbert Weiner from Harold Lasswell (and later adopted by Roman Jackobson): “who/says what/in which channel/to whom/with what effect.” This model was deployed alongside a pseudo-etymological conflation of five words, all with an Indo-European root “Mat,” meaning to make by hand, to build, to measure: matériau (medium), materiel (receiver), maternité (emitter), matière (referent), and matrice (code).³
While the adoption of a message structure from communication theory might seem to risk being far too static and “first order” for the job at hand—for example by not recognizing the effects of feedback and recursion, that a message at one level of iteration can act as a medium at another— a “second order” experience of the Immaterials was be generated by its metropolitan and labyrinthine spatialization.
At the same time as the Pompidou’s briefs were being formulated with the the avant-garde problematic that Colquhoun outlined above, Manfredo Tafuri was in Venice reflecting upon the same crisis facing architecture and urbanism under “postmodern” conditions:
Modern urbanism—inasmuch as it is a Utopian attempt to preserve a form for the city, or, rather, to preserve a principle of form within the dynamics of urban structures—has not been able to realize its models. And yet within urban structures the whole contribution of the historical avant-garde lives on with a particular pregnancy. The city as an advertising and self-advertising structure, as an ensemble of channels of communication, becomes a sort of machine emitting incessant messages: indeterminacy itself is given specific form, and offered as the only determinateness possible for the city as a whole. In this way form is given to the attempt to make the language of development live, to make it a concrete experience of everyday life.⁴
Les Immatériaux captures the indeterminacy identified by Tafuri, and in a sense completes what Colquhoun identified as the impossible avant-garde brief of the Pompidou, by conjuring a city of double internality within the fifth floor of the building (doubly internalized: inside the city, and within the Beaubourg as a certain model of the city). The labyrinth then, becomes not just the symbol of a rhizomatic ecology of mind, but specifically makes a claim for urban experience as the recursive form and content of the immaterial, and of language in general (a point being made contemporaneously by architectural thinkers such as Bernard Tschumi and Tafuri again). But perhaps the labyrinth itself can do even more work for us. The labyrinth is, in fact, a word of unknown etymology, so perhaps today we can suggest our own pseudo-etymological connection between labor (labyr) and labyrinth, together with an unorthodox reading of Lazzarato. The labyrinth of the Immaterials is then both a spatialized mediation of immaterial labor and a future avant-garde laboratory of general intellect. “Once the privileged domain of the bourgeoisie and its children, these activities have since the end of the 1970s become the domain of what we have come to define as ‘mass intellectuality.’”⁵
¹ Alan Colquhoun, “Plateau Beaubourg,” Architectural Design, vol. 47, n. 2 (1977).² Jean Francois Lyotard, Les Immatériaux catalogue, Album (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 1985), 16.³ While the root of “matter” contains a gendering impulse (as it is also the root of “maternal”), and in the classic Cartesian pairing of matter/pattern we find the paternal figure giving form to the matrix, Lyotard reflected on the transsexuality of Immaterials. See Lyotard’s extensive quoting from Catherine Millot’s book Horsexe: Essays on Transexuality in Jean Francois Lyotard, "After Six Months of Work..." (1984) in 30 Years after Les Immatériaux: Art, Science, and Theory, eds. Yuk Hui and Andreas Broeckmann (Milton Keynes: Meson Press, 2016), 42–44.⁴ Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia – Design and capitalist Development (Cambridge: MIT, 1976), p.166–169.⁵ See ➝
Dr. Jon Goodbun leads the Department of Ontological Theatre at the Royal College of Art in London, runs a seminar on the MArch at the Bartlett UCL, and manages the history and theory module on the MSc Architecture and Environmental Design the University of Westminster. He is currently working on the publication of his doctoral research entitled The Architecture of the Extended Mind: towards a critical urban ecology. Recent publications include The Design of Scarcity (Strelka Press, 2014), co-authored with Andreas Rumpfhuber, Michael Klein and Jeremy Till.
An earlier version of this piece was originally presented by the author at State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016.
Text by Diana Anders
References to America’s “collective trauma” have become increasingly common since Donald Trump won the presidential election. In a recent New York Times op-ed, for example, Professor Neil Gross contends that the aftermath of Trump’s election exhibits all the “telltale signs of collective trauma.”1 He applies this diagnosis to disempowered white working-class Trump voters, but places greater emphasis on its tightening grip on those who ended up voting for Hillary Clinton. Charles Figley, chair of the Disaster Mental Health program at Tulane University, maintains that we are witnessing “all the hallmarks of collective trauma,” limiting the diagnosis to “those who assumed Hilary Clinton would be elected.”2 Collective trauma and cultural trauma are sometimes used interchangeably,3 but both are thought to emanate from formidable “cultural upheaval” and challenges to peoples’ normative or “assumptive worlds.”4 This characterization of our current condition is echoed elsewhere, especially in mental health circles dealing with trauma in its various forms.5
Collective trauma is not a new concept, though it is typically applied to communities most impacted by catastrophic events.6 This has included US citizens after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, black South Africans in the wake of Apartheid, Holocaust survivors and even their offspring, and communities hit hard by the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, for example.7 And yet the concept struggles to gain traction as either a mental health diagnosis expanded to a group or as a useful analytic framework for describing various forms of social malaise or distress produced by historico-political events, especially those that fall short of the cataclysmic. The rise of Trumpism may feel catastrophic to many, but it is unclear whether collective trauma aptly captures the destabilizing and disturbing circumstances it has occasioned.
Although some part of me is sympathetic to this sweeping diagnosis as a means of underscoring my deep sense of emergency in this political moment, the “collective trauma” label gives me pause for a number of reasons. My concern stems in part from the imprecision and confusion that surrounds the designation, but also from the political work that it may be doing, undoing, or proscribing. I want to raise the possibility that pronouncements of collective trauma have a certain depoliticizing pull, insofar as they take the form of a palliative defense against “politically induced suffering” and an ethical plea over and against “politics” to recognize and remedy an ailing and vulnerable collective.8 If nothing else, this kind of inquiry provides an opportunity to meditate on the growing tendency to place various modes of social suffering and discontent in the psychological rubric of trauma.
My reflections here grow out of a strong sense that those who invoke the collective trauma diagnosis are not necessarily using the term metaphorically or hyperbolically; rather, it is figured by many members of the field of mental health as a real, public-health phenomenon that extends beyond discreet individuals and somehow resides in the social body, or part thereof.9 Contemporary diagnoses of collective trauma can in large part be traced back to Emile Durkheim’s theory of collective trauma. He argued that “norms, values and rituals were linchpins of the social order; they provided the basis for solidarity and social cohesion. Collective trauma occurs when an unexpected event severs the ties that bind community members to one another.”10 This understanding dominates recent references to Trump-based collective trauma. For example, Jack Saul, head of the International Trauma Studies Program, links collective trauma to disruptions of the “social and moral order,” and notes that “long-term chronic oppressions” as well as sudden events such as tsunamis or war can precipitate this phenomenon.11
Collective trauma’s more recent instantiations have retained some of the ambiguities of Durkheim’s model. For instance, it’s not always clear who qualifies as the collective victim in the post-Trump scenario, and how the boundaries around distinct collectivities are to be drawn. Another frequently elided issue is whether or not it relies on an understanding of a collective psyche of sorts, and what that might consists in, if so. Furthermore, collective trauma diagnosticians shy away from the question of what the term “trauma” can do that less psychologized/medicalized descriptions cannot. Another inclination in this emergent field is to simply plug in terms commonly ascribed to individuals when describing collective trauma’s symptoms, thereby glossing over important differences between trauma’s individual and collective manifestations.12 Although the disruption of shared normative frameworks is frequently sited as the origin of collective trauma, few attempts have been made to historicize and specify what those shared norms might be in this case (and, again, who shares them), or the power relations that produce, accompany, and authorize those norms. If we are indeed witnessing the rise of a collective pathology marked by “trauma,” to which definition of trauma are we subscribing?13 And relatedly, this rush to trauma raises questions about the relationship between this trend and the over-diagnosis of trauma and PTSD as applied to individuals.14 Is the former simply another expression of the latter? Finally, these recent diagnoses often fall short when it comes to elaborating on remedial options. What might a collective therapeutics even look like here? Where might we look for possible examples?
Diagnoses of collective trauma share points of overlap with what political theorist Wendy Brown sees as the ascendance of “victimization” politics over the last several decades. She perceives this as a “dominant modality of contemporary political discourse, a tendency that leads even those who do not appear overtly victimized to claim victim status.”15 This status, she argues, has become an increasingly common basis for shoring up political identity that can then serve as a platform for demanding recognition, rights, and remedy. In this model, injury or victimhood serves as the binding agent in the face of social fragmentation and alienation, even impotence (precisely what Durkheim and his contemporary followers see as the source of collective trauma). But what if it also reproduces forms of fragmentation, alienation, and impotence as well? Brown alerts us to this potentiality in her books States of Injury and Politics Out of History, pointing to ways in which recourse to collective identities grounded in injury can come at a cost. I will briefly outline a few of them with respect to the emergent collective trauma diagnosis—not to argue that it necessarily does these things, but to underscore its susceptibility to them.
One of the pitfalls of the kind of victimization/trauma politics Brown outlines is the ways collectivities can be reduced to their injuries (especially if there is little aside from their “trauma” that unifies or adds content to the category, which is the case here). The appeal to sympathy that is also a faint call to political action in the name of the traumatized collective victim paradoxically presumes and risks reifying a (collective) docile subject in the Foucauldian sense. My point is not that trauma (in its individual or collective incarnations) necessarily or solely entails docility and passivity, but rather that the domination conjures up an image of a “shattered” and “lost” subject, lacking in vitality, buoyancy, focus, and organization.16 Judith Herman’s highly influential work on trauma sums up this connotation nicely when she refers to trauma as “an affliction of the powerless.”17 The cri de couer associated with the identifying trauma can easily shade into a call for protection and remedy on the injured party’s behalf.18 In other words, this discourse intimates a certain kind of subject that may not be reducible to its vulnerability and incapacity, but is by definition hobbled and identified as in need of a certain kind of recognition, protection, and care. This is not in itself a nefarious thing (it goes without saying that recognizing suffering is central to its possible alleviation), and yet, as Foucault has pointed out, new categories of subjectivity invariably invite new possibilities for regulation and subjection. Also at play here are the unavowed attachments to one’s own (or others’) suffering and impotence that can crowd out or eclipse alternative, potentially more active and empowering visions of social and political suffering. Such alternatives would ideally extend beyond a focus on the helplessness of injury, such that resilience and resistance would be recognized as equally “proper” to it. Again, I am not arguing that designations of collective trauma necessarily presume docility or succeed in rendering the traumatized collective docile and condemned to suffering. I am instead flagging a notable (if somewhat naturalized) predilection to psychologize political and social problems that often summon up images of incapacity. The rush to trauma sheds light on the need for critical reflections on some of the possible implications of the ascendance of trauma- and victim-centered politics in an era wherein trauma is often taken to be that which embodies “the most unacceptable suffering” and “symbolizes at best a radical fringe of what is human.”19
Another potential consequence of this kind of diagnosis is that different and overlapping forms and degrees of marginalization, suffering, and victimization (here resulting in “trauma”) are often homogenized, equalized, and abstracted from the conditions and contexts from which they spring. Collective trauma, as Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman put it, has a tendency to homogenize and thus “obliterate experience,” and obscures the specificity of “social relations, historical realities and political situations.”20 At issue is the unmarked violence that often accompanies the construction of the “we” (or “they”) and the failure to differentiate within and between particular collectivities with respect to uneven exposure to symbolic and structural violence (the All Lives Matter movement as an answer to Black Lives Matter powerfully sums up this colonizing move). Blanket descriptions of collective traumas risk trivializing the important differences between specific experiences of privilege, violence, and suffering unevenly apportioned by historically embedded discrimination and inequality in both more manifest and subtle ways, and shot through with class, racial, ethnic, national, and gendered differences. The failure to account for those differences is also the failure to make visible the various forms of violence producing and perpetuating them.
When we consider that disappointed Clinton supporters and genocide survivors are placed under the same diagnostic “collective trauma” category without adequate qualification, and in a political and cultural climate wherein a portion of Trump’s supporters, for example, claim traumatized/victim status as a result of “foreigners” taking “their” jobs (another extreme expression of this would be white supremacists’ claims of “White Genocide” in the face of interracial marriage and movements aimed at combatting entrenched and widespread racialized violence targeting people of color), we are reminded of some of the reasons for being cautious when turning to collective injury as a grounds for registering and remedying social discontent or fostering political change. Not all injuries or traumas are equal, and some collective claims to traumatized or victimized status authorize and engender their own forms of trauma and victimization for other individuals and collectivities. In a world where Donald Trump can represent the working class and identify as a victim, it behooves us to reflect on the political import of the emerging competitive market of “who’s most victimized, who’s most traumatized?” In this sense, we can begin to see an unsettling compatibility between neoliberalism’s core principle of competition and victim politics’ bids for traumatized status.
I am less interested in determining if the collective trauma diagnosis in this case is an expression of victim politics than I am in pointing out the ways in which the category’s increased circulation indicates a shift in the moral and political landscape. As such, it requires careful, critical analyses of who and what identifies as traumatized, and the expectations surrounding what that status might afford. My intention here is not to suggest that the concept of collective trauma holds no promise or is an irrevocably inadequate description of particular aspects of a post-election Trump slump. Clearly those—especially mental health workers—mobilizing this particular term are doing so as a means to respond to the varied and real social and individual forms of suffering that Trumpism has engendered, triggered, and exacerbated. They laudably seek to draw public attention to what they perceive as a public emergency and a profound political and social set of problems and modes of violence that cannot be swept under the rug or merely dealt with in the privacy of the home or the therapist’s office. But given the extent to which the concept is fraught with obfuscation, the ways in which it is hastily diagnosed and insufficiently theorized, and the aforementioned risks of assigning collective trauma, I have a hard time giving it much credence in its current forms as a powerful tool to attenuating suffering or as a catalyst for social, psychological, and political change. What is more, I see it as a potential means of reducing what could be healthy anger and despair21 into a monolithic injury that enfeebles a much-needed constituency in the struggle against Trumpism and all that it entails.
Keeping in mind that collective trauma is most often seen as emanating from disruptions to a collective’s shared normative foundations, it seems equally tenable that targeted disruptions and contestation of these foundations could supply a powerful means of both activating enervated and melancholic segments of the population and trouble the exclusionary effects of fantasies of collective sameness (which is precisely what the recent women’s marches around the US and world have endeavored to spearhead and embody). One implication of recent proclamations of collective trauma is that this sick collective is suffering from too much politics and not enough community and commonality—wherein community is conceived of as the antidote to politics and is rooted in “shared values”/a presupposed sameness. Here I’m positing that perhaps some of the suffering in question can be traced to a more general retreat from the necessary volatility and plurality of politics in a radical democratic sense and an overreliance on pacified, standardized, and calcified conceptions of the collective. For instance, might “traumatized” Clinton supporters in part be suffering from the realization that their attachments to “shared values” may have been phantasmatic—that is, not so shared and secured in the first place—or from a dawning awareness of the ways they/the values they subscribe to may have been complicit in others’ suffering? When the salve to politically induced suffering is limited to registering injury/psychological-social disorder, then active modes of collective resistance and political existence are at risk of being deferred and/or diffused.
Features of Hannah Arendt’s work come to mind here for a few reasons: not only did she attempt to theorize the preconditions for totalitarianism and the latter’s penchant for reducing the population to a homogenous (master) race22 (think: Trump’s border wall and anti-Muslim executive order), but she also put forth a model of democratic politics based on the principles of action (vita activa), plurality, and natality that I think might serve us well here. For Arendt, politics in a democratic sense is centered on collective, participatory action and antagonistic debate. There are certainly drawbacks to Arendt’s conception of politics, but for the purposes of the collective trauma phenomenon I’ve attempted to sketch here, Arendtian politics evokes a capable and dynamic collective and individual political subject, one with the potential to recover, resist, and even revolt (despite and because of their suffering). On this model, plurality serves not only as the “conditio sine qua non,” but also the “conditio per quam” of politics.23 In other words, difference or plurality is the source, not the demise of, politics and the collectivities that animate it. It is only through vigorous and sometimes charged interaction with others (who are by definition not the same), airing one’s views and making judgments, that free human communities are sustained. “Natality” is Arendt’s term for humans’ capacity to create something unexpected and is predicated upon our uniqueness, our inherent plurality.24 Politics seen in this light is not reducible to that which quashes the individual and communal ties. It presents an opening for an ongoing, demanding, and creative process of making the world anew with others and a sustained practice of determining and evaluating (and sometimes undoing) what counts as shared values. As idealistic or anachronistic as it might seem, I sketch this scene of vitalized collective existence and robust political engagement in the spirit of radical imaginings of the present and otherwise futures, and as a counter to a uniform but etiolated collective suffering from “PTTSD.”×
Image via The Atlantic.
NOTES1 Neil Gross, “Is This Collective Trauma?” New York Times, December 18, 2016.2 Neha Thirani Bagri, “An Unfortunate Side Effect of Collective Identity is Collective Trauma,” Quartz, January 20, 2017 →.3 Some mental health professionals, such as Ronald Eyerman, professor of sociology at Yale University, make a clear distinction between the two. For Eyerman, collective trauma is always at risk of becoming cultural trauma, which he regards as more serious and even potentially violent. See ibid., and Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering, eds. Ronald Eyerman, Jeffrey C. Alexander, and Elizabeth Butler Breese (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2013).4 John A. Updegraff, Roxane Cohen Silver, and E. Alison Holman, “Searching for and Finding Meaning in Collective Trauma: Results From a National Longitudinal Study of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no. 3 (2008): 709–22.5 See, for example: Gail Sheehy, “America’s Therapists are Worried About Trump’s Effect on Your Mental Health,” Politico, October 10, 2016 →; Julie Beck, “How to Deal with Post-Election Stress,” The Atlantic, November 10, 2016 →; Bagri, “An Unfortunate Side Effect.” University of Minnesota psychologist William J. Doherty has drawn up a manifesto for psychotherapists working to resist and respond to this “collective crisis,” and commissioned a study to document its extensive reach and impact: “A Public Manifesto,” Citizen Therapists Against Trump →.6 See, for example: Didier Fassin and Fichard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2009); Dominick LeCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2001).7 See, for example: Alexander L. Veerman and R. Ruard Ganzevoort, “Communities Coping with Collective Trauma,” 2001 →; Yael Danieli, Introduction to International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma (New York: Plenum Press, 1998); Carol A. Kidron, “Surviving a Distant Past: A Case Study of the Cultural Construction of Trauma and Descendant Identity,” Ethos, vol. 31, no. 4 (December 2003).8 Wendy Brown. “The Most We Can Hope For…’: Human Rights and the Politics of Fatalism,” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3 (Spring–Summer 2004): 451–63.9 Collective trauma can be viewed as an emergent and multivalent discourse and field of study that has affinities with, and points of origin from, a variety of disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, social psychology, psychoanalysis, Holocaust studies, trauma studies, restorative justice, and anthropology. See, for example: Jeffrey C. Alexander, Trauma: A Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012); Updegraff, Silver, and Holman, “Searching for and Finding Meaning in Collective Trauma”; Jack Saul, Collective Trauma, Collective Healing: Promoting Community Resilience in the Aftermath of Disaster (New York: Routledge, 2014); Cultures Under Siege: Collective Violence and Trauma, eds. Antonius C. G. M. Robben and Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000).10 Gross, “Is This Collective Trauma?”11 Beck, “How to Deal with Post-Election Stress.”12 For instance, William Doherty (see note 5 above) proposes that, in the context of collective trauma, individuals turn to friends and community rather than “another a glass (or bottle) of wine” (Sheehy, “America’s Therapists are Worried”). Although this speaks to the importance of connection to others and implies a less passive, isolated account of trauma, it still does not attend to the difference between individual and collective suffering, and is thus symptomatic of the slippages one tends to see in this bourgeoning field.13 The unconscious is markedly absent from these contemporary discussions of collective trauma, which both partially explains and results from a certain avoidance of psychoanalytic theory on the part of the diagnosticians in question. Sigmund Freud’s forays into the mechanisms of group psychology in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego accommodate an understanding of the unconscious, libidinal drives that animate the group dynamic and preserve its unity and purpose. His work on trauma, however, remained squarely in the realm of individual psychology, and steered clear of collective applications. He was wary of “attempt[s] of this kind to carry psychoanalysis over to the cultural community … [I]t is dangerous, not only with men but also with concepts, to tear them from the sphere in which they have originated and been.” Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1962), 338. Freud’s understandings of idealization and melancholic attachment in the group setting seem potentially more useful as frameworks for comprehending the sense of despair ostensibly felt by many Clinton supporters in the aftermath of Trump’s victory.14 See, for example: David Dobbs, “Post Traumatic Stress Trap,” Scientific American, April 2009; Alice Kerekezi, “How PTSD Took Over America,” Salon, November 15, 2011; Wulf Kansteiner, “Genealogy of a Category Mistake: A Critical Intellectual History of the Cultural Trauma Metaphor,” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 8 (2004).15 Wendy Brown, Politics Out of History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2001), 54.16 Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1992).17 Ibid., 33.18 Much has been written about the ways in which an analogous “victim politics” has taken hold in the international arena (for example in the case of humanitarian intervention, international development programs, and campaigns to “spread democracy” abroad), and the troubling ways in which politics in the name of protecting or aiding traumatized or suffering segments of humanity abroad can produce forms of regulation and domination for the very populations it endeavors to help. See, for example: Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity: A Short History of Humanitarianism (Ithica, NY: Cornell UP, 2011); In The Name of Humanity, eds. Ilana Feldman and Miriam Ticktin (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010); Postcolonial Disorders, eds. Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good and Sandra Teresa Hyde (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); and Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions, eds. Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi (Brooklyn: Zone Book, 2010).19 Fassin and Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 22.20 Ibid., 280–81.21 See Robin Marasco, The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory After Hegel (New York: Columbia UP, 2015).22 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1979).23 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 7–8.24 Ibid., 177–78.
The website Political Critique reports that the Visual Culture Research Centre in Kiev was ransacked by a gang of masked thugs in recent days. They assaulted a security guard and destroyed the exhibition currently on view, “The Lost Opportunity” by artist and activist Davyd Chychkan, which reflects on the Maidan uprising as "a lost opportunity for Ukrainian society to accomplish a social revolution," according to the artist. The attackers reportedly shouted “Hail Ukraine” and “Moscow’s minions” while they were in the building. The Visual Culture Research Centre in Kiev, founded in 2008, describes itself as "a platform for collaboration between academics, artists and activists."
Political Critique is the website of Krytyka Polityczna, a Polish network of left-leaning intellectuals, artists, and institutions. In their article on the attack, they express their solidarity with the VCRC, writing that "we are ready to support the centre in Kiev in every possible way." Here's an excerpt from the article:
Anonymous perpetrators attacked Davyd Chychkan’s exhibition “The Lost Opportunity” organised by Visual Culture Research Centre in Kiev. More than 15 masked men stormed into the building and terrorised a security guard – beating him and spraying tear gas. They destroyed the exhibition, smashed the art pieces and demolished the walls with hammers. While some of them were intimidating the guard, others sprayed the walls with “Hail Ukraine” and “Moscow’s minions” graffiti...
For Davyd Chychkan, his political activism is inseparable from the artistic practice. As an anarchist, with his artistic works (from street art, to graphic series) he politicises the discourse of contemporary Ukrainian art, turning it into an instrument for political transformation of society...
We want to express our solidarity with our friends from Kiev. The cultural centre being run by VCRC is a place we admire and esteem. Krytyka Polityczna has been supporting and cooperating with VCRC for years. The centre was a place where Political Critique editorial team met with contributors from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, and Belarus. In 2015 VCRC was granted the Princess Margriet Award by the European Cultural Foundation. “Their commitment to nurturing a vibrant and inclusive environment involves a broader public in cultural participation and underscores the pivotal role that culture plays in the democratic development of Europe’s communities,” said Katherine Watson, ECF Director.
Image via politicalcritique.org.
Writing for Pacific Standard, Malcolm Harris pushes back against critics of last week's confrontational protest at UC Berkeley that forced the cancellation of a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a prominent "alt-right" author and provocateur. While critics suggest that the confrontational tactics of "antifa" (anti-fascist) demonstrators only alienate average people and feed support for the "alt-right," Harris argues that in the current US political climate, where bona fide fascists exercise real political power (e.g., Steve Bannon), there is evidence for broad support of antifa tactics. Here's an excerpt from the article, which is entitled "Meet Antifa, the Most Reasonable People in America":
The most aggressive edge of the resistance marches under the banner of anti-fascism, or “antifa.” While most Americans would likely agree that “fascism is bad,” anti-fascism is a more specific set of politics. The antifa banner features black and red flags, signifying an alliance between anarchists and communists. What unites these two groups (who have been known to kill one another from time to time) is a commitment to confront and defeat fascists and white supremacists by whatever means necessary. It’s a coalition that has existed for as long as fascism has; the Italian Arditi del Popolo (People’s Squads) rose to fight Mussolini in 1921, even when the Socialist and Communist Parties refused to support them. In 1924, anarchist lumberjacks allied with the Industrial Workers of the World waged a “drawn battle” with a Ku Klux Klan recruitment drive in Greenville, Maine. American anti-fascists have been fighting a mostly quiet conflict with domestic Nazis at punk rock venues and small white-nationalist gatherings for decades, but, as fascists have snuck their collective jackboot into the curved door of the Oval Office, the struggle has reached the mainstream.
Antifa hit the big-time in 2017 when an as-yet-unidentified inauguration protester punched 38-year-old professional fascist cheerleader Richard Spencer in the face on camera. The clip went viral, and the Internet memed it to death—now you can even punch Spencer in a mobile game! As the video spread, interest in anti-fascism spiked, and I can say, based on personal experience, that the attitude at demonstrations has changed. Where masked and black-clad antifa used to get wary glares, now it’s thumbs-up and “right on!” from kid-toting parents. Former congressman and Michigan institution John Dingell tweeted “When I was a pup, punching Nazis was encouraged. Hell, some of my Army buddies won medals for it.” For Democrats and liberals who aren’t nonagenarian retired veterans, however, all this anti-fascism can feel like a threat.
A “concern troll” is someone who pretends to share a group’s goals, for the sole purpose of complaining about their tactics. Faced with anti-fascists in the streets breaking windows and Nazi faces, liberal pundits have gone full concern-troll. “Destroying D.C. businesses is absolutely the wrong way to protest Donald Trump,” wrote the New Republic’s Graham Vyse before the glass at the first Starbucks had hit the ground. At the New York Times, Frank Bruni claimed, bizarrely, that punching Spencer in the head “does more to help him than to hurt him.” As far as these folks are concerned, the problem is twofold: There’s no excuse, they say, for extralegal violence or property destruction (which they often confuse with violence), and anyway (they claim), the tactics are ineffective. That’s all a little rich coming from die-hard Hillary Clinton supporters, people who don’t have a lot of credibility when it comes to knowing how to beat Trump and his merry band of racist garbage. But liberals don’t share a strategic agenda with people who march under red and black flags anyway; what the pundits think about radical tactics is moot.
Image via Pacific Standard.
In The Avery Review, Shela Sheikh, who teaches postcolonial studies at Goldsmiths, explores how Elizabeth A. Povinelli's concept of "geontopower" can be used to illuminate indigenous struggles in the US, such as the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as the settler-colonialist nature of Trump-fueled nationalism. Elaborated in Povinelli's recent book Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, geontopower is "a set of discourses, affects, and tactics used in late liberalism to maintain or shape the coming relationship of the distinction between Life and Nonlife” (p. 4). The concept is offered as a supplement or update to the concept of biopower, whose exercise, argues Povinelli, is more and more being replaced by the exercise of geontopower. Sheikh writes that by "translating" Povinelli's idea of geontopower to a North American context, we can gain insights and tools not only for understanding US settler colonialism today, but also for struggling against it. Read an excerpt from Sheikh's piece below, or the full text here. (An excerpt from Povinelli's book Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism appeared in the December 2016 issue of e-flux journal.)
The work of “postcolonial ecology” is already well under way, and it is becoming all too clear that this must be supplemented by decolonial, indigenous, and feminist critiques of Anthropocene discourse, as well as of the attendant posthumanism that seeks to counter the Anthropocene industry’s prevailing anthropocentrism. But even beyond this, as William E. Connolly articulates in his forthcoming Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming, additional borders require dismantling: the aggregate of “postcolonial ecology” in and of itself is not enough. Rather, this must dialogue more forcefully than ever before with eco-movements and with new practitioners of earth sciences. In other words, the lessons learned from the anti-colonial or anti-imperial ecological struggles that have taken place outside the old capitalist centers and in depressed urban areas within them demand to be translated into what Connolly names “a cross-regional pluralist assemblage,” one that “presses states, corporations, churches, universities, and the like from inside and outside simultaneously.” Furthermore, for such lessons to be effective in our contemporary climate, attention must be paid to the geological. While a partial response to this can be located in something like geographer Kathryn Yusoff’s theorizations of “geologic life” within the geological epoch of the Anthropocene, the recent work of anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli is particularly useful here. Though she may not explicitly use the term postcolonial ecology, Povinelli implicitly offers much for a necessarily postcolonial conceptualization of eco-movements and eco-activism (above all where each is concerned with aesthetic strategies and creative practices), precisely in her foregrounding of the relationship between Life and Nonlife, the biological and the geological, biopower and geontopower, under the conditions of settler late liberalism.
Povinelli’s latest book, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, was published in September 2016, simultaneous to the growing mobilization against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Recapitulating earlier presentations on the same topic, Geontologies at once forms the third part of Povinelli’s trilogy on late liberalism (which includes the Empire of Love  and Economies of Abandonment ) and also revisits her reflections on governance in settler late liberalism begun in her 1993 book Labor’s Lot. Geontologies is a dense work that resists being described in telegraphic terms, based as it is in dazzling and far-reaching theoretical and philosophical readings. But Povinelli’s key concepts of “geontology” and “geontopower” are an invaluable contribution to our much-needed critical lexicon, evoked above, and reading her work from this perspective suggests that the concepts and modes of engagement presented in Geontologies, though firmly rooted in the experience and particular governance of Australian settler late liberalism, demand to be taken up and translated in other contexts. When Povinelli speaks of “late liberalism” in Geontologies, she is specifically referring to the strategies of power that took shape in the late 1960s and early 1970s that exposed the emerging “politics of recognition” and open markets as methods of conserving liberal governance and “the accumulation of value for dominant classes and social groups” rather than as means to ameliorate social and economic injustices (169). In her earlier Economies of Abandonment, she elucidates the way that late liberalism refers to a strategy for “governing the challenge of postcolonial and new social movements,” with Geontologies demonstrating how this governing takes place precisely through the management of the perceived relationship between the biological and the geological. Despite this specificity, the offerings of Geontologies call to be translated, both geographically and conceptually, and provide a lens through which to read the protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline or other instances in North America where the residues of settler colonialism persist, even if—crucially—this persistence is often denied.
Image: Sitting Bull with protectors in Canon Ball, ND. Via Avery Review.
Writing for Real Life, Adam Kotsko explores how social media, and the internet in general, has become a space for savage judgement rather than civil dialogue. Kotsko suggests that this has less to do with any inherent human drive to humiliate others than with the specific architecture of social media and its ad-driven nature. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
Whatever else the internet is, then, the hegemony of these forms of social media have turned it into an increasingly efficient machine for judgment — for passing judgment, for eliciting judgment, for soliciting judgment. And the more attention you attract, the more likely it becomes that you will face an overwhelming backlash of negative judgment. Andy Warhol famously asserted that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but he didn’t specify what form that fame might take. Were he still alive, he might now say that in the future, everyone will be hated by thousands of strangers for 15 minutes.
Why are we so addicted to judgment, both dishing it out and receiving it? Perhaps that question can be answered by reframing it: Why do we turn away from — or, in many cases, preemptively reject — dialogue? In one sense, this may seem like a false dichotomy. After all, what is agreement or disagreement, or even the simple weighing of an argument, if not a judgment? Indeed, Kant goes so far as to characterize every mental act as one of judgment. What is new and distinctive about social media judgments is, first, that they foreground and render explicit what was previously implicit — above all by quantifying approval. Second, and more insidiously, they direct the force of judgment away from the “content” of the exchange and toward its participants.
By means of this amplification and redirection of our faculty of judgment, the forms of social media built on metrics tend to breed certitude and spite rather than the critical distance from one’s own views and a willingness to entertain those of others that dialogue requires. But it’s not just a question of our having picked up bad habits from social media. The truth is that dialogue is risky, because your efforts may not be rewarded with new insight. Indeed, you may be played for a fool by a bad-faith interlocutor who is purposefully trying to waste your time or even elicit condemnable statements from you.
Image: Too Much Thought by Chrome Destroyer. Via Real Life.
At the n+1 website, Thea Riofrancos rescues populism from the elite condemnations and shallow journalistic analyses it has been undergoing in recent months. She suggests that populism (of a certain kind) is the antidote to the crisis of democracy in places like the US and the UK, not its culprit. Crucial to her argument is her distinction between a left-wring populism, which exposes inequality and structural injustice, from right-wing populism, which obscures these things with jingoistic rhetoric. Read an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.
If populist politicians and movements both left and right share a formal similarity in their polarized vision of politics that pits “the people” against their adversaries, it still matters how the people are fashioned and who is identified as their opponent. Populism can shore up exclusionary visions of the people. It can also do the opposite, fostering unlikely alliances between marginalized groups.
In a certain sense, democracy and populism are opposed: since the rise of “formal” democracy, populism as a more robust form of it dogged it like a shadow. As political scientist Laura Grattan argues in her recent book, Populism’s Power, however, populism persistently reemerges because it dramatizes a general paradox of democratic politics. In a democracy, “the people” ostensibly govern themselves. But who are the people? As Rousseau put it, for a “people” to self-govern, “the effect would have to become the cause.” The people both constitute democratic institutions and are constituted by them. Democracy is in many ways an ongoing political contest to define the people and their powers. By making claims about the identity of the people and how they enact their political power, populist movements and leaders—whether reactionary right or radical left—confront this fundamental problem of democracy. Their visions of the “people” and their prescriptions for democratic practice, however, could not be more opposed.
The emancipatory potential of populism relies upon the political construction of a “social bloc of the oppressed,” as philosopher Enrique Dussel has argued, drawing on Gramsci and Ernesto Laclau. It is thus fundamentally distinct from rightwing populism. Leftwing populism lays bare the class antagonisms that already structure social, economic, and political life; rightwing populism obscures them, replacing them with cultural chauvinism, xenophobia, and racism, reproducing rather than contesting inequality.
Image: Mural of Hugo Chavez. Via Huffington Post.
Considerations open out into the world and into shared life. Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire said they point to limit situations on which people differ—for instance, how to deal with global restructuring, with manufacturing and industrial outsourcing, immigration, and intensified poverty. Some people take one side on such issues, others another. This is a limit situation. Asserting one side of it in a shout is not considering it, and it is not liberation.
This is a paragraph from “Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Protest,” which John Hulsey recently criticized here on e-flux conversations. John omitted it, and the omission is significant. Hulsey wants to claim that “consideration” is “liberalism.” But there in the paragraph, centrally, is a Brazilian Marxist, a radical egalitarian and communitarian, who is the only theorist to be mentioned in the piece—just there at the point where the central concept is sketched. Let’s consider it.
I think the omission is central to understanding what is going wrong in John’s picture of democracy, and in this reply, I would like to explain how so. I will argue that suppressing Freire allows John to suppress the interpersonal, which, as a category, is needed to reclaim democracy from neoliberalism. That John suppresses it allows him to perform what he calls “protest” in the space of neoliberalism as an effect and extension of neoliberalism’s logic. Thus, I will argue that John’s piece actually expresses what I will call “neoliberal radicalism.” It is, in essence, another form of alienation today, and we should reject it in the interest of democracy.
Democracy is to come. What we have developed of it in the world so far is incomplete and imperfect, and we should not assume that we have yet developed the concepts to think through democracy precisely and completely. Filling Hulsey’s articles are some of the very concepts that keep us from conceptualizing democracy—and the same can be said for the omissions acting to suppress democratic possibility.
Consideration as a Collective Effort
Hulsey has a way of attributing things to his opponent that could not be there on close reading. For instance, he attributes to my position the view that protest is “self-expression.” But not only is that phrase never mentioned, nor any concept of the protest as about the “self”; the centrality of Freire to my normative concept of democracy also means that we are dealing with dialogue. The one is monadic, the other dyadic, to borrow a term used well by Michael Thompson. Dialogue is “second personal,” not “first personal.” It is intersubjective and grounded in a relational concept of people, not an atomistic concept of the individual self.1
Realizing that this is the logic of human life assumed in my initial piece on aesthetics reveals a number of things immediately. For one, it shows that the central example of the article—that of protesters shouting with no respondent present—is there to reveal the logical problem of protest not being shaped relationally. If, as Freire assumes, human beings are relational, interpersonal beings, then to conceive of acts that are democratic in a non-relational, monadic way is to alienate those acts from our humanity. This is what shouting at the sky does: it reveals our alienation. Protest is often, largely, tragic.
Secondly, focusing in on relational logic shows that conceiving of protest as a calculative force is also alienated. Hulsey’s view of protest and of how to study it conceives of protest as technology, that is, instrumentally. This explains why, in the face of an opinion piece that makes no pretension to do descriptive sociology, comprehensive social movement history, or the like, Hulsey projects onto my essay that it must be an “analysis” of what the thing is that people call “protest” historically, and what it can do sociologically. Hulsey has to make my moralist’s piece—a provocation that is normative, not descriptive—into a study of forces in a social field so that he can suggest how inadequate it is at doing that. He needs to reposition the normative discussion of protest and of democracy into a descriptive discussion of effectiveness within a field of social forces in order to reposition protest as calculative, rather than as a relationship emerging in community. This is both alienated and alienating.
Hulsey further entrenches alienation by conceiving of the scene of protest through an authoritarian concept of power. It is crucial to Hulsey’s view that power be conceptualized as power-over people, not as power-between or power-with people. Presumably, power-over people should be the problem that democratic action overcomes. But in Hulsey’s view of the world, it’s both problem and solution. Protest as a tactics of dealing with power-over people must be wielded tactically to have power-over the problem. This, of course, is a vicious cycle that rationalizes protest as an act in a world of forces. I’ll discuss the bad faith of this later, but the point is that it is alienated from democracy by way of omitting the relational nature of being human.2
We need to understand the relational nature of consideration and Freire’s use of Jaspers’s idea of a limit situation in order to see what democracy involves and what we should assert as our shared presence and field of goals in protest. Hulsey, of course, needs to minimize consideration—first by reducing what is clearly a philosophical concept in my hands into a naive term of conventional speech. Hulsey calls the idea of consideration “civil conversation,” not protest. He also thinks it insists on mere “politeness,” rather than flowing from the causes of indignation and the fundamental interpersonal and impersonal violences that drive protest. Alternately, in a moment that shows some awareness of the novel use of consideration at work in the Freire passage, Hulsey suggests that a protest centered around “consideration” projects the classroom onto the street (and projects me as a “facilitator” onto social movements). To my mind, the picture that is painted is of an Obama-era neoliberal complicit with the management of populations condescendingly trying to tell people to be nice when we are legitimately outraged and violated as human beings, when we are invisible, or when we are facing either our fundamental inequality vis-à-vis some repressive state apparatus or our fundamental irrelevance in a field of market forces. But of course, this is not where Freire is coming from—nor my own position.
Consideration marks the collective act of activating the relational space between people to construct a shared world. The word’s root comes from a Latin root that means to test, in fact, to test with. I clearly say that it means to test with social reality and to test with each other. The former implies a dialectical project of acquiring collective self-consciousness by “tarrying with the negative” and the latter implies an intersubjective process of constructing a world that can be legitimate for us all.3 Neither of these are conflict free or avoidant.
Take first the part about considering social reality. Freire’s entire project involves a rejection of education as an authoritarian act—including the neoliberal authoritarianism of “facilitation.” It in no way models education on the classroom. Rather, it is centered around a situation of deep vulnerability that comes with being poor and lost to the world: the community meeting in a time of deprivation. This is the historical context from which it developed and for which it was primarily meant. When Hulsey tries to suggest the picture of micromanaged, classroom chitchat, he shows that he hasn’t read Freire. Everybody can learn from everybody in Friere, and the best time to learn is when we really need to become free and to insist on our equality in solidarity.
Take, then, the second part about constructing a world that is legitimate for us all. Any world in which the question of legitimacy arises, any world in which what it is to share power is raised, will be a world that must work through conflict. If this was not entirely clear in my original piece, I have written about it in popular venues since (to be fair, published after Hulsey wrote his contribution here). But I do not think this takes much to imagine, when my core aesthetic example from the art world was of “socially engaged aesthetics.” Hulsey begins his piece by explaining how he learned of my article from his circle of socially engaged artists. He, more than I, knows that socially engaged aesthetics centers on the tensions that arise between people as members of polities, on violence, invisibility, exclusion, deprivation, on democratic powerlessness in the face of impersonal, corporate greed (the links are interesting) … There is no way to make consideration “merely” polite here. Rather, we have to hear how true politeness involves grappling with political conflict (hear the “polity” in “politeness”).
These are the kinds of things—and more, if we take some time to imagine sympathetically—at stake in the repeated figure of the space between us that is central to my initial piece and which is blocked out of the imagery of Hulsey’s reply even as he apparently quotes it.
The Low Ground and the High Ground
One thing that was interesting to me about John’s criticisms is that they tracked onto, almost point for point, a set of vehement objections raised in the lengthy comment section of the Hyperallergic article (down to the odd invocation of “self-expression” which isn’t found in the actual article).4 This set of comments came from a loose network of Disqus users who appeared to follow and “upvote” each other. At the center of their network of concerns was both the concept of power-over that I’ve previously mentioned and the idea of power inequality between people in the protest situation. This idea is also central to John’s criticism and is, I think, the most important criticism for someone coming out of the communitarian tradition that Freire marks.
The idea is that there is a war. One side has the high ground—for instance, Bank of America. The other side has the low ground—an everyday mortgage owner who was duped into taking an adjustable-rate mortgage and who now has no recourse from bankruptcy and homelessness. In this war, fighting with Bank of America is unlikely to be successful, because it has the high ground. It has a vast power over the situation and over the everyday person. It has property laws, lending laws, the support of the government as being “too big to fail,” deep pockets, a massive legal team, and more …5
Now comes the former homeowner, living out of a pay-by-week motel, struggling to pay her bills, ashamed, looked down on by her family, avoided by people as a reminder of US inequality. What can she do? Can she go speak nicely with the bank? Can she ask them to “consider” her? She is just a number, and their numbers will negate her cry for justice. There’s a massive power imbalance here. This, finally, is where protest first makes sense.
I agree. But what is at stake is how protest makes sense. Hulsey’s position—and that of many of the commenters on my original article—is that protest makes sense as a threat. This is also the view Natasha Lennard romanticized in reporting on the #distruptJ20 black bloc actions that have triggered the oppressive power-over apparatus of Washington, DC and the Trump administration’s influencing of it. Protest is a brick—or a hammer and a boot—through a window (see 36s ff.). I will call this “counterpower-over.” The idea is that against power over people, we must exert a counterpower over the oppressors.
We could debate the tactics of this viewpoint, which are going to turn friendly protest cities into unfriendly protest cities by way of black bloc actions, thereby extending the reach and deepening the grip of the police state.6 But then we would be accepting that the way to deal with power-over people is through power-over others (e.g. Boards of Trustees, CEOs, and lawmakers) and would merely debate “tactics.” This is precisely what the radical, communitarian democracy of the relational view of power denies. It denies counterpower not because it may or may not be effective, but because it is not democratic at heart. To echo Foucault from his preface to Anti-Oedipus, counterpower is still authoritarianism in our heads and hearts.7
There is a power-reversal in the aesthetics of protest as I have understood protest normatively. Rather than accepting that we are positioned as objects by objectifying institutions such as major, corporate banks, people who will claim their own democratic being must claim themselves as having democratic agency starting from how we approach the world. In this viewpoint, the most important effect at stake in political struggle is the first one of becoming visible in the field of sense as a person who shares power with others.8 And continuous with this disruption into the locked-up field of oppressive sense is the eruption of insisting on the how of democracy. Let me explain.
At the heart of democracy is the idea that power must be shared between people or it is unacceptable. Democracy is a way of life, not simply a set of voting institutions. As such, democracy has what Kevin Houser calls an “adverbial” dimension.9 How we protest is as important as what we protest. If we protest in such a way that we do not project the sharing of power, then we are not acting democratically. Our ethos is all fucked-up. We are undermining in our manner what we might be seeking in our thoughts. We are quite literally disempowering ourselves as democratic subjects, and we are depersonalizing ourselves by depersonalizing others. When we turn people into objects—for instance, the Starbucks workers and coffee drinkers inside a shop that gets its windows hammered down, or the police who oppose us in protests—we are acting undemocratically. We don’t get to yell “democracy!” and act undemocratically. That’s the adverbial point.
The Neoliberal Radicals
Let’s now return to the idea of a limit situation that I singled out in my allusion to Freire in my Hyperallergic article. In a popular essay with no other technical jargon, the use of a technical concept from Jaspers’s existentialism repurposed to the dialectical philosophy of a radical, Brazilian socialist should stand out to a trained academic. John’s omission of this concept shows a lapse in focus, as if ideology got the best of him as he projected it onto another. What would this ideology be?10
I think it is neoliberalism. In this section, I want to argue that neoliberalism, precisely defined, forms Hulsey’s thinking in unacknowledged ways, including his avoidance of those aspects of my original article that would disrupt his view of it as quietist and complicit with power-over people. Moreover, I want to claim that it is neoliberalism that mainly signals the limit situation of our time.
In Freire’s usage, limit situations are architectonic decision points within institutional and ideational arrangements that oppress and divide people. Limit situations do not just fall on the oppressed. They also structure the oppressors’ lives. Freire’s idea seems to be that in a society where people are set up in conflict with each other—some exerting power over others and all having their capacities for interpersonal relationship and human agency undermined to some extent—there will be a problem structuring the polarizations, tensions, and divisions around which sides and oppositions set up. People will disagree and disconnect around this problem, but only because they share it. The problem, then, both structures and conceals their shared life, recasting it in antagonistic terms and thus dehumanizing everybody to some extent. The limit situation is the point of decision within the problem where people divide in order to structure their lives coherently.11
In searching for this consideration in social reality, Freire was developing a tradition with deep roots in radical social philosophy as far back as Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men (1755). This tradition assumes that conflict is constructed and tries to find the ways that those apparently at war with each other are actually identified beneath and through the construction of the conflict. For instance, the tradition that reminds striking laborers and baton-wielding police that they are each deployed in a form of exploitation that deflects away from the unequal distribution of social possibilities is part of this tradition. The police, too, are often poorly trained, scared, overworked, and employed in the absence of what they might take as better options, had they different ones. Limit situations are Freire’s way of reminding us conceptually, not just sentimentally, that those who confront us are people too. They have had to make decisions in the situation we share. The limit situation calls us to consider, critically and reflectively, the way the conflict is constructed to create a division in human community around which different decisions have been made.
Today, as I have recently argued elsewhere following Wendy Brown’s work,12 the problem that divides us is neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a system of rationality that links politics to persons and both to the financial market, with every social institution in between likewise pressured to conform. The system of rationality is radically simple: it subjects all values to capitalist market values, especially financial ones, thereby colonizing every aspect of life through a metric of its capacity to generate financial wealth. What makes it an especially new and pernicious form of capitalism is that it hollows out democracy and collective consciousness from within, dissolving, e.g., an awareness of class or of solidarity groupings in its radical individualization of people into their competitive potential against each other. By working on the public sphere and making it subservient to financial values, by radicalizing the education of individuals and the ethics of individual performance, and by reconfiguring all human collectives as mere reconfigurable sets of individuals arranged for market performance, it does away with democratic agency and solidarity. In short, it destroys our capacity to think, say, and be a “we.”
I am positive that people such as Hulsey, Lennard, or the commenters on Disqus I mentioned would vehemently object to being caught within a neoliberal logic, but I do not see how they cannot be. By insisting on “power” as a field of forces that must be strategically threatened to move people as objects toward the goals they think desirable, and by consistently belittling and minimizing the power of human communication and solidarity to act democratically (i.e., in that adverbial manner), the counterpower radicals are complicit with the logic of individualization, market objectification, and the dismantling of collective power-sharing. They do not seek it, but they promote it, indirectly and unintentionally. This all flows from adopting the view of power that they do and from rejecting the possibilities of what I have been calling—in a communitarian manner indebted to Freire—interpersonal consideration. They literally say that consideration is just being “nice,” but I want to say, “Nice try. You are being neoliberal radicals.” You may not intentionally mean to do so, but you are reproducing ideology and tactics that contribute to a vicious cycle of dismantling the “we.”
Whether we will be is the limit situation that appears within neoliberalism. The capitalist and the power-over protester such as Hulsey actually share one set of answers to this limit. They divide around the limit by locking in an antagonism of shared premises that perpetuates itself.13 But there is another way to decide on the limit within neoliberalism. It is to get over power-over as a viable way of life.14
Protest as a Way of Life
There’s a sense in which John’s and my essays are simply talking about different things. Equivocation structures many of the central terms—“protest,” “power,” “democracy,” and “consideration”—such that we are not even referring to the same things. Moreover, our methodological assumptions are so different that when Hulsey says my initial article contains an “analysis,” he is assuming a set of analytic practices that I do not in any way claim or intend in the piece he criticizes and which I also do not exclude. Still, the disagreement is productive, because at bottom we have a different way of approaching how to deal with anti-democratic institutions and ideations in our society.
Hulsey takes the perspective of practical reason, typical to the French tradition he cites favorably (this same viewpoint also infuses the Deleuzian and Guattarian overtones of Lennard’s perspective: the “becoming war machine” of the bloc). Here, protest is instrumental. It is seen in terms of its effects. One can assess it calculatively and strategically. It is temporary, one action in a set of actions that can constitute a political life. Seeing protest as a complete action, as practical, has deep roots in the tradition of Greek philosophy, too, up through the emphasis Marx and the Marxist tradition has often put on it.
My approach, however, comes from the centrality of relational reason to being people.15 This approach is rooted not in the Greeks, but in the dialectical tradition of intersubjectivity begun in Rousseau and developed by Hegel, Kierkegaard, and then an entire twentieth-century phenomenological and sociological tradition of intersubjectivity, one deepened significantly by feminist work on relational freedom. Marx is largely silent about it, which I take to be one way he can rationalize violence and allow a tradition following him to rationalize totalitarian methods. I also think that the extent to which Hulsey and certainly Lennard either own violent concepts (such as threats) or openly advocate violence (such as punching people you hate) is largely made possible by completely ignoring relational reason and the second-person standpoint.16
From the perspective of reasoning relationally, protest is not simply an instrumental action, and it is not a stratagem. It is a manifestation of our communal potential, an assertion of solidarity, and it cries out for a space between us that is just and loving. In this space, people are not objects—neither the oppressors, nor the oppressed certainly; neither the police, nor the protesters; neither the neo-Nazi nor Donald Trump. The object world, in fact, is bracketed as secondary to the centrality of persons and their potential for relationship. Conflict is not avoided, but is faced. Violence is not endorsed, but is eschewed. The adverbial dimension of this protest is thoroughly democratic, and it is thoroughly anti-neoliberal, because it begins with the centrality of “we.”
The centrality of “we,” moreover, shows how this perspective cannot be classically liberal. Classical liberalism is a relation between people and the state that redirects civic republican freedom into negative liberties.17 Here, freedom from fear and from tyranny is handled by constructing people as individuals with rights not to be interfered with by the state or, by extension, each other. It is not grounded in “we,” but in “me.” The perspective I am working from, however, is communitarian and, I would add, civic republican, because there is no “we” when we can’t look each other in the face as human beings.
“We” can’t be assumed. It is a starting point that in actual life becomes what Kant called—in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781)—a regulative ideal. “We” can only be worked for and worked through. Its idealism produces what Foucault called a “critical attitude” on any assumption of “we.”18 It is always incomplete, and it is always open. This explains why, in it, many more possibilities for protest open up—normatively, not descriptively!—than have been catalogued by the strategists of force that Hulsey seems to admire. For protest is actually a way of life in the relational perspective. It is a way of centering oneself on the common and attempting to expose and to construct it wherever we go.19 This is why socially engaged art is such a useful thing to consider right now at a point in time when Donald Trump has taken the restraints off of neoliberalism and is poised to dismantle the global and intergenerational commons to an extent never before seen in history, irreversible, even possibly an end to humankind.20 Well, are we going out like that? We do not need more calculative locking-up in cycles of increasing suppression and objectification complicit with neoliberalism. We need democracy as a way of life. And for that we need normative concepts of protest that act as powerful potentials to open up our imagination and to help us unwork and rework all the myriad ways that neoliberalism has wound itself around being human, choking out our collective ability to share power.
NOTES1 Michael Thompson, “What Is It to Wrong Someone? A Puzzle about Justice,” in Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, eds. R. Jay Wallace, P. Pettit, S. Scheffler, and M. Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004); Stephen Darwall, The Second Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect, and Accountability (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).2 This use of alienation harkens back to Marx’s in the 1844 Manuscripts, where multiple levels of alienation are discussed. According to Marx, one can be alienated not just from the products of one’s production, but also from one’s human essence. Needless to say, this latter kind of alienation is graver.3 G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, many editions available; Steven Vogel, Thinking like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).4 There was more to “Atomsk,” who took to verbally abusing those with whom he disagreed. His manner of protesting the article revealed a vicious cycle in which people are treated as objects in response to a world where people are treated as objects.5 Andrew Ross Sorkin, Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Sought to Save the Financial System—and Themselves (New York: Penguin Books, 2010).6 I work often as a legal observer to protect protester rights against unlawful or excessive police action. I have done some research on the aftermath of the #distruptJ20 arrests within my network of lawyers and observers. That the black bloc’s actions will extend the police state to friendly cities is the considered view emerging across the network, based on experience.7 Michael Foucault in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Penguin Books, 2009); the allusion is deliberately complex, since: (1) Foucault criticized the category of power-over in his sweeping critique of the “repressive hypothesis” and in his analysis of disciplinary power in the nineteenth century; (2) Foucault referenced “anti-fascist” living, and fascism in the head and heart is specific to a post-Vichy France; (3) Foucault famously threw bricks from the rooftops in ’68; and (4) Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts seem behind the imagery of, e.g., the black bloc as romanticized by activist reporters such as Lennard. Nonetheless, I mean to use this allusion both with and against Foucault. He, more than most, understood his views to be conflicted and imperfect—in a process of becoming.8 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2004) and Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: the Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).9 See forthcoming work by Houser on Levinas and the nature of reasons. See also my “Common humanity and human rights,” Religion and Human Rights (Social Philosophy Today, vol. 21), Charlottesville: Philosophy Documentation Center, 2005.10 I am not using ideology in Žižek’s sense, although limit situations create fundamental ambivalence which people struggle to ignore. Around limit situations, people will dig in not to see how the situation could be otherwise.11 Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, chap. 3 (London: Continuum Books, 2000).12 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2015).13 In correspondence, Kevin Houser elaborates as follows: “If power[-over] is taken to be the pervasive and predominant relation, then one has smuggled in to every protest against neoliberalism and its consequences the most basic premise of neoliberalism. One rails against the effects of neoliberal premises while performing them … It is thus, on a deep level, complicitly neoliberal, in your sense. If the basic problem is the neoliberal ethos of competition and contending powers, then an approach to protest that propounds and performs this ethos is a protest against neoliberal values in name only. For it embodies, performs, expresses, and enshrines the competitive (vs. collaborative and communicative) neoliberal standard of value.” Kevin Houser, personal email correspondence, January 26, 2017, Cleveland, Ohio.14 “Getting over”—transcending—is what Freire kept of Jaspers’s original existential notion. For Jaspers, limit situations afford us the difficult freedom to transcend the things that bind us by changing the way that we live. See Chris Thornhill, “Karl Jaspers,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011.15 This would be my interjection to the discussion of Badiou, Bourdieu, Butler, Didi-Huberman, Khiari, and Rancière in their What Is a People? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).16 For some early work on this logic of reason that joins the analytic philosophical, phenomenological, psychoanalytic, and neuroscientific traditions that contribute to it, see my “’Do you have a conscience?’” International Journal of Global Ethical Leadership, inaugural issue, vol. 1 (Fall 2012), and “The moral and the ethical: what conscience teaches us about morality,” in Morality: Reasoning on Different Approaches, ed. Vasil Gluchmann (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013). See also my forthcoming Solar Calendar, and Other Ways of Marking Time (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2017), which is a study in relational reason as a way of life.17 Philip Petit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). I do not consider Hayek a classical liberal but a transitional case between liberalism and neoliberalism. My reference is early modern and Millian.18 In “What Is Critique?” (1978) reprinted in Sylvère Lotringer’s edited volume The Politics of Truth (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007).19 See also Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).20 I am referring to climate change and the risk of a mass extinction cascade. See my and Chris Haufe’s entry on mass extinction science, ethics, and civics in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Ethics, edited by Steve Gardiner and Allen Thompson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Image via Fox 5 DC.
ARCHITECTURE CONVERSATIONS: BENEDICT SINGLETON AND MARTE FERREIRA DE SÁ RESPOND TO KELLER EASTERLING, "NO YOU'RE NOT"
Benedict Singleton and Marta Ferreira de Sá
We read “No You’re Not” less as an essay than as a pitch. A pitch proposes a course of action to an audience, specifically one which requires their involvement if it is to take place. This immediately makes the pitch very different than the kind of argument that Easterling describes. When an argument is addressed to an audience, it demands they acknowledge it as correct. A pitch, in contrast, offers something to them, in the knowledge they might say no. One does not need to pitch if one is in a position to can issue a command: if you are in a position to say “let it be so,” and then have it be so, you are on the receiving end of pitches—you are the audience, not stood in front of it. Pitches, then, trade off persuasion, not insistence, and aspire to be seductive, which it would be naive to automatically equate with deceit.
If pitches are therefore a means of appealing to people in a position of power over you, the pitch shouldn’t be mistaken for the plea. Both pitch and plea ask for something from the audience, but the plea does not offer anything in return. This gives them a certain symmetry with the kinds of argument Easterling talks about: both the plea and the argument demand the audience give something up. Because they table a sacrifice, the plea and the argument have a certain religious tenor. The pitch, on the other hand, is profoundly secular: it solicits an investment (as measured in time, money, or whatever one’s favored unit) by describing the form that investment can take, and the rationale for doing so. The fact that, in moments of extreme desperation, people tend to mix an argument with a plea—to ask at once to be acknowledged as correct, and simultaneously also for a favor—is indicative of how close the two are, and how distant from the pitch.
Let’s consider, then, what is a pitch is made of, and how it works. In their simplest form pitches can be verbal and short, but considering them as a design object will put emphasis on their remarkable and intriguing elasticity.
The pitch, as a designdesigned object object, is capable of bringing many different kinds of material together, especially as the stakes—the resources being pitched for—increase. Clearly, an architect’s pitch to a client might be composed of diverse materials: sections, elevations and plans, models and renders, cost lists costs and timelines. But while the architect might consider all of these in relation to the final object, typically a building, this disguises how the pitch must be is a distinct object of design in and of itself, with a coherent structure, in which these different media must be staged to work together with each other.
Even at the lower levels of politics and commerce, a contemporary pitch might include text, calculations, images still and moving, diagrams, historical account and future projection, models or prototypes that prove principles and demonstrate plausibility and moments of deliberate surprise or predictable confirmation. The design of a pitch is what strings these together into a sequence enacted by a (usually) physical performance welding them into a narrative, the aim of which is to be compelling. The communication of what is plausible as well as desired—the description of principles of activity and operation, rather than the simple visions of the plea—are critical to achieving this.
Facing the pitcher is the audience, be they one or many, who bring to the proceedings , be they one or many, a complexity all of their own. Everything about a pitch is calibrated towards acquiring their consent. Achieving this requires throwing a myriad of switches, pulling levers, unstopping corks and spinning plates.
Even the most minimal verbal pitch needs to negotiate and play the subtle movements and unconscious presence of different programs, expectations and habits of thought at the table. Stirring enthusiasm while pre-empting objections; delineating options while maintaining focus, almost like making a promise without promise to keep it; remaining open while providing unflinching direction: the materials of the pitch must map onto the agendas of the audience in such a way as to lead them from where they are, now to a point where there will be a “yes” or “no” (and of course to tilt the proceedings to the former). The question of the pitch is a moment where a course of action is considered to have really only just begun, or undeniably have ended.
Who can avoid being fascinated by these situations, in which such potentially huge forces are channeled into such a narrow window of space and time? If there is an aesthetic to this, which could be almost referred to as the beauty of success, it runs deeper than simply achieving the verdict of “yes.” In light of which, one cannot but enquire what makes such an event successful.
A pitch can win out against other pitches, and still be poor. “The best of all presented options” is a relevant category, but always relative; not an indicator of excellence in itself. The measure of success is to be found in the judgment of the pitcher. The most elegant pitches are those that use the least time and material possible to effectively throw the broadest field of switches. This is to say, they operate as levers. The lever is a simple instrument, placed exactly so, in order to align larger forces with one’s own objectives. Leverage is the de facto art of the pitcher, just as it is that of the blackmailer, racketeer and other, more acceptable, species of financier.
Understanding this is critical to grasping the operations of strategy, and there is huge potential, we think, in the movement of the design disciplines and the fields that neighbor them in this direction. As with the pitch, other kinds of objects will emerge as “design objects,” continuously changing and challenging the landscape surrounding our practice. And just like the pitch, other kinds of objects worthy of such attention will emerge and continuously change and challenge the landscape surrounding our practice.
Benedict Singleton and Marta Ferreira de Sá are the founders of Rival Strategy, a London-based consultancy focused on maximizing the strategic potential of services, technologies, places and organizations.
Writing for Bloomberg, Cathy O'Neil, a mathematician and author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, offers and compelling and frightening thesis: Donald Trump is the singularity. (For the non-geeks out there, "the singularity" designates a human-created computer system that grows intelligent enough to outwit and turn again humans. The prime example is Skynet from the Terminator movies.) O'Neil's thesis rests as the curious way that Trump, especially through his Twitter account, behave like an algorithm. Read an excerpt from the piece below, or the full article here.
I think Trump is Skynet, or at least a good dry run. To make my case, I’ll first explain why Trump can be interpreted as an artificial intelligence. Then I’ll explain why the analogy works perfectly for our current dystopia.
Trump is pure id, with no abiding agenda or beliefs, similar to a machine-learning algorithm. It’s a mistake to think he has a strategy, beyond doing what works for him in a strictly narrow sense of what gets him attention.
As a presidential nominee, Trump was widely known for his spirited, rambling and chaotic rallies. His speeches are comparable to random walks in statistics: He’d try something out, see how the crowd reacted, and if it was a success -- defined by a strong reaction, not necessarily a positive one -- he’d try it again at the next rally, with some added outrage. His goal, like all TV personalities, was to entertain: A bored reaction was worse than grief, which after all gives you free airtime. This is why he could never stick to any script or teleprompter -- too boring.
This is exactly how an algorithm is trained. It starts out neutral, an empty slate if you will, but slowly “learns” depending critically on the path it takes through its training data.
Image via Bloomberg.
In the February 2017 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Pavlos Roufos offers an intriguing analysis of geopolitical developments from the financial crisis of 2007–08 to the present, arguing that the failure of economic elites to provide a real, systemic solution to the crisis paved the way for the neo-nationalism we're witnessing today. Roufos also partly blames the uprisings of 2011–12 for this neo-nationalism because, he contends, they framed their demands for economic justice in national rather than international terms. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
One might be tempted to conclude that what we are seeing is a global resurgence of the Right. This seems at first glance quite reasonable and it is also how the Left sees it, and how it urges people to see it too. As mentioned above, however, the binary of Left and Right is today incapable of shedding light to the situation. If Trump won, this also means that someone lost. The same goes for Brexit, for Renzi’s constitutional referendum in Italy and, if it happens—which is quite likely—for the victory of LePen in France in the election to come in May 2017. By insisting that recent developments represent merely a resurgence of the (extreme) right wing, one ignores that the central opponents of Trump, Brexit, and co. are not on the Left. Rather, they represent the embedded (usually neoliberal) élites of the last decades who oversaw the internationalization of trade, the deregulation and empowerment of financial institutions, the dismantling of working-class power and, perhaps most importantly, the management of the post-crisis systematic devaluation. This angle urges one to consider the contemporary predicament in its global context, something that no one seems to be doing at the moment.
The inability to draw a connecting line between the specific developments was made possible, among other things, by an insistence on treating each one as a localized event. In fact, it seems to be a persistent characteristic of contemporary discourse to treat the globalized context as a mere sum of particular cases, each one “celebrated” in its difference.
In this context, it is not surprising that most explanations for Trump’s victory (or for Brexit, for that matter) continue to be structured around the specificity of the places where it occurred or the ideological echo chambers of those who produce them. Detailed analyses of voting patterns and changes of voting behavior; income/racial breakdowns of electoral territories and results; more than not, a clash of personalities and the “culture” or sensitivities they represent; less often, ill-digested and simplified “analyses” of why places like the “fly-over regions” of the US went for someone like Trump or why residents of the ex-industrial pillars of the U.K. found in Brexit an answer to their problems. Clearly, there is no denying that Clinton has the demeanor of a Human Resources representative announcing dismissals (no matter what she is talking about), while people like Cameron seem to have been developed in the same lab. But the absence of an international context contributes to further mystifications concerning the transformations that are taking place.
All around the globe, established elites are losing their ground and are tacitly (or not) being replaced by so-called “populists.” And while the economic policies these elites have supported (largely unopposed) for almost three decades have not yet lost the ability to determine the global context, the turbulence of the period suggests that it will not be long before they do. Despite its supposed local flavor, this transformation is rooted in three key global conditions: the continuation of an economic crisis and the unflinching refusal of those who represent contemporary class power to consider the failure of their policies; the promise of a “return” to the national community as a means to counteract the effects of the continuing slowdown of the global economy; and the inability of recent social movements to take advantage of the space opened up by the crisis to move in an emancipatory direction.
Image: Protest again the Brexit vote results, June 2016. Via ibtimes.co.uk.
ARCHITECTURE CONVERSATIONS: DAVID BURNS RESPONDS TO BORIS GROYS, “SELF-DESIGN, OR PRODUCTIVE NARCISSISM”
The eyes have it and the eyes always will, the eyes have it and they’re watching you still.—Fugazi¹
A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore what is going on. Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera's interventions. The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing. This, in turn, makes it easy to feel that any event, once underway, and whatever its moral character, should be allowed to complete itself-so that something else can be brought into the world, the photograph.—Susan Sontag²
In 1977, Susan Sontag observed that situations were increasingly being mediated by, or in fact created by the camera. Despite their disparity, events become unified by the camera for the sake of the photograph. Sontag called it a “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world”.³ The pervasive eye of the camera becomes self-fulfilling; seeing the event, being seen by the event, and ultimately creating the only remnant of the event. The eyes have it and the eyes always will.
Substitute tweet for photograph and Sontag seems to have predicted the phenomenon that Boris Groys calls “self-design”: the impulse to create a deliberate, idealized online personality. What Sontag could never imagine is the level at which twenty-first century power, celebrity, and economics would rely on the successful creation of an online persona and the distressing results achievable to those with the greatest ability. Capitalism has metastasized such that the production of tangible material is no longer necessary; simply mastering Twitter is a viable business plan (or political strategy). And while many critics have voiced clear warnings about online celebrity, peak self-design seems nowhere in sight.
In “Self-Design, or Productive Narcissism” Groys guides us through a fascinating examination of the contemporary condition of narcissism in relation to self-design. A portrait emerges of a “dismembered, dispersed, and decentered” self, propelled solely by the desire to be desired, and amplified by the internet. The disembodied digital Narcissus, constantly redesigned and redeployed for anonymous online approval, is understood only by the semi-sentient algorithms of Google. It’s a harrowing journey, one that leaves the reader alerted to their own indulgences.
Groys redefines, or clarifies, narcissism through a closer reading of Narcissus himself, noting that he displays not simply a preoccupation with himself, but a compulsion to believe that since he is “fascinated by his own worldly image,” others will share his desire. One can’t help but see the new US president in Groys’ reading of Narcissus. Donald Trump’s power lies in his ability to side-track major controversy with a single tweet, distracting the public from a situation that would potentially end the career of a traditional politician. George Monbiot noted that “In Trump we see a perfect fusion of the two main uses of celebrity culture: corporate personification and mass distraction.”⁴ This binary appeals to traditional red-state voters who have been trained for decades to believe that their opinions will never be understood or shared by traditional media, that only an outsider to the political elite can remedy their problems. Once mainstream news media sources have been discredited to the point that they are ignored, the 140-character message fills the void, with no cumbersome responsibility to the truth.
In the final paragraph of his article, Groys briefly references the final scene of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point to describe the explosive nature of contemporary, self-designed personalities. Through the lens of Lyotard and Nietzche, Groys likens the slow-motion explosion to “mankind’s persistence” in maintaining unity, at least virtually. A closer reading of the scene provides another insight. Antonioni intended the destruction of the house to be a moment of countercultural expression: the youthful protagonist’s awakening to capitalism’s evils through the imagined destruction of a symbolic modernist house. The metaphor is repeated over and over; each time the explosion inches closer. Eventually the destruction spreads to a series of smaller explosions, this time of household consumer goods: clothes, televisions, refrigerators. The intended effect was to describe the angst felt by the young baby boomers, entering adulthood and rejecting the previous generation’s devotion to consumer capitalism. The scene abruptly ends with the annihilation of a library of books, presumably to insinuate that even knowledge is not safe from the cultural shift currently taking place.
Revisiting Zabriskie Point almost fifty years later, its false radicalism is laid bare. The explosion, like the protagonist’s political realization, isn’t real; it’s the product of the imagination of a character who just a few scenes earlier expressed her indifference to politics. The soundtrack, meant to be a musical crescendo to accompany the destruction, wanders through several minutes of build-up, but the climax doesn’t sync with any noticeable increase in violence or destruction on screen. It mirrors the baby boomer generation’s preferred mode of governance: entrenched conservatism, punctuated with over-indulgent moments of misplaced and exaggerated morality. The scene is a manifestation of the failure of 1960s protest and an ushering in of the subsequent decades of neoliberalism. Now that Inauguration Day has come and gone, the explosion in Zabriskie Point becomes a Technicolor reminder of the productive narcissism that cleared the way for a Trump presidency.
¹ Fugazi, “Public Witness Program.” In on the Kill Taker (Dischord, 1993). ² Susan Sontag, On Photography. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979).³ Ibid.⁴ George Monbiot, "Celebrity isn’t just harmless fun – it’s the smiling face of the corporate machine." The Guardian (20 December, 2016), ➝.
David Burns’s research intersects architecture, photography, and politics. He holds degrees in architecture from Columbia University and the University of Tennessee and is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. Previously he was Director of Photography and Situated Media at the University of Technology Sydney. He is currently a Visiting Tutor at the Royal College of Art where he teaches into ADS7: Ecologies of Existence with Godofredo Pereira and Platon Issaias, runs the Media Studies curriculum, and teaches into the MRes Architecture Pathway.
Elizabeth A. Povinelli's Symphony of Late Liberalism is a "concept-image" intended to depict the relationship between simultaneous ongoing crises in the governance of markets and the "governance of difference," as she terms it. Various iterations of the Symphony have appeared in her books Economies of Abandonment and Geontologies. As part of the recent 8th Jerusalem Show, Povinelli was commissioned to create a further iteration of the Symphony that included a new "stanza" about the political economy of Palestine. Povinelli talked about the new Symphony in a public conversations with Raja Khalidi and Vivian Ziherl. Jadaliyya has published a transcript of the fascinating exchange. Here's an excerpt:
Raja Khalidi (RK): Why a symphony and why liberalisms?
Elizabeth Povinelli (EP): In Economies of Abandonment I used the phrase late-liberalism to describe a topological twist in the governance of difference—the emergence of a new tactic of the liberal governance of difference around the late 1960s and early 1970s usually referred to as liberal forms of social and cultural recognition or state multiculturalism. We were not seeing a break or a rupture in liberalism but rather a re-alignment of a strategy of governing difference. By the time I got to Geontologies—actually by the time I published Economies of Abandonment—I began using the phrase late liberalism to indicate a topological twist in the governance of difference and the governance of markets. Neither form of governance determinates the other, nor do either of these forms emerge simultaneously or homogeneously across the globe. That is why I am not saying Symphony of Capital, nor am I saying Symphony of Liberalisms per se—to say either of these would indicate that the one or the other is the determining structure. And that is why in the Symphony there is not a time or a place where late liberalism happens. Instead late liberalism happened and is happening. It happened because, under the unrelenting pressure of anti-colonial movements, new social movements including Black Power movements, Red Power movements, Radical Feminism, the Queer movements, etc. the way liberalism governed difference underwent a serious legitimacy crisis. That whole civilizational rhetoric in its multiple forms just does not fly anymore. Running parallel to this crisis was another—the failure of Keynesian economics. Thus the Symphony shows the unfolding movement of late liberalism across the two axes of crisis in the governance of difference and the governance of markets.
RK: Neither of which are compatible or have been able to align themselves with pure market fundamentalism?
EP: I think that’s right. They do not fully align themselves with each other, nor do they fully align themselves with market fundamentalism, meaning even the governance of markets in so-called neoliberalism was never pure Hayekian liberalism. That is where the recent US election—but also Brexit and Le Penism—is interesting for me. Each election has a very different national context even as all of them are marked by a rebellion of white working class populism against financial global capital—in this case a white working-class populism is rebelling against the late liberal governance of difference and markets. But, again, I do not see the governance of difference and markets composed of the same logic or in a base-superstructure relationship.
Image: Arabic version of Elizabeth A. Povinelli's Symphony of Late Liberalism. Via Jadaliyya.