ARCHITECTURE CONVERSATIONS: PLATON ISSAIAS RESPONDS TO TONY CHAKAR, "DOWN WITH THE WORLD"
Llevamos un mundo nuevo en nuestros corazones; y ese mundo está creciendo en este instante.We carry a new world in our hearts; and that world is growing at this moment.
—Buenaventura Durruti (1896–1936)¹
There are moments in the history of social movements when commitment to a cause extends to sacrifice, or at least the possibility of dying while fighting. There is a serious risk involved when someone stands in the barricades and takes over the streets of Paris (1871), of Chicago (1886), of Barcelona (1936), of Warsaw (1943), of Alabama and the American South in the 1950s and 60s, of LA with the Chicano Moratorium, of Stonewall in New York, of London, Florida and Ferguson recently, of Gaza and Aleppo every day, or the plains of Standing Rock and the highlands of Chiapas. This risk is admirable in a particular way when the engagement is out of solidarity. More than fifty thousand women and men travelled to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, more than twenty thousand of which died there. To stand in solidarity and to fight alongside others requires an existential commitment that is never personal but always collective. Ultimately, it’s not about the "cause" but about the formation of collective desires. Your body might belong to you, but together with your mind—and heart—it works through others. This is not just the definition of militant struggle, but of love and intimacy, too; one and the same.
To die doesn’t always mean to become a martyr. One might very well try to escape death on the battlefield in every possible way. Soldiers (and lovers) can of course also be opportunistic. War and love are both about management and communication; of resources and infrastructure in the former, and of bodily arrangements and conduct in the latter. Both are equally about desire that knows no limits, only a means towards uncertain ends. You don’t die to save yourself, you die as a soldier (and act as a lover) to liberate and unleash a collective self—an emancipated demon of uncompromised desire—larger than one’s own.
This is when power takes revenge. In “Down with the World,” Tony Chakar uses the archetypal myth of the succubus—Qarinah, Yakshini, Lamia, or Lilith—to explain how this vengeance operates. The myth of the succubus is the schema through which every priest, prince, and bureaucrat has attempted to control desire and liberation, first sexual, then social and political. The myth punishes the emancipated female in the worst of possible ways, and as Chakar underlines, saves the "designed order of things" from dissidents and infidels. I would add to his observations that the myth also establishes the most powerful—and ancient—form of domination: patriarchy. It is not coincidental that the myth exists in many ancient religions and readings of scripture. It also clearly shows that the ultimate terror of any form of power is female emancipation and sexual liberation, which could deliver alternative forms of community and social organization outside of ancient norms such as marriage and family. We know very well that the myth of the succubus both limits and is limited, not only territorially, but also by how we understand it operates, both punitively and imaginatively. But the myth exists only in some traditions, and not others, like pagan, indigenous, non-Abrahamic, non-Indoeuropean, non-Greco-Latin ones. Hence, we have to locate and use these diagrams very carefully.
The will to struggle (or to love) and to imagine the world differently are the foundation of any kind of emancipation. Desire is political, and any form of political organization is based on a multiplicity of desires. But there are two important problems with this. First, the political is always formed dialectically, in a network of oppositions. We imagine something, and we are willing to sacrifice something else—or everything—to achieve it. Secondly, struggles and their means vary immensely, as do their wishful resolutions, and not to mention outcomes. This is when factions emerge and internal conflicts begin. The cry for a "new world that is growing at this moment" by the anarchist fighters who followed Jose Buenaventura Durruti in the bloodshed of Caspe in Aragon couldn’t be more different than the freedom imagined by the International Brigades. Por vuestra libertad y la nuestra, "for your freedom and ours," read the sign on the uniforms and flags of thousands of heroic women and men that volunteered to fight next to their Spanish comrades. However, this freedom applied to you as long as you were a supporter of the Third International. If not, you would die like a dog and a traitor; you were worse than Franco’s falangists.
"Down with the world" is not nihilistic, but it is slightly unproductive. Chakar’s wonderful text touches upon the specific historic moment of the Syrian uprising and the still ongoing civil war with ultimate sensitivity. I would only suggest that the destruction of existing institutions and forms of power is not and should never be a quest for a world external to ours. This new world lies in our hearts; it exists in our collective space of desires and dreams.
According to the myth, Lilith flies away from god’s creation, towards darkness, an outside where his rules don’t apply. We don’t have this option. The myth of the succubus is structured to suggest that there in an outside and inside, which only justifies the internalization of power relations—and guilt—that the master applies. If there is a place to fight, it is within his bloody garden.
¹ Motto of Durruti Column, the largest anarchist militant group in the Spanish Civil War.
Platon Issaias is an architect, researcher and teacher. He studied architecture in Thessaloniki, Greece (AUTh) and he holds an MSc from Columbia University and a PhD from TU Delft. He is currently a Visiting Tutor at the Royal College of Art, running ADS7: Ecologies of Existence together with Godofredo Pereira and David Burns. He is also a studio master at the MPhil Projective Cities of the Architectural Association. Prior to the RCA and the AA, Issaias taught at the Berlage Institute/Rotterdam and the MArch Urban Design at the Bartlett.
Text by John Hulsey
A few weeks ago, an article showed up in my Facebook feed, one being shared within my social practice art circles. It was “Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Protest” by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, a philosopher and professor of ethics at Case Western Reserve University. As someone who studies and practices the relationship between aesthetics and social movements, my ears perked up. Yes, I thought. Of course! A reconsideration of the ways in which direct action makes certain political ideas or forms of social organization visible, perceptible, and felt is an urgent and necessary task. Social movement organizing and aesthetic practices have historically had much to say to each other, as both are invested in thinking, making, and remaking the world. And these questions are all the more urgent now, in our upended times, when new strategies and forms are needed to make manifest the world that we desire and deserve.
So I began reading Bendik-Keymer’s article with interest and curiosity. And while it’s praiseworthy for opening up a set of key questions, I was surprised to discover that, in spite of the author’s outward statements, the essay wasn’t actually a reconsideration of the aesthetics of protest; it was an argument against protest as such. As the essay continued, and as the conceptual problems with its premises and conclusions came increasingly into view, it occurred to me that this was, perhaps, less a diagnosis of contemporary forms of protest, per se, than a reflection of more symptomatic problems in contemporary liberal thought and culture broadly defined. It is this set of problems that I am interested in exploring, for I have come to believe that unless we are able to discern with clarity the types of thoughts and actions that contemporary liberalism both authorizes and prohibits, we will be ill-equipped to deal with the crises we face in our present reality. As authoritarian right-wing populism proceeds to capture state power from the legatees of liberal democracy, we must be prepared to understand the ways in which the liberal tradition itself has come to define our current political landscape so that we might offer, in turn, a more robust, vibrant vision for society than it currently allows.
Bendik-Keymer’s essay opens with the description of a pitiful scene—a protest during last summer’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, in which the author witnessed
a small group of cordoned-off people shouting at the sky while no one listened and protesters’ hands worked at cell phones to stage events as tweets. I also heard a familiar sound: Short messages aimed at no one. Overgeneralizations. Insults. Basically, a lot of sound and fury.
This is the only example of a protest that he offers, and given the amount of explanatory weight he puts on it to arrive at his conclusions, it bears further scrutiny. For Bendik-Keymer, the protest was a failure because it failed to communicate a political idea, and it failed to do this for two main reasons. First, its implied recipient was absent (it “would have been acceptable if we’d been at the balcony of a king … but there were no officials in sight”), and second, the quality of speech itself was infelicitous, unseemly, or just plain meaningless—“insults” and “overgeneralizations” amounting to a lot of “sound and fury” signifying nothing.
There are a couple of problems here. First, by evaluating the protest solely on the basis of how it appears in a moment, he brackets the action from its political effects. To assess whether the protest was a success or a failure, we would need to understand what it did. Did the tweets go viral? Did the media cover it? Did the candidates themselves react? What did people on the street say? Did it shift public opinion or reshape popular discourse? These questions imply important political as well as aesthetic considerations. To understand the protest, in other words, we would need to analyze its operative poetics—examining its gestures and forms in order to assess whether they reorganized people’s perceptions, affects, attitudes, ideas, and opinions over time.
Second, given Bendik-Keymer’s insistence on protest as a type of communication (and, surely, it is both a form of speaking as well as doing), we would need to clarify what kind of speech act it is, who its implied addressee is, and what this particular form of public address does and does not do. Bendik-Keymer, for one, seems to think of protest as a straightforward attempt to speak to one’s political opponents. It’s for this reason that he’s bothered by the fact that the “king” is absent, because for him, a protest should either convey an idea directly to one’s detractors or, better yet, open a space to dialogue with them through reasoned discussion. “Protest takes place as a democratic action,” he writes, and for him this means that
it is supposed to move between people and to help people collectively consider how to shape life together. If protests do not speak with people who differ, it is hard to see how they move between people. And if protests simplify and otherwise muck around issues, it is hard to see how they help anyone consider anything. They are scarcely considerate.
What Bendik-Keymer means by “democratic” here will need to be held up to closer scrutiny a bit later. For the moment, let’s stay with this idea that protests are supposed to help people “consider” ideas and that, in order to do that, they should also be “considerate.” What, exactly, would a considerate protest look like? Bendik-Keymer has a few suggestions. Instead of shouting, he says, we might “discourse with others.” More specifically, we might “deliberate with officials or fellow people who disagree with us,” or “go to where officials actually work, with prior arrangement, and stage an in-depth conversation aimed to educate all sides.” By putting emphasis on protest as a form of mutually agreed upon dialogue, Bendik-Keymer makes certain conceptual prerogatives clear. In the manner of someone who is accustomed to facilitating classroom discussion among university students, he wants us to “speak with people” who are different from us. He wants us to help people “consider” ideas. He wants us to be “considerate” of others. What he wants is lovely and worthy of praise. But it isn’t protest: it’s civil conversation.
The last thing I intend to do is mount an argument against reasoned, thoughtful, civil conversation. Speaking and listening with consideration, empathy, and curiosity is how I would like to relate to people all the time. The problem is that in the context of Bendik-Keymer’s argument, this mode of relating comes to stand in for a much broader political strategy; and framed in this way, it’s not only problematic, it’s also based on incorrect assumptions, ill-defined terms, and ahistorical lines of reasoning that divorce his assertions from the ways in which protest, as a tactic, has actually articulated itself through historical struggles. (This, in turn, raises a secondary set of questions, which will have to remain speculative for the time being, about what kinds of pressures—ideological, moral, emotional, aesthetic, or otherwise—might cause reason itself to break down, even in the hands of a scholar on whom society has conferred the peculiar task of thinking things through with precision.)
For now, I’d like to address a few core problems with Bendik-Keymer’s argument.
1) He draws on an exceptionally small sample size to tease out the implications of protest in contemporary political life. Even if we think the RNC protest was a failure, his argument leaves out every possible example of protest that has actually won something in recent history (for example, Standing Rock). In other words, his essay draws conclusions from an anecdotal account of his own experience of an action that does not deal either with the history of the form or with its instrumental value as part of a broader strategy.
2) It’s completely possible that the RNC action did fail, but for reasons that Bendik-Keymer’s analysis does not allow us to discern. What has historically made protests successful is their sustained repetition and growth over time. The Black Lives Matter protests that started in 2014, for instance, persisted over many months and expanded rapidly across multiple cities in the US, effectively placing a confrontation with the country’s legacy of anti-Black racism at the center of public debate. What makes actions relatively less successful, on the other hand, is when they’re one-off events. The irony here is that we have no way of knowing from Bendik-Keymer’s account whether the RNC protest was, in fact, a one-off action that flopped on its own or whether it only appears that way as a result of his analysis, which severs it from the flow of historical events. It’s impossible to tell whether we’re reading about protesters who have aestheticized their own act of dissent to the point of political inefficacy or whether this is, instead, an aestheticized description of an action that strips it of its own political consequences. Either way, if the RNC protest was a failure, the remedy would be the reverse of the one Bendik-Keymer offers: if the action wasn’t consequential enough, we shouldn’t be doing less of it, but more—a lot more.
3) His argument confuses one thing for another kind of thing. He wants to say that he’s analyzing the ways in which protest should be done more effectively, when in fact he’s talking about doing something altogether distinct—i.e., civil conversation. This extended category mistake derives from a deeper misunderstanding about how protest has historically been able to help people “collectively … shape life together.” As a category of political action, protest can be understood as a repertoire of tactics, including everything from protest marches to protest occupations, that use noncooperation and disruption to shape public discourse. Historically, this set of tactics has been most effective when used to do the opposite of what Bendik-Keymer suggests it should be doing in the present. Rather than speaking with people across difference, protests are successful precisely when they polarize publics through the articulation of symbolic demands that shift mass popular opinion in a particular direction. Rather than dialogue, which involves two parties agreeing to engage in conversation, protests stage dramatic moral choices for the public by introducing an intermediary third term—DAPL, a racist police force, white nationalists, the RNC, etc.—against which a new political identity can coalesce.
Bendik-Keymer’s lament about the Cleveland protest was that it failed as an act of communication because it was unable to speak with government officials, but in this assessment he confuses the protest’s outward target with its actual addressee. When social movements stage actions against specific political actors, the goal is not, strictly speaking, to have a discussion with them; it is to use the confrontation as a means of speaking with and winning over broad sections of the general public. This is how successful protest movements have won their most significant victories in modern history. Through sustained acts of disruption and noncooperation, movements have historically been able to drive wedges in public debate and win popular support for transformative demands, thereby forcing open the doors to sweeping political reforms.1
Take, for instance, the 1960s lunch counter sit-ins, inspired by the civil resistance methods developed by James Lawson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ella Baker. Through sustained acts of civil disobedience, the student activists in Greensboro and across the South were able to move public opinion on race by making visible, perceptible, and intelligible to a mainstream public the hideousness of white supremacy in America. This was, to an important extent, a function of optics. Recall the widely circulated images of angry white racists pouring condiments on young Black women and men who were waiting to place their lunch orders. It’s hard to overstate the effects of such appalling images on large segments of the American public: just look at the Gallup opinion polls on the “most important problem in the US” during the major Civil Rights mobilizations to see how high up “race relations/racism” jumps during these years, or look at how many volunteers from the North bussed themselves in to support those taking action in the South. If these same activists had decided to hold civil, considered conversations with white supremacists, or if they had conducted a series of educational discussions with pro-segregation governors (going “to where officials actually work, with prior arrangement”), would that have achieved the same goal?
What the Civil Rights activists understood is that rather than simply conversing with their opponents, they needed to set up strategic confrontations with them to force the American people to make a fundamental moral choice. They understood that society, rather than being an abstract collection of individuals, is a dynamic set of overlapping publics, and that each segment must be taken into account differently. By engaging in dramatic acts of civil disobedience, they emboldened those who already disagreed with Jim Crow segregation to take bigger and more public action to end it. By making visible the ugliness of white supremacy to a mass public, they pulled those who were ambivalent on issues of racial justice over to their side. And by drawing out the violence of their most fervent opponents, they isolated them politically from the mainstream.
This is what successful protest movements have done over and over again throughout the course of modern history. Rather than reaching across difference to find common ground (“having a conversation”), protest has been deployed successfully to dramatize injustice so that a new political common sense can be born.2 Instead of easing social divisions through reasoned discussion, protest has been successful precisely when it has set up strategic conceptual divides—between the “right side of history” and the “wrong side of history”—in order to catalyze the process of “shaping life together.”
4) A fourth problem with Bendik-Keymer’s argument is the idea that protest is primarily an act of self-expression. It’s this idea that leads him to assert that protest is tantamount to “shouts” and “insults,” which for him are unfortunate because they shut down dialogue. The trouble here is a lack of distinction between protest-as-self-expression and protest-as-strategic-action. Again, if we look at the history of protest movements, we will see that many of the most significant mobilizations in modern history are not simple acts of self-expression but are, rather, means of channeling public rage or grief towards a strategic end. They are not, in other words, about slinging insults but are about using disruptive action against a symbolic target in order to win popular support for a transformative demand.
This was one of the key recipes of the victory at Standing Rock. Even though the water protectors took a highly disruptive stance toward big oil, the police, and the structural logics of settler colonialism—committing bold and ongoing acts of civil disobedience that got them arrested and put them at risk of physical harm—they made it clear, over and over again, that their actions were not about “hating” their opponents or “attacking” them personally, even at the precise moment in which they polarized the entire country (including three thousand veterans who self-deployed) against the forces of capital and state repression. In so doing, they pulled an enormous segment of the population over to their side and into the fight for environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty. What critics of disruptive tactics fail to understand is that direct action should not be understood as personal but rather as strategic.
5) Bendik-Keymer’s essay muddles the relationship between aesthetics and politics in a few ways at once. Rather than offering a reconsideration of the aesthetics of protest as such—an analysis that would assess the ways in which protests reorganize people’s perceptions, sensations, affects, and attitudes, thereby opening up or shutting down the possibility for “making sense” across time and space—he instead offers an alternate form of politics. When he argues that protest ought to be a form of “democratic action,” he opens a broader set of question about the notion of “democracy” itself: what we think that term means, what kinds of behaviors and attitudes it suggests that we adopt, and the ways in which our commitment to a particular version of it manifests in various forms of social or cultural life—whether organizing strategies, works of art, or essays like Bendik-Keymer’s or my own.
For Bendik-Keymer, an investment in civility, consideration, and considerateness is seemingly so great that it leads him to reread the history and theory of protest tactics in order to retrofit onto it his own suggestions about how he wants people to conduct themselves in the present. The notion of democracy he draws upon, I argue, is bound up in the history of Western liberalism and its values of civility, rationality, and tolerance for difference. Competing with this understanding are others—for instance, the form of democratic politics proposed by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. For them, democracy is a space not of civil conversation but of agonism, debate, and dissent, a notion that the history of social movements bears out through action.3 These different frameworks have, in turn, conflicting prescriptions for how we are to behave, speak, think, and organize ourselves, and it’s worth noting this divergence (if only briefly), in order to understand which set of cultural or political values a particular statement upholds.
Bendik-Keymer argues that his version of democracy should guide protest’s aesthetic considerations: “I wager that until protests take this democratic direction seriously, they will remain aesthetically blocked.” On the contrary, unless we cease aestheticizing democracy as thoughtful, civil conversation, our theories about what types of action we can and should take will remain politically blocked. Bendik-Keymer brackets the real political ramifications of protests by suggesting that we evaluate them on the basis of whether or not they look like the kinds of things we want to see in the world, rather than whether or not they produce the kind of world we want to live in. And at the same time, he aestheticizes an alternate set of political activities, which I’ve called civil conversation, over and against the agonistic qualities that have historically defined protest as a category of human action.
Of course, the problems I’ve tried to lay out here are hardly unique to Bendik-Keymer’s essay. His arguments in favor of civility and against agonism are woven into the fabric of contemporary US culture and its prevailing political common sense. Over and over again, we have seen in recent years what can only be described as an emotional or aesthetic revulsion towards the tactic of protest from within the centers of liberal thought and culture—a revulsion that is often enmeshed with racialized and gendered ideas about who should or should not be protesting. The language of these critiques is often the same: acts of public dissent are “messy,” “angry,” “uncivil,” and “counterproductive.” I have at times wondered whether such expressions stem, at least in part, from a fear of conflict, or whether they come more directly from a deep but disavowed anxiety that the people who are yelling are, in some way, yelling at you.
A recurrent liberal response to the pressing social, political, or economic problems of our time is to have “conversations” about them—whether panel discussions, roundtables, or certain strands of social practice art. This fixation on conversation as a form belies, I think, a skewed understanding of actually existing social power relations. A classic liberal meta-narrative runs something like this: “If we act civilly, treat each other with respect, look at each other as equals, then the world will be the kind of place we want to live in.” That’s an admirable idea, but it doesn’t account for actual imbalances in social power, or the ways in which power is racialized and gendered in our modern societies. It doesn’t specify the role that particular institutions play—up to and including art institutions, or platforms like this one—in buttressing or rejecting certain arrangements of power. And it overestimates the ability of individual choices to prefigure the world to come (i.e., the liberal catchphrase “be the change you want to see in the world”) while vastly miscalculating the efficacy of talking as a means of addressing entrenched political problems.
Now, more than ever, we must consider the aesthetics of protest, but not in the way that Bendik-Keymer suggests. Once we get clear on what protest is, how it has functioned historically within the broader landscape of agonistic democracy, and how it can help lay the foundation for the society we wish to create, then we can get to work figuring out how to refine, redefine, and reconsider its aesthetic dimensions. In its fixation on conversation over action, civility over agonism, and its abstraction of power relations more generally, contemporary liberalism has too often obscured our ability to think clearly about the concrete circumstances in which we find ourselves. We need bold and considered aesthetic forms to give rise to the society we want to make manifest—a society more beautiful and more just than we previously imagined and one that liberalism has, in recent decades, repeatedly attempted to dissuade us from fighting for.
Bendik-Keymer is right in a key regard: “We need the artist in every protester, and the protester in every artist.” A reconsideration of the relationship between aesthetics and protest cannot be limited to an analysis of aesthetic forms in protest (signs, images, and other forms of communication such as “theater, puppetry, mimicry,” etc.) but must consider protest itself as an aesthetic form with its own particular properties. But as I’ve tried to suggest, the metrics for analyzing protest as a form have less to do with the way it appears and more to do with what its gestures, forms, and actions do. It’s for this reason that it’s useful to look to historical examples in order to understand how social movements have used the polarizing techniques of civil disobedience and mass protest to shape the perceptions, sensations, feelings, and attitudes of their time. Whether we look at Standing Rock, the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, or other examples such as ACT-UP, Occupy, or the WTO mobilizations (to name only a handful of US examples), the tactics of protest have been effective when they’ve been able to speak to a wide swath of the general public, galvanize support for a popular demand, and shape a new common sense that sets the stage for key policy victories.
To ask for “the artist in every protester” is another way of calling for a heightened awareness about protest as a made or constructed event. Rather than a fixed set of practices or protocols, protest must respond to an ever changing set of concrete historical conditions—a process that requires thought and consideration with regard to its form, the context in which it intervenes, and the public or publics with which it communicates. This means, among other things, that we must be open to protest looking and sounding many different ways, depending on social or historical circumstances. Considering the “aesthetics” of protest, then, is not the same thing as “aestheticizing” it. To work on the aesthetic dimension of protest (i.e., the way it makes certain ideas visible or audible, the way it sets up spatial divisions or symbolic divides, the way it orchestrates movement and stillness, scale and duration, and the registers through which it speaks to the general public) is to be responsive to the concrete givens of a historical situation with a particular political horizon in mind. To aestheticize protest, on the other hand, is to reify a fixed and highly specific set of activities based upon their inherited connotations or perceived social value. Aestheticized protest, unlike aesthetically considered protest, sees itself as an end in and of itself, rather than an opening onto a new political future.
Today, the extreme right in the US is poised to set a new national agenda and shape a new common sense based on xenophobia, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and Islamophobia. If we are to have a chance of organizing our way out of this emerging political crisis, we will need to continually pose questions like the ones raised in the process of reading Bendik-Keymer’s essay. How might aesthetic inquiry and aesthetic practices support political organizing? While the answers to these questions will emerge over time, I wager that in working through them, we will do well to avoid, on the one hand, the aesthetics of liberalism and its logics of conversation and compromise and, on the other, the aestheticization of protest and its politically ineffective romance of resistance. Instead, we need an aesthetically considered form of protest to build the society that we deserve—one that uses the forms, gestures, and techniques of disruption and noncooperation to shape a new common sense and build the sustained popular support needed to fight for, and win, a truly just and equitable society.
NOTES1 See Mark and Paul Engler, This Is An Uprising (New York: Nation Books, 2016), who argue that protest tactics exacerbate “stark divides” by stimulating previously uncommitted members of society to take sides on an issue. When protests are successful, they “polarize” in a favorable direction, capturing the sympathies of a broad section of the general public and reshaping the prevailing political consensus, thereby creating the conditions for key policy victories (205–208). My discussion of social movement history and theory, here and below, draws on the Englers’ analysis as well as on the work of Momentum, an organizing model and training institute based on the movements researched in that book.2 The notion of shaping “common sense” as a technique of political struggle comes from the writings of Antonio Gramsci and has been taken up in recent years by contemporary Left movements such as Podemos in Spain. See, for instance, Pablo Iglesias, “The Left Can Win,” Jacobin, December 12, 2014, or César Rendueles and Jorge Sola, “Podemos and The Paradigm Shift,” Jacobin, April 13, 2015.3 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985).
Image: Anti-Trump march in New York City, November 2016. Via PBS Newshour.
Viewpoint magazine has published a special series of interviews with prominent radical thinkers on an intriguing topic: the "return of communism." "Communism" here doesn't refer to certain twentieth-century parties and regimes like the Soviet Union, but rather to forms of anticapitalist collective power, which today are more urgently needed then ever. One of the interviews is with Antonio Negri, who discusses the “prerequisites of communism” that exist today and the question of state power. Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Francesco Raparelli: In an essay on Lenin, Lukács maintains that there can be no historical materialism without grasping the actuality of revolution as the entire backdrop of the epoch. Such actuality now seems nowhere to be found. And yet, as we said, today more than ever the “prerequisites of communism” distinguish the mode of production. Faced with the barbarism of the crisis and war, is revolution once again the only alternative?
Toni Negri: Certainly every mediation has failed between the level of command as configured today in its financial dimension and the general context in which living labor operates. With this failure, it is clear that only a revolutionary process can be the solution for such a radical and insurmountable contradiction. And yet we require clarity on what, today, revolution means. Already in my writings from the 1980s there was a certain attention to the active behaviors, the production of subjectivity that emerges from the new proletarian condition. I believe that speaking of revolution no longer means – because it is now a definitive fact – speaking about the rupture between command and resistance, forms of fixed capital and the liabilities living labor activates in confronting command, and therefore about the rupture with the dialectic. This is no longer the central problem. The problem is understanding which behaviors, levels of organization, and capacities of expression the new proletariat has. Because, when we say “there is no solution except revolution,” we say something that is at this point banal. The problem is not knowing if it is necessary, but rather knowing how it is necessary and how it is possible. Excluding every reformist solution today means more than ever insisting on a processural solution, defined by the construction of institutions of real counter-power. The other element to keep in mind, beyond the processural form, is the fact that this process develops entirely on the terrain of reproduction. Production is subordinated to reproduction, the factory to society, and the individual to the collective which takes form in society. We find ourselves confronted with the necessity of building institutions of the common, not as the ultimate result of the revolutionary process, but as its very condition. From this point of view I think that we can speak again of the actuality of revolution, and speak of it in the present, rather than as the actuality of something to come.
Image of Antonia Negri via ROAR magazine.
January 20th marks the day that Donald Trump assumes the office of President of the United States. It also marks the day that multitudes will mobilize across the country in a collective disruption of business as usual, refusing to normalize the transition to Trumpism: a toxic mixture of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, ableism, militarism, kleptocracy, and oligarchic rule that bears a strong resemblance to Fascism.
The disruptions of J20––and the Women's Marches across the country the next day––build on generations of intersectional struggle within and outside the United States. Yet the advent of Trumpism has pushed these antagonisms to a new level of intensity. It has awakened even complacent sectors of society to a sense of emergency that many people––especially those who have not reaped the poisoned benefits of white supremacy––have long experienced as the norm. J20 is the inauguration of new phase of resistance at a massive scale.
Committed to invention and critique, arts of all kinds are essential to any long-term political mobilization. Yet the art world––the complex of galleries, museums, theaters, nonprofits, schools, publications, fairs, and festivals in which many of us work––is a contradictory field. It is torn between the radical possibilities of art and the constraining limits of institutions, while looming over both are the machinations of neoliberal oligarchs. Much art is mobilized by elite collectors, donors, and celebrities––liberal and reactionary alike––not only as an item of luxury consumption and speculative investment but also as a vehicle of gentrification.
The Trump regime brings these contradictions to a head. People of conscience who work in the art world must decide how to respond to current crises that are only bound to intensify: from austerity and privatization, to censorship and press intimidation, health-care cuts and abortion bans, raids and deportations, police killings and vigilante violence of every kind, all of which disproportionately impact the most vulnerable individuals and communities.
Despite its contradictions, the art world has significant amounts of capital––material, social, and cultural––at its disposal. The time has come to imagine and to implement ways of redirecting these resources in solidarity with broader social movements leading the way in the fight against Trumpism. In the process, we must acknowledge the overwhelming whiteness of most existing art and academic spaces, and work to dismantle systems of oppression within our own field, holding those with the most privilege and visibility accountable. We salute those institutions and organizations that have already begun to move in this direction, but these are structural transformations that no one entity can accomplish on its own.
1. Hold Institutions Accountable to Their Own Public Missions
Even private institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art tout public accessibility; we must insist that they actualize this rhetoric. Like universities, museums emerged as key elements of the modern public sphere; we must demand that they live up to these stated democratic ideals, while at the same time working to democratize their own organization. This pertains not only to museums but also to nonprofits, schools, foundations, and other types of institution.
2. Work to Dismantle Systems of Oppression Within Art Institutions
The forces that brought Trump to power suffuse cultural and academic institutions in ways large and small: from trustee boards, to staffing, pay-grades, and the micro-aggressions of everyday meetings, to exhibitions, programming, and publishing, to the constitution of audiences. Our vigilance on all these fronts is necessary. This means not only calling out oppressive behaviors after the fact but also contesting their practice proactively through the restructuring of power and the redistribution of resources. Many are starting to ask: What would reparations look like in the art field? How might an an anti-racist vision of the arts extend to a global scale, encompassing, for instance, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement?
3. Name, Shame, and Divest from Trumpists and Other Oligarchs in the Art World
Despite its cosmopolitan reputation, the art world is rife with Trumpists who use the social prestige of art to legitimize power. Ivanka Trump is an art world denizen; the Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, is the son of the owner of Mnuchin Gallery. Anti-democratic agents David Koch and James Murdoch sit on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum and the Dia Art Foundation respectively, and other predatory oligarchs populate the landscape. Let us not forget that Trump began as a real-estate developer, and that, from the Bronx to Boyle Heights, art is strategically used as a weapon of displacement by elites who also proudly identify as liberals. With a bit of research an “artigarchy” comes into view, providing a wealth of targets for future pressure and action as shown by the work of groups like Gulf Labor Coalition, Liberate Tate, BDS Arts Coalition, and Chinatown Arts Brigade.
4. Connect to the New Sanctuary Movement
Though centered in campuses and houses of worship, cultural institutions could become spaces for the practice of sanctuary: protecting employees targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement; creating hubs for the harboring of targeted individuals, families, and communities; mobilizing financial support; and providing artistic media platforms amplifying the ethos of sanctuary itself, namely that justice must take priority over unjust laws. This includes aligning with the work that is already being done on the ground by refugee and migrant communities and grassroots organizations.
5. Stand With Our Colleagues Beyond Metropolitan Centers
While the arts will come under attack across the board, individuals and organizations outside of urban centers and in “red” states will be especially imperiled. Funding cuts and other reactionary measures made in the name of anti-elitism must be resisted, and we can build a “museum network” to activate art and other cultural institutions as sites of protected civic discourse and dissent. At the same time let us look beyond the United States to support those fighting similar conditions in other countries.
6. Collectivize Resources and Spaces in Support of Anti-Fascist Work
Movements need infrastructure––physical, economic, and affective––for the gathering of people, the making of art, and the work of organizing. We should pool collective resources to these ends and cultivate a network of spaces for long-term work, while also providing on-ramps for those new to the movement. In the process we should look to examples such as Decolonize This Place, and many others that have come before, and ask in terms of both art and activism: What is the composition of the room? Whose voices matter in this space? Who can appear freely in public? Who gets to represent “the public”? How can we work together in a way that does not recreate the conditions that brought us to the historical moment of Trumpism in the first place?
My name is Edward Snowden. I am 29 years old. I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as an analyst for the NSA.
In Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour and Oliver Stone’s heroic movie Snowden, we witness the moment when the statements above shocked the world. The room in downtown Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel in which Edward Snowden identifies himself to journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentarian Laura Poitras as the person who disclosed thousands of classified documents from American and British national security agencies quickly became a historical landmark. In Citizenfour we see firsthand the emotions, stress, and build-up to Snowden’s revelations; however, not all parts of his dramatic escape and disclosure made it to the big screen. The thrilling sequence in which Snowden leaves the Mira Hotel and then turns up in Moscow leaves out two important weeks during which Snowden went into hiding in Hong Kong, sheltered by a series of refugee families.
Until Sönke Iwersen, an investigative journalist for the German newspaper Handelsblatt, started looking for answers, it was never clear where Snowden holed up during those critical weeks. The United States had been demanding his return, and Iwersen found out that Snowden went to a United Nations office to apply for refugee status in an attempt to avoid extradition. He then stayed with various refugee families in Hong Kong, before flying to Moscow on June 23. “I thought that every story about Snowden was told, as if the media had covered every part of it,” said Iwersen at the 33rd Chaos Computer Club Congress (CCC) in Hamburg late last December. “But actually, there was a big part missing and I want to tell you about the people who both saved his life and who have remained silent for the last three years. Many people have taken credit in the Snowden story, but those who actually saved his life have remained silent, and now they’re in trouble.”
Founded in Germany in 1981, the CCC is an idealistic political hacker movement comprising thousands of hackers from around the world. They believe everyone, worldwide, is entitled to free communication and information. Meeting every year between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the CCC congress was organized this year with the theme “Works For Me,” and brought together 12,000 people at 33C3 in Hamburg. On the second day of the conference, Iwersen was joined on stage by human rights lawyer Robert Tibbo to talk about his clients who hid Snowden: Supun and Nadeeka Thilina Kellapathahi, a couple from Sri Lanka, Vanessa Mae Bondalian Rodel, a maid from the Philippines and Ajith Pushpakumara, a former soldier from Sri Lanka. Tibbo explained that he called upon this unlikely group to protect Snowden because they had a lot of practice evading authorities. “Everyone was after Snowden at this time. The NSA, CIA, Chinese intelligence services, hundreds of journalists—everyone was chasing him,” said Tibbo. “We needed to take him off the radar as soon as possible. He was an asylum seeker at that point, and many of my clients are refugees, so it made sense to place him in the middle of the city within the refugee community because he was part of that community, too,” continued Tibbo. “The second reason was that in Hong Kong, the social status of refugees is completely marginalized and they are considered the Hong Kong version of untouchables.” The refugees knew that when you flee, you depend on other people to help you move, and that the kindness of strangers can mean the difference between life and death. For them, Snowden was one among them.
But there’s one big difference: after two weeks, Snowden was able to flee to Moscow, whereas his guardian angels are still stuck in Hong Kong. Since 1992, the acceptance rate of refugees in Hong Kong has been only 0.56 percent per year. Even before they harbored Snowden, the likelihood that Supun, Nadeeka, Vanessa and Ajith would be allowed to stay in Hong Kong was very small. But after refusing to answer questions about Snowden or cooperate with interrogations and investigations, their chances are nil. Moreover, since their identities are known, these refugees no longer receive assistance from the ISS-HK (International Social Service of Hong Kong) and no longer get food, shelter, education for their children, or medical care, though the ISS-HK itself denies this. As refugees, they are not allowed to work, so these families are now fully dependent on donations. Tibbo set up a crowdfunding webpage to help meet the basic needs of all three families, and Snowden, Greenwald, and Poitras sent them 20,000 US dollars to help make ends meet. Snowden has also expressed his gratitude in other ways, stating in an interview with Iwersen for Handelsblatt that, “These people have gotten up every morning in the face of tragedy and persecution, and go to sleep each night with whole families in a single bed. And though they have nothing, they risked everything to do what is right. What I thought I knew about bravery was nothing compared to what I saw in Hong Kong.” He has also asked his Twitter followers to donate to the refugees who kept him safe.
Giving a face to this story, the emotional high point of the CCC congress was a glitchy video call with Snowden shelterer Vanessa Rodel. “The night I met Snowden, I didn’t know who he was,” said Rodel. “I saw an unknown white man in front of my door who needed shelter.” She let him sleep in her bed while she and her daughter slept on the floor. Snowden hid his passport in Vanessa’s refrigerator. “The next morning, Ed asked me if I would buy an English-language newspaper for him. When I arrived at the kiosk and saw his face on all the front pages, I was terribly shocked. It was the first time I understood who the man waiting in my house was. It was very strange to realize that the man sitting behind his computer on my bed was the most wanted man in the world. And I needed to be super careful.”
“How can we help you, after you have given so much to help someone else?” asked someone from the CCC audience. Vanessa replied, her voice cracking: “I hope and wish you can open your heart for our cause and donate money for us so that our families can live and start a new life in another country. Please. Thank you.” Tibbo, who is the anchor for these refugee families in a city that doesn’t want them, added, “They are all stuck in limbo in Hong Kong. I’m not going to let them be left behind. They need to be granted asylum in Canada, or here in Germany.” The refugee community was the ultimate lifesaver that allowed Snowden to avoid capture. On arrival in Moscow, Snowden received Russian asylum. This week, a day after president Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Russian government extended Snowden’s asylum until 2020. A scenario, although far from ideal, of which Supun, Nadeeka, Vanessa and Ajith could only dream. Their situation deteriorated drastically after they sheltered the refugee-rockstar as they are caught in the double-bind of not being allowed to work and not being given enough resources to get by. Snowden, on the other hand, has been very successful in capitalizing his story, and last year he made over $200,000 in speaking fees. The privilege of being a whistleblower who is white and American, even if you’re being charged with Espionage Act violations, comes with an escape plan, resources and fame. In our current political climate, we talk often about refugees without much actionable result. Similar to the discourse surrounding climate change, divergent opinions drown out concrete solutions, without anyone taking ultimate responsibility. However different their stories, all the above narrators had to leave their home nation to secure their own safety. While refugees are often treated as a nameless mass rather than as individuals who exhibit incredible courage and resistance, the discussion around them reaches a saturation point when the individual vanishes and the urgency of the problem does not.
Starting this month and continuing through March, the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London presents a weekly lecture series entitled "Informatics of Domination," organized by artist and writer Zach Blas. e-flux conversations will publish selected lectures from the series. Today we present an extended introduction by Zach Blas. The full lecture schedule is on the flyer above.
Text by Zach Blas
A section titled “The Informatics of Domination” sits halfway through Donna Haraway’s 1985 text “A Cyborg Manifesto.” At its start, Haraway gives a name to describe the transformation of power at the close of the twentieth century:
In this attempt at an epistemological and political position, I would like to sketch a picture of possible unity, a picture indebted to socialist and feminist principles of design. The frame for my sketch is set by the extent and importance of rearrangements in world-wide social relations tied to science and technology. I argue for a politics rooted in claims about fundamental changes in the nature of class, race, and gender in an emerging system of world order analogous in its novelty and scope to that created by industrial capitalism; we are living through a movement from an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous, information system—from all work to all play, a deadly game. Simultaneously material and ideological, the dichotomies may be expressed in the following chart of transitions from the comfortable old hierarchical dominations to the scary new networks I have called the informatics of domination.
In her accompanying table, science fiction reigns, the future of labor is robotic, and white capitalist patriarchy is recast as the informatics of domination. Here, informatics can be defined as information grasped within its social conditions. Haraway’s insistence on framing power through informatics draws attention to the wielding of power in and through networked information machines. That is, if people are increasingly governed informatically, then white capitalist patriarchy is no longer a sufficient concept to elucidate the newer technical materialities through which such power dominates. Notably, Haraway’s articulation of the informationalization of power coincides with another theory, also marked by developments in computer science and digital technologies—namely, Gilles Deleuze’s conception of control societies (1992). Like control, the informatics of domination signals a historical shift from disciplinary societies and panopticism; but might the informatics of domination be the feminist analogue to control? Not only does the informatics of domination, as a theory, emerge within the context of feminist science and technology studies, but it is also a direct reworking of patriarchy.
Haraway further clarifies the mode in which the informatics of domination operate: “communications sciences and modern biologies are constructed by a common move—the translation of the world into a problem of coding” (164). This provokes something of a conundrum for minoritarian struggles, as strategies for political liberation have oriented around gaining representation and enabling the subaltern to speak, as well as a range of textual and visual tactics. When humans are transformed into code and brought into an informatic reign, mustn’t political, critical, and aesthetic responses to power necessarily reconfigure? I am reminded of a text by media theorist N. Katherine Hayles titled “Print is Flat, Code is Deep,” in which Hayles argues that the time-honored and honed skills of literary textual analysis, used to critique print works, fall short when considering a work of electronic literature because “the text” is constructed by software, code, and electronics—not print. Hayles defines her scholarly method as “medium-specific analysis,” and it stipulates that the informatic is distinct from the textual—and by inference, the visual. Thus, the challenge Haraway and Hayles present is to do feminist work by attending to the informatic transformations of power, which are specific and material. Resultantly, a flurry of questions and concerns demands confrontation, such as, how is information created and controlled? Theoretical terms like “mediation,” “capture,” and “protocol” are crucial to start formulating responses. Ultimately, opposing the informatics of domination requires a proliferation of informatic counter-vectors—an informatic feminism, an informatic queerness, an informatic antiracism, an informatic aesthetics.
Strikingly, Haraway invests in myth-making and fiction as a means to combat the informatics of domination. For instance, the cyborg is a feminist myth that has the agency to intervene into the political trajectories of networked information technology; it “is the self feminists must code” (163). Notice that Haraway does not state “write” or “paint.” Coding can also generate a resistant informatics that is grounded in social reality and aesthetics. Indeed, it is Haraway’s feminist framing of power and the arts that motivates the Spring 2017 Public Programme of the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths. By organizing a lecture series around the informatics of domination, I understand this as bringing together scholars, artists, and curators who are committed to investigating, critiquing, and reimagining the informatic dimensions of power and control today, particularly those engaging such issues from feminist, queer, critical race, and minoritarian positions. This approach necessarily leads to the queer science fiction of cyberfeminist Shu Lea Cheang, and also to the pioneering hacktivist work that Ricardo Dominguez continues to develop around electronic disturbance, Mayan technology, and the Science of the Oppressed. Other invited speakers advance the informatics of domination into the realm of twenty-first century urgencies: Heather Dewey-Hagborg uses bio art to explore futures of genetic surveillance; Mohammad Salemy critiques the “post-internet” and paradigms of artificial intelligence; and Rizvana Bradley thinks blackness’ relations to the internet and the digital. Some guests invest in many of Haraway’s initial concerns, by focusing on design, labor, and vision: Metahaven present films and a lecture that unfold the potentialities of “design research”; Seb Franklin traces the transformations of labor wrought by digitality; and Erika Balsom discusses capture and control in late film/video works by Harun Farocki. Still others detail longer histories of informatics and subjugation, such as Simone Browne, in her work on slavery and surveillance.
In 2017, the informatics of domination has only intensified: drone warfare, biometric governmentality, and mass securitization evidence as much. A key question has also intensified: What are the myths, fictions, and artistic practices that join together with social struggles to deliver an informatics without domination?
For the New York Times, Barbara Pollack profiles Practice, a residency program and collective comprised of artists Cici Wu, Ho King Man and Wang Xu. Their first collective show is currently on view at 47 Canal, and they have some interesting things to say about thinking about identity politics collectively, rather than individually. (I also must admit that Pollack's report comes off well-intentioned but at times a little condescending.) Check out Pollack's report in partial below, in full via New York Times.
Transnational is the new buzzword in curatorial circles, aimed at artists whose cultural identity is fluid, a hybrid of the many countries where they have lived, studied and now work.
Cici Wu, Ho King Man and Wang Xu are three such artists, who were born in China, educated in the United States and now call New York their home. In 2015 they turned their shared studio in Chinatown into an ad hoc alternative art space and impromptu residency program called Practice. Run on a shoestring budget that’s covered by their income from part-time jobs, and with no website, Practice has attracted a word-of-mouth following among young international artists who, like the founders, lead nomadic lives.
“What we are trying to do is to find a new alternative to identity politics, to put our Chinese identity on a lower level and open ourselves to something more focused on the relationship between the three of us,” said Ms. Wu, a recent M.F.A. graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art who endearingly works artspeak into heartfelt statements about their mission.
Ms. Wu and her two partners now have a new opportunity to test their ideas, not as curators but as artists, at their first collaborative show, opening this week at the 47 Canal gallery. Working to the last minute to finish the installation, they are similar to many artists who have limited gallery experience, despite having run a space of their own.
“They are still in that very idealistic place in their practice and they have a very open-ended idea about what this exhibition experience can be,” said Margaret Lee, a founder of 47 Canal and its director.
Earlier this year The Guardian published a story on Micah White, co-founder of Occupy Wall Street, and his decision to move to Nehalem, Oregon, a town of 278 people, in 2012. After a few years of living in this "most beautiful place even been," White ran for mayor. Despite losing, having come up against political opposition and skepticism as an outsider, White has inspired a surge of political awareness and participation in the town's local politics. To what extent was Occupy's (debatable) failure due to the question, the political problem of scale? Is the countryside where radical politics can find a political foothold?
White released his announcement to run in an open letter he sent to every registered voter in town. He wrote, “I’m concerned because the majority of our city council – four out of five – were not elected by voters: they were appointed to their current positions by decree.” He continued by pleading for more power to the residents: “Sadly, the undemocratic process of appointments has fostered a city council culture that is unresponsive, unimaginative and unprepared for navigating our city into the future.”
In the same letter, White also called for the first meeting of the Nehalem People’s Association, a neighborhood organization whose meetings would provide an open platform for residents to discuss local issues. More than 60 people showed up at the first meeting at the local community centre, which amounts to 20% of Nehalem’s total population.
“Imagine that in New York,” White said. “That would be the equivalent of 1 million people.” For White, Nehalem can be seen as a microcosm of America: no matter how small the town is, it has its own portion of income inequality and political strife. This means that if a new form of democracy can be created in Nehalem, it could be possible in every other city in America.
In the London Review of Books, Rebecca Solnit dissects the appalling misogyny that Hillary Clinton faced during her unsuccessful presidential campaign against Donald Trump. Importantly, Solnit examines not only the misogyny of Trump, his supporters, and the mainstream media, but also that of segments of the pro-Bernie left—the vehement and obsessive hatred of Clinton was by no means confined to conservatives. As Solnit writes, even self-described feminist men seemed threatened by the prospect of a women entering the sausage fest that is the White House. Here's an excerpt:
Mentioning that [Clinton] had won the popular vote upset many of the men I am in contact with, though they would not or could not conceive it that way. I wrote this at the time: ‘With their deep belief in their own special monopoly on objectivity, slightly too many men assure me that there is no misogyny in their subjective assessments or even no subjectivity and no emotion driving them, and there are no grounds for other opinions since theirs is not an opinion.’ Then these men went back to talking about what a loser Clinton was. There was considerable evidence that we had not had a free and fair election, evidence that might have allowed us to contest it and to stop Trump. But these men of the left were so dedicated to Clinton’s status as a loser that they wanted Trump to win, because it vindicated something that went deeper than their commitment to almost anything else.
Trump was the candidate so weak that his victory needed the disenfranchisement of millions of voters of colour, the end of the Voting Rights Act, a long-running right-wing campaign to make Clinton’s use of a private email server, surely the dullest and most uneventful scandal in history, an epic crime and the late intervention, with apparent intent to sabotage, of the FBI director James Comey. We found out via Comey’s outrageous gambit that it is more damaging to be a woman who has an aide who has an estranged husband who is a creep than actually to be a predator who has been charged by more than a dozen women with groping and sexual assault.
Hillary Clinton was all that stood between us and a reckless, unstable, ignorant, inane, infinitely vulgar, climate-change-denying white-nationalist misogynist with authoritarian ambitions and kleptocratic plans. A lot of people, particularly white men, could not bear her, and that is as good a reason as any for Trump’s victory. Over and over again, I heard men declare that she had failed to make them vote for her. They saw the loss as hers rather than ours, and they blamed her for it, as though election was a gift they withheld from her because she did not deserve it or did not attract them. They did not blame themselves or the electorate or the system for failing to stop Trump.
Image via Variety.
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 Ezra Feinberg
I’m a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist and after Andrew Weiner asked me to present here I sent an email to my community of psychoanalysts asking for clinical vignettes pertaining to the aftermath of the election. As you might imagine we have all been hearing our patients talk about it almost nonstop, and there are all sorts of interesting theoretical and clinical implications to all of it. So this is something of a bifurcated presentation—I’ll be sharing with everyone a theoretical idea and after that I’ll be sharing a clinical vignette from an interesting and provocative patient sent to me by a colleague. I want to say that while the two segments of this presentation are surely linked, they are disparate as well, so one doesn’t necessarily illustrate the other. Instead, they are just two pieces of the wide-ranging and varied psychoanalytic implications of our current predicament.
If Hillary Clinton had been elected we would not be here today. Why is that? Perhaps it is because we would not feel so immediately threatened.
Take out the policies and gaffs and one is left with Trump’s words indicating threats to the body in everyday life, a body that might be grabbed, blocked, tracked, denied, gutted, locked up, abandoned, or removed. The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote famously about the holding environment of the infant, about the transparency between the arms and body of the mother and the wider environment of the home, the neighborhood, the city, the state, the country, and the world and society in which the mother holds the child. However, the world of the infant is a terrifying place, filled with constant threats. Winnicott wrote, in 1960, “the holding environment … has as its main function the reduction to a minimum of impingements to which the infant must react with resultant annihilation of personal being.” The very experience of the body as the place wherein one securely lives is constantly impinged upon, and without the holding environment there is only annihilation. But Winnicott was not only referring to the physical danger to the infant. The holding environment extends out to the psychological development of the child, providing the relative security and reliability necessary for the emergence of the earliest forms of fantasy, play, and thought, arming the child with a capacity to navigate threats and potential dangers. Post-Trump, we speak of once-reliable norms and foundational concepts such as truth, justice, and accountability no longer being upheld. Likewise, we are no longer being held. The “we” here is, of course, complicated by the ways in which the persistent other of our discourse—the Trump voters—themselves claimed to have lost their holding environment. They would now seem to feel upheld as we feel dropped, our impingements mounting, our annihilation looming. Regardless of the side, we both do and do not “grow out” of the need to live in a holding environment, and what is threatening post-Trump is equal parts physical and psychical.
The word “annihilation” contains the Latin nihil, or nil—nothing. That is, to annihilate is to turn into nothing. For Winnicott, the holding environment facilitates the infant’s survival of these threats of annihilation. In the absence of a holding environment we are nothing, and it is in having been held ourselves that we may find psychic existence, and thus be able to hold ourselves.
Threats of annihilation and the capacity to navigate through these threats feature in the following clinical vignette. As I mentioned, this is not my patient, but the patient of a colleague of mine, Dr. Manya Steinkoler. Manya has disguised certain details for the sake of confidentiality, but the gist of the patient’s story remains. This is a Latina woman, aged thirty-two, currently in a biweekly psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Both for the sake of time and so that we might further take it up in our discussion, I’ve decided to provide no commentary after the vignette. This session took place three days after the election:
Talking as soon as she entered the room and even before she sat down on the couch, animated and eager to tell me her news, Carmen began with a warning: “Dr. Steinkoler, I know that my complaint towards men has to do with my father, and I know that we have worked on my not jumping up at every instance to defend the underdog and raging like a loca contra macho stupidity, but there are times when my duty as a citizen and a woman is far greater than my triggers from my own past.”
She began to tell a story. “So, I’m walking by the bicycle shop near my house. The owner is this kind of cute but not like so great-looking guy—he used to be hotter, he has a belly now—Ernest. His name was Ernesto and not Ernest—I know all about it. His grandfather was Italian and his grandmother was Jewish. I slept with him not long after I had my daughter. Only once, around ten years ago. Paulus was away on business and I had not felt like a female for god knows how long. Anyway, we never talked about it and we pretended it never happened. I buy my daughter’s bicycles there over the years. So Ernesto sees me this morning—three days after that motherfucker won the election, and Ernest-Ernesto says to me, ‘Hey Carmencita, my people are in charge now! My boys are running the show and they will show you that they are in charge.’ Can you believe that?! He actually said that. I know I am too reactive. So I stood for a second and thought—do I let this dickless moron say stuff like that or do I say something back? When am I entitled to say something? Does it matter that I am reacting and he is pushing my buttons? I made a decision to speak: I was not just reacting. I walked right up to him and said—in his face—and I know him mind you: ‘Ernesto’—I called him by his Italian name—‘is this the first time you have said this or have you been saying this to everyone and their mother since Tuesday?’ See? I did what I learned in therapy—ask questions, make the other speak, don’t just antagonize. So—you won’t believe it—you know what that idiot said? He said, ‘I just said the same thing to Nana ten minutes ago when she walked by.’ Nana is a West African living in the neighborhood. She is beautiful and is trying to start a modeling career. And I may be thirty-two, but I know how I look. I asked him one more question: ‘Ernesto, who are “my people”?’ And he said ‘White men.’ And then he had the moronic balls to add, ‘White Christian men. We are running the country now and you will know your place.’ Then, I admit, I went in and gunned him down. Nuclear bomb. Carpet bomb whatever. I slayed him. ‘You dickless moron!’ I yelled at him. ‘You told this stupidity to Nana and Carmen, the two best-looking girls in this neighborhood, the two girls you are attracted to, so you could feel important because you look like shit, your wife left you and you have no woman. You want to think you have some power when you have none. If you think that just because an even bigger moron than you has become president of the United States that it means that you can speak like this, you have no idea how you are destroying yourself and what a moron you—and he—will prove to be for history and eternity. First of all, you come from immigrants and you are part Jewish so you are not so white. Second of all, you have a bicycle store because you lost your car dealership for dirty dealing. Now you think that dirty dealing is somehow sanctioned by the guys in charge. You even called them boys and not men. They are boys and not men. Dirty dealing and hate will never be sanctioned and deep down you know it, which is why you spoke this crock of shit to me and Nana—two women you thought would never speak back to you. Well, we can and we will—at least I can and I will. And if you keep at it, I will tell everyone in the neighborhood that you have a small dick and that I made the mistake of sleeping with you once and that is why your wife left you.’ Now, doctor, I know that I went too far. I know that this last bit is the kind of thing I have to work on, the kind of thing that will get me in trouble—I know. But as I was giving it to him I thought only about one question over and over again, a question that has been on my mind since my heart sank on Tuesday night to the bottom of hell with half my country. The question is this: Even if my reacting has violence in it, does that mean I am not allowed to react? If I am enraged against the hatred of women, corruption, the abuse of innocent people, and I react with passion, does this mean I am the same as those who are showing a passion of hate? How do I triumph over this without being Ghandi and wearing a diaper and starving myself? There has to be a way to speak and act and not feel guilty for it. The fact that I am telling you that I don’t feel guilty for yelling at him makes me wonder whether I do. But if the whole country feels like me and no one does anything—then what will happen?”
Image via Baltimore Sun.
Who says that art is ineffective in times of authoritarianism? Budding artist 18-year-old David Pulphus hit a nerve with Republican lawmakers, as his painting depicting Ferguson, Missouri protests was removed from the Capitol despite winning Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay's congressional art competition. Republican lawmakers have been removing the painting, only to have members of the Congressional Black Congress return it to its rightful position. Particularly rankling is Speaker Paul Ryan's comment that "we do have rules governing these paintings"--as if paintings are subjects to be governed. Unfortunately, it seems to be his final call to remove the painting.
Read Sophie Tatum and Betsy Klein's report in partial below, in full via CNN here.
The painting won Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay's congressional art competition in May and was created by 18-year-old David Pulphus.
Clay, of Missouri, said congressional members have no role in judging the competition, and he called the saga of the painting a "manufactured controversy."
Reichert, a Washington Republican, said the painting violated the rules on artwork at the Capitol.
"The Congressional Art Competition is an opportunity to celebrate the creativity of students in every corner of our country -- and visitors from around the world see their talents on display when they walk through the halls of our Capitol," Reichert said in a statement. "However, with any competition there are rules, and these rules exist for a reason. This painting hung in clear defiance to those rules and was a slap in the face to the countless men and women who put their lives on the line everyday on behalf of our safety and freedom."
Ryan told the congressman that the Architect of the Capitol made the determination, Reichert's office said.
The rules of the art competition state: "Exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature are not allowed," according to the statement from Reichert.
Ryan said it isn't a question of First Amendment rights.
"Of course, this young person has the right to do something like this wherever they want to," Ryan said. "But we do have rules that govern these paintings, so it's not as if you have a constitutional right to hang whatever you want in the House hallway in the Capitol gallery."
Hromadske International reports that Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky and his partner Oskana Shalygina have allegedly sexually assaulted an actress and on a separate occasion beat up her boyfriend. After being detained for questioning following their arrival from Warsaw in the Russian airport Sheremetyevo, Pavlensky and Shalygina have fled with their children to the Ukraine, fearing 10 years imprisonment and the orphaning of their children. They are currently appealing for asylum in France stating that these sexual assault charges are fabricated by the state due to the political nature of Pavlensky's work. Pavlensky is known for shock-value acts such as nailing his scrotum to the ground ("Fixation," 2013), setting fire to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) building, and cutting off his earlobe in protest of the use of forced psychiatry on Russian dissidents.
This is an incredibly perplexing situation as generally, as communities of support we should ethically both 1.) always believe and support artists when they say they're being targeted by authoritarian states and 2.) always believe and support rape victims who make claims against anyone, including (and perhaps especially) famous artists and those with influence and power. Further, the theater community has backed up the actress and her boyfriend's claim that Pavlensky did assault both of them. The theater, outside of which the boyfriend was beaten up, released CCTV footage allegedly showing the attack, however it's too blurry to make out identifiable features in the tape's subjects.
Below is an excerpt from Hromadske International's interview with Pavlensky and Shalygina (sic throughout)--the actress unsurprisingly declined to comment.
Prominent protest artist Pyotr Pavlyensky flees Russia after being accused of rape. He denies it and in the first interview since leaving Russia, exclusively for Hromadske, he calls the allegation an attempt of conducting "political elimination by security forces".
Together with his partner Oksana Shalygina and two daughters now he is in Ukraine and going to ask for political asylum in France.
According to Pavlensky, the person who pretended to be their close friend accused him and his partner of sexual assault using a criminal code article that doesn’t require any evidence for a suspect's arrest. Now he faces 10 years of jail back at home, his two kids (9 and 6 years old) - a transfer to an orphanage. The fear for the future of their daughters was the main reason behind the decision to flee, the couple tells Hromadske. Pavlensky was warned about planned 'provocation' in advance, he insists.
Russian authorities still haven't disclosed any details about the accusation, but a pre-trail investigation is already on, Olga Dinze, Pavlensky's laywer tells Hromadske.
Hromadske has contacted Anastasia Slonina, the alleged victim. She an actress at the Russian Doc Theatre. She refused to comment. We've also reached out to the Russian authorities in charge of the investigation and still are waiting for a reply.
It is too early to comment on the case while the pre-trail investigation is still ongoing, Yury Lytsenko, Slonina's lawyer tells Hromadske. 'The only thing I can say is that those insunuations about political persecution of Pavlensiy are nonsense. He gets what he deserves for his actions. There's going to be a criminal case and talks about political persecution are just a defense tactic,' Lytsenko says.
Meanwhile, Hromadske set down with Pavlensliy and Shalygina and talked with them about the developing story. Here's an edited and condensed except from the interview:
Pyotr Pavlyensky is a Russian performance artist criticizing the authroritarian slide in Russia. His worldwide known performances include "The Threat", when Pavlyensky set the doors of the Federal Security Service in St. Petersburg on fire, imitating the events of the Ukrainian Maidan. Another famous one is "Fixation" (2013), when the artist nailed his scrotum to the Red Square in Moscow. He spent 18 months in pretrial detention after the former and was released in June 2016.
Pavlensky: I suppose that the operation for our elimination in Russia has been on since 2013. We've received proposals to illegaly use weapons, to blow up the Kremlin, but we would refuse all of them. One girl, an actress at one of the Russian opposition theatres started hanging out with us since September 2016. She didn’t bring up any suspicion in us. She was looking for friendship, support, maybe relationships. It’s not a secret that we are in open relationships. So the girl started atrracting our attention and, at one moment, we supported her. That one time in question she came to see us and later filed a statement acussing us. So we don't feed anyone’s imagination, it’s important to clarify that there was no violence during that visit.
Pavlensky: On December 14th, we were met by the police and law-enforcement officials in the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow after arriving from a trip to Warsaw. Then we were charged under a criminal code article “Violent acts of a sexual nature”. It’s not a political article and reserves up to 10 years in jail
Shalygina: When they took us from the airport to the investigators' office, it became clear that we might not get out of there. They don’t release people charged under such articles. The only preventive measure is an arrest in this case. But when we were released the same evening, it became obvious that it did happen for a reason.
Pavlensky: This is an attack on four people, not just two. Because Oksana and I could've been send to a prison camp and our kids – to an orphanage.
They’ve made a good move. They’ve shown us that they can jail me using a pretext that has nothing to do with what I do for life. I thought I'm not so important, not saying much. Well, I say about enough, turns out. We'll be more careful from now on.
Pavlensky: Time we'll tell who has the final say.
*Image of Pyotr Pavlensky via Calvert Journal
Gregory Sholette, one of the #J20 art strike call’s signatories, responds to Jonathan Jones's article “The ‘art strike’ against Trump is futile–cultural elites cannot effect change,” published in The Guardian, January 9, 2017.
Such a record number of people visited the Tate Modern last June that the museum removed the two Brazilian macaws included in Hélio Oiticica’s installation fearing that the animals’ health may be at risk. In another testament to art museum popularity, the Metropolitan Museum of Art clocked over 6.7 million visitors in 2016. And within the art market, according to the Dublin-based organization Arts Economics, total global art sales reached 63.8 billion USD in 2015. Add to this both the remarkable explosion of museums in China and the desire by countries such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai to obtain institutional art brands such as the Louvre and Guggenheim, and ask yourself whether one can really claim straight-faced—as Jonathan Jones has—that a call for American artists to strike on inauguration day is “nostalgic” and “futile”?
Yes, shutting down reality television programming would undoubtedly affect more people than an art strike, as Jones suggests—who could disagree with that? And yet, by simply running the numbers we can see the potential power of high culture. One need not be familiar with sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s studies linking actual power with accumulated cultural and social capital, including art collecting, to grasp the ideological authority of art. The president elect’s inaugural planners have recently stirred controversy by seeking to borrow from the St. Louis Art Museum an oil painting by George Caleb Bingham entitled “Verdict of the People.” The work depicts the reading of election results in mid-19th century America and will become the backdrop to the new president’s luncheon following his swearing-in ceremony if a petition rejecting the loan now underway does not succeed. (See Hrag Vartanian's report via Hyperallergic here.)
Just as important as the impact of art is artists' grassroots organizing that accomplishes political and social justice. Such mobilization has the ability to generate discussion as much as disagreement, and it frequently leads to longer-term coalition building. Neither is such activism merely the parroting of 1960s cultural protests as Jones insists. Even a cursory reflection on the tactics of activist artist coalitions such as the Guerrilla Girls (1985–ongoing), Gran Fury (1988–1995), A Day Without Art/Visual AIDS (1989–ongoing), Liberate Tate, and Gulf Labor Coalition (2010–ongoing), offers evidence that artists’ groups have continuously formed over the decades, and that they have often used cultural boycotts to amplify their objectives. Curiously, in a different Guardian piece, Jones acknowledges that the history of politically engaged art reaches back at least a century when he describes a Royal Academy exhibition featuring revolutionary Russian art as one of the great and “unmissable” cultural events of 2017. Nor is “art strike” the only such organization of culture that has taken place since the election, more examples of which can be found here.
Finally, it is simply not true that the signatories of the initial call for an art strike are “well-heeled” members of the “cultural elite.” Writing as one of the signatories, but also as a long-term art activist, I feel Mr. Jones’s description of the January 20th art strike as “shallow radical posturing,” is either poorly researched or intentionally hyperbolic, and frankly defeatist. If art is as minor and ineffectual as he suggests, and if orchestrating solidarity is as insignificant as he proposes, perhaps he is laboring at the wrong profession.
–Gregory Sholette, January 9, 2017
No Work, No School, No Business.Museums. Galleries. Theaters. Concert Halls. Studios. Nonprofits. Art Schools.Close For The Day.Hit The Streets. Bring Your Friends. Fight Back.
*Top image: Russians queue for hours in freezing weather to visit the Valentin Serov exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, on January 22, 2016 (AFP Photo/Vasily Maximov via Yahoo)
ARCHITECTURE CONVERSATIONS: MATTEO MASTRANDREA RESPONDS TO GIULIANA BRUNO, "STORAGE SPACE"
In “Storage Space,” Giuliana Bruno contends that our contemporary mode of existence impels us to reconsider the meaning, relevance and design of archives. The sheer quantity of disparate data our culture chaotically generates—that “ever changing flux of stored information”—proffers an unprecedented opportunity for each of us to encounter and work through increasingly varied assemblages of stuff. Yet if we are to make productive use of this new condition, Bruno suggests we must resist the impulse to organize, catalogue and control, as such responses are born out of a misguided and insidious desire to “[revert] back to the arkhē of archiving.”
But what is “the arkhē of archiving”? As Bruno explains, the Greek word arkhē embodies two principal concepts: inception and mastery.¹ It captures the sense both of a beginning and of an order. Yet what is missing from Bruno’s account is that arkhē also means, within the ancient tradition, a first, unifying principle or element underpinning all of existence; a democratized primordial substance from which all things grow and are composed. For Thales, arkhē was water; for Anaximenes, air; for Anaximander, apeiron. Thus, arkhē also gestures towards notions of ontological unity and equality.²
Despite this ontological etymology, accounts of the archive have tended to focus almost exclusively upon its epistemic significance—particularly its role in the curation and retention of (often collective) memories.³ Yet this myopic mnemo-centrism is a distraction that encourages us to consider only what the archive is for us, thereby condemning it to a thoroughly anthropocentric domain. I would suggest that if we instead frame our inquiry around the question of what the archive is for its contents—what becomes of things in the archive, and how this affects any given artefact's ontological status—we will better understand the role the archive is able to play in situating and “design[ing] the human condition.”
To highlight the ability of the archive to be more than simply a mnemonic device, it is worth returning to an example Bruno gives, Blade Runner (1982)—a film which undoubtedly acknowledges the role archives play in the development of the (non-)human subject—in order to consider one particular scene.
Having earlier ascertained that Rachael (Dr. Eldon Tyrell’s assistant) is a replicant, Deckard (the eponymous Blade Runner) returns to his apartment. As he exits the elevator he discovers Rachael waiting, eager to understand why he believes her to be nonhuman (“you think I’m a replicant, don’t you?”). In a hopelessly pathetic attempt to disprove Deckard’s conclusions, she presents him with a photograph and a memory (“look, it’s me with my mother”). With almost inhuman callousness, Deckard—who has met Rachael just once before—retorts:
Deckard: Yeah? Remember when you were six? You and your brother snuck into an empty building through a basement window. You were going to play doctor. He showed you his, but when it got to be your turn you chickened and ran; remember that? You ever tell anybody that? Your mother, Tyrell, anybody? You remember the spider that lived in a bush outside your window? Orange body, green legs. Watched her build a web all summer, then one day there's a big egg in it. The egg hatched...Rachael: The egg hatched…Deckard: Yeah…Rachael: …and a hundred baby spiders came out… and they ate her.Deckard: Implants. Those aren’t your memories, they’re somebody else’s.
By declaring his knowledge of just two implanted memories, Deckard categorically proves Rachael’s lack of personhood. Yet this is not because “the replicant does not have a memory.” In fact, the very opposite appears to be the case. It is emphatically because she does have a memory—a memory which is not her own, populated with events that Deckard can articulate in minute detail, which is, ultimately, incapable of being forgotten—that exposes her for what she is. Rachael will never escape the harrowing minutiae of these hard-wired memories; they have been uploaded to her “mind" without knowledge or consent, and (without the intervention of her ostensibly human masters) cannot be deleted. Thus insofar as Blade Runner is concerned, in a world where technology has infiltrated everything, it is forgetting—not remembering—that sets us apart, that makes us human.⁴
Once she computes what Deckard has told her, a tearful Rachael departs, discarding the photograph on her way out—a now useless fragment from a past she never lived. Her new status as a replicant—her objectification—renders the image (a synecdochic archive) obsolete. But why? Why is the archive so unimportant once she has been rendered nonhuman? Is it merely an unthinking emotional response? Is it because she now knows her pre-programmed memories do not require mnemonic provocation in order to be ensured? Or is there something more fundamental at stake?
Following the introduction of the commercial sound film in 1923 and the concomitant death of silent cinema, the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson shrewdly remarked that the “[t]he soundtrack invented silence.” Despite the films of the previous three decades projecting a mute world, it was not until the advent of sound that silence could be isolated, deployed, and made manifest.
Equally, it could be said that what the archive invents, what it makes manifest, is not remembrance at all—but forgetting. Archives give those moments where memory fails us a presence and tangibility. On the one hand, the archive incites (individual) feelings of forgetfulness by showing us artefacts which we have failed to remember. On the other, it confronts us with (collective) abyssal lacunae—with an infinity of absent (forgotten) material implied by that which is present. However, beyond this more obvious binate delineation, there is another type of forgetting which the archive embodies and presents, a single, forgotten truth—namely: that all things, at some fundamental (if apparently latent) level, are ontologically equal.
Since the rise of Speculative Realism at the end of the last decade, the notion of a “flat ontology” has received much critical attention. In his book The Democracy of Objects, Levi Bryant outlines the two key claims flat ontology makes:
First, humans are not at the center of being, but are among beings. Second, objects are not a pole opposing a subject, but exist in their own right, regardless of whether any other object or human relates to them. Humans, far from constituting a category called “subject” that is opposed to “object,” are themselves one type of object among many.⁵
The arrangement of the archive is such that any artefact it contains is emptied of its ability to claim ontological primacy. Each object—whether inanimate or not—is flattened, given a number, and entered into a catalogue. Everything is thus democratized, establishing a field of “objects among objects.”⁶ Indeed, that is not to say that all objects in an archive contribute equally—some might be looked at or referred to more often than others, for example—but it is to say that all objects equally exist. The archive therefore embodies the ontological thesis that all objects, as Ian Bogost would put it, “equally exist while they do not exist equally.”⁷ Consequently, as Adrian Miles asserts in “12 Statements for Archival Flatness,”
The flat ontology of the archive allows its objects to have innumerable possible contextual relations, whether historical, political, social, cultural, aesthetic or merely contingent. The manifold of relations that this flatness enables allows the “semi-mute” artefacts of the archive to gain new, and different, voices.⁸
If the analysis of the archive remains at an epistemological level, then we are left with a set of objects which merely reinforce our otherness to the world—its mnemonic role exposes that which makes us human: forgetting. Yet, if we dig a little deeper, we discover that the archive serves another—forgotten—purpose. It asserts an ontological position—one which places the human and nonhuman on an equal plane of being.
However, this flat ontology is made possible only through a process of ordering—only via “the arkhē of archiving.” The ordering methodology need not be autocratic (mon-archic); indeed, it may well be collective (an-archic). But without configuration, we are left with “aggregates of disparate […] materials”—an incoherent noise which embodies equality only insofar as it destroys everything. Thomas Demand’s beguiling image Archive captures the ideal: not chaos, but folders on shelves, equally sized, shaped and stacked, betraying no discernible hierarchy, awaiting one another. This is what sets the archive apart from the museum. It is the ontological claim it makes: that nothing (whether human or nonhuman) is superior or prior to anything else it contains.
As a result, I would submit that why Rachael eschews the archive is because it has lost its capacity to teach her something. Her recognition and acceptance of herself as an object (a replicant) negates the didactic purpose the archive would otherwise have served. To wit, if Rachael had been human, the archive would have been a necessary institution to constantly remind her that she is merely one type of object among many, and her being—what constitutes her—different from inanimate matter only in terms of degree, not kind. Now that she knows herself to lack subjecthood, the archive is rendered redundant. She is an object just like everything else and—with or without the archive—she knows it.
Bruno’s proposal thus runs aground when, by imploring us to not revert “back to the arkhē of archiving,” it disregards the archive’s ontological substance and equality. By considering the archive’s significance epistemologically, not ontologically, we overlook its capacity—through a process of ordering—to sublate the human into a democratized field of objects (a radically post-human condition). Consequently, the mnemonic material archive Bruno promulgates still foregrounds the human, despite the technological accoutrements with which the body is now adorned (“the human body has become an aggregate of different corpora and data, with mixed organic and inorganic elements”)—a disappointingly trans-human and thus anthropocentric conclusion which tacitly endorses the “binary logic of opposition between humans and nonhumans.”
Indeed, we are replicants. We always have been. But we need the arkhē of the archive to keep reminding us that that is the case.
¹ Heidegger defined arkhḗ in this way. See Gregory Fried, Heidegger’s Polemos: From Being to Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 119. Derrida echoes Heidegger when he asserts that arkhḗ "names at once the commencement and the commandment" in Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” Diacritics 25, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 9.² Indeed Pythagoreans used the words arkhḗ and monas (unity) interchangeably. "The beginning of all is unity..." See Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (New York: Oia Press), VIII, 25.³ Alongside Derrida’s work, see particularly Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Tavistock Publications, 1972) and Giorgio Agamben Remnants of Auschwitz (New York, Zone Books, 1999).⁴ In Westworld, an HBO TV series which follows—and extends—many of the ideas/themes of Blade Runner, a host (or replicant) named Bernard barters with a human (Dr. Ford—who says earlier in the season that ‘the least we can do is make them forget’) on the basis that he will be allowed to forget certain memories.⁵ Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (London: Open Humanities Press, 2011), 249.⁶ Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 97. Kracauer is writing about the ontology of the photographic/filmic image. Indeed, it is interesting to note that both photographs and films have also been characterized as having the same democratizing tendencies that I am proposing the archive has—they flatten being into an ontologically equal image. See, for example, Stanley Cavell, ‘What Becomes of Things on Film?’ Philosophy and Literature 2, no. 2 (Fall 1978), 249–257. This is perhaps why moving images and archives have often been conceptual bedfellows—Bruno herself says elsewhere that “moving images have become the moving archive in this twenty-first century: our own future museum.” See Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 145.⁷ Ian Bogost, as quoted in Ibid., Bryant, 19.⁸ Adrian Miles, ‘12 Statements for Archival Flatness’ in Performing Digital: Multiple Perspectives on a Living Archive (Farnham, Ashgate Publishing, 2015), 45. In a lot of respects, this is also a better characterization of the archive even if we limit our analysis to strictly mnemonic terms, as "in our memory everything is equally valuable and significant. All points of our recollections are tied to one another. They form chains and connections in our memory which ultimately comprise the story of life." Ilya Kabakov, "The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away" (1977), in The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2006), 33.
Matteo Mastrandrea is a designer who teaches at the Royal College of Art in London. His practice and research interrogates the common ground shared between architecture and the moving image. He recently co-founded TAXONYM, an interdisciplinary design practice, and is Programme Director for London's inaugural Architecture Film Festival, which will take place in the summer of 2017.
In Where We Live Now: The Country and the City (1979), British documentarian Raymond Williams analyses images of the country and the city in English literature since the 16th century and how these images become central symbols for conceptualizing the social and economic changes associated with capitalist development in England. Much thanks to Cartographies of the Absolute for posting!
Over at Archinect, Nick Korody writes lucidly about the exploitative dynamics of architecture exhibitions while making the case for a new model of the exhibitionist architect. Some highlights below, in full here.
In many ways, these are the architects producing the most radical thinking and the most engaging work. As such, rather than looking at exhibitions as a site of mere representation, present conditions demand that they be viewed as a site of the practice of architecture. Or, more precisely, as a site within the larger architectonics of architecture: a launching ground for careers, a venue for the display of new ideas, and a mechanism for the production of discourse. And, like most architecture, exhibitionary architecture requires real estate to happen. In the case of big biennials, that real estate is purchased by corporate sponsors (unless you’re in Oslo, where your triennale is funded in part by an oil-funded government).
Then there’s academic galleries hosted by universities. Of course, this real estate is also, indirectly, funded by corporations. But, probably more to the point, such exhibitions produce a discourse so hermeneutic that it’s even rare for students outside of the architecture department to participate in it. A few alum will probably come by. One or two visitors to campus. It would be hard to defend these exhibitions as truly public. In other words, it’s private land on which private space, for private ideas, is built.
In other cases, the real estate is purchased, or leased, by an individual, typically called a gallerist. In general, these architecture exhibitions are a floundering mess when it comes to money (and, to be frank, form, but that’s for another essay). By and large, they borrow their financial model from the art industry. But, unlike (some) artists, architects don’t accumulate collectors over time. Their work doesn’t accrue more value the more they exhibit. In other words, there’s no real point for architects to exhibit besides the production of discourse and the collection of social capital. But you can’t eat discourse or social capital.
To make matters worse, architects don’t really tend to produce exhibitable work on their own. Instead, architects usually make pieces specifically for a given exhibit, which can be a costly endeavor. After all, architectural works tend to be more expensive to make than your average acrylic painting or bricolage sculpture. Either the gallery coughs up some money, which is bad business, or the architect scrounges up some cash, which means their participation in the exhibition is a cost-negative affair. So, it’s not really a coincidence that most exhibiting architects are also (often financially precarious, adjunct) professors. Of course, there are many architecture galleries that valiantly try to develop a collector base for the architects whom they exhibit—but this is a difficult challenge and, from what I’ve gathered anecdotally, it rarely pans out. And, for what it’s worth, many architects seem to prefer it this way since, particularly among the politically “woke” bourgeoisie, money is still a bad word. But then what’s the point? Is architectural discourse really worth precarity? If the political language of big biennials serves to distract from their complicity with corporations, then the price list for a small gallery is basically a streaker that nobody notices trying to draw attention away from the fact that architects are, by and large, completely victim to economic configurations that marginalize them. And they’re not really doing anything about it.
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 Emily Apter
For this Sense of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism forum I initially thought of reworking a pre-election blast I’d written for a Queens Museum exhibition on “janking,” a term associated with the art of dissing or offending, as in “the dozens” or rapping and slamming. I associated what I called “janking off” with Trump’s incessant jibing and calumniating, specifically with the vicious, viral Twitter-vomit of his lamely derisive adjectives, weaponized as online cyberbullying. Trumpist janking derives its energy from hate speech, trolling, and verbal battery. It exults in forms of baiting reliant on ad hominem attacks on a person’s heritage, race, physical rating, character, and body parts, and now, as we’ve seen most recently, on a worker’s professional integrity—the union leader of United Steelworkers Local 1999, Chuck Jones, who called out Trump for “lying his ass off” after Trump made specious claims about saving jobs at Carrier.
Janking off is certainly a topic with relevance to this forum, but what I feel pressed to talk about even more concerns the politics of resistance to abstract, financialized forms of investor-driven speculation, which under Trump are on course to attain their triumphalist apotheosis.
To this end, we might consider new uses of depreciation. The term is drafted from arguments developed by Zone Books editor Michel Feher, whose ongoing study of finance capitalism fixes on the investee as a subjective unit of asset appreciation.1 Feher’s emphasis on “appreciation” prompts a revisioning of depreciation as a mode of active resistance to the undeclared economic wars that we find ourselves trying to fight, despite the difficulty of discerning where their front lines are demarcated, despite the immaterialities of capitalist speculation. Two related questions then: What would “to depreciate” be as theoretical praxis? As a mode of direct action that takes aim at quasi-invisible targets of the portfolio society?
Ivan Ascher’s book Portfolio Society: On the Capitalist Mode of Prediction (2016) sits at the intersection of a growing body of critical work on the relation between ontology and the financialization of existence. Much of this work focuses on notions of measured life, and its antithesis: that which is unaccountable, non-capitalized, non-optimized, non-transcendent, non-equivalent, or untranslatable as a measure of economic, political, and (existential) value. The corpus has been marked by the interventions of Arlie Hochschild, Ulrich Beck, Matt Taibbi, Luc Boltanski, David Harvey, Thomas Piketty, Robert Meister, David Graeber, Randy Martin, Benjamin Lee, Wendy Brown, Maurizio Lazzarato, Michel Feher, Frédéric Lordon, Nina Power, Jonathan Crary, Arjun Appadurai, and many others. Key issues include the 24/7 temporality of work and the formal-existential calibration of what Roland Barthes called “the daily grind”; the social distribution of income in a future characterized by pervasive automation; the impact of radical income inequality accompanied by a winner-takes-all competitive violence of the “1%”; the relation (or non-relation) among categories of number, econometrics, and social calculation; the governance and monetization of existence via data analytics; the drive of the algorithm in banking, flash trades, derivatives markets, volatility, and predatory lending; the globally disastrous treatment of forms of human and nonhuman life as disposable “externalities” or “overburden” (waste, topsoil, deforested or mountain-topped landscape). A collective volume from a Critical Finance group titled Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies covers some of this ground in greater depth, departing from the Marxist premise that derivatives “are examples of fictitious capital that produce enormous quantities of monetary wealth in global capitalism whose core is still the production of labor-based value.”2 One economic practice that the group seems to agree is super-important is the calculation of volatility, a pendant to and key dynamic of “fictitious capital.” As Benjamin Lee argues, it factors majorly in speculation involving risk, uncertainty, hedging, optionality, and arbitrage, and it leads to the extraordinary insight, formulated by Elie Ayache, that “if implied volatility is followed through all its implications, we find that it perpetually leads to the devastation of its concept” (quoted in DWS 7). Lee underscores the “proposal made by David Graeber for militating the social volatilities of contemporary global capitalism,” which involves transforming “finance capitalism via radical measures such as debt refusal” (DWS 1). This embrace of “debt refusal” as a tactic invites us to think about related modes of resistance to social volatilities precipitated by the military-industrial-academic complex. How does one desist or counter-speculate? What would be a politics of “to depreciate?” Such questions elicit no ready program, but they beckon in the direction of some prescriptions, marshaled with vigilance if not full-on ethical militance:
—We should resist financial models of the “dividual” as “subject” of a speculation economy dedicated to producing dividends, stock, and rents.3
—We need to reverse the financial turn (whose grand pivot was the 1970s when New York City declared bankruptcy) in which banks realized they could run the world without politics, instituting austerity, non-negotiation with unions, and the logic of markets as unilateral principle of sovereign decision.
—We need to illegalize the practices of private equity firms, which strip out assets and reduce wages, benefits, pensions, job security, worker safety, and union representation, enriching CEOs with leveraged debt, squeezing workers, and knowingly sending them down the path of unemployability in the name of shareholder value.
—We need to disallow states, cities, or communities to be taken hostage by companies that shake them down in the name of “saving jobs.”
—We must connect the dots—through aesthetic strategies of effective visual exposure—between financial engineering and social life, or lives at street level that have been overwritten by real-estate deals, evictions, gentrification, and the exorbitant price of ground rent, food, and basic commodities. We need to shore up the collective strength of lives at risk, of landless depreciators of value.
—We need to train in the art of lighting, developing laser beams that penetrate the turret-towers of financial traders and their communities of politically immune professionals.
—We need to blanket the facades of banks and corporate headquarters (as well as the virtual spaces of dark economies) with protest holograms; we need to organize ghost marches on real estate cordoned off from public access.
—We need to devise new graphics for following the money to where the assets are hiding; invade the sanctums of “limited liability,” off-shore accounting, sheltered art, shell companies, and isles de paradis (the felicitous French name for tax havens).
—We can distill strategies of direct action against new forms of primitive accumulation by the 1%.
—We need to figure out the technics of how to depreciate an asset, using boycotting, divestment, work stoppage, property devaluation, worthless labor, care, and “minimal affirmatives” associated with dodges, sidesteps, and deviations. Most importantly, we need to assert “the right to demand little” in the context of a “double discourse of scarce resources and limitless demands.”4
—We need to take a stand against modes of existence organized around heirloom culture, estate planning, maximal returns, production quotas, actuarial betting.
In the education sector, where the humanities, arts, and social sciences are increasingly under threat, we need to think not just about returning to the aesthetics of de-skilling or non-instrumental knowledge production, but about developing specific forms of training:
—Let us train our critical faculties on who or what profits the most from student debt.
—Let us delegitimate business models of education imposed through structures of accreditation, “best practices,” and the harvesting of “human resources.”
—Let us resist the reliance on “quant” measures of research value and performance indicators.
—Let us reject the role of educator as asset appreciator.
—Let us challenge the notion of labs and libraries as profit centers, of university property as tax write-off or branding opportunity.
—Let us resist data-driven, outcome-oriented, packaged educational product.
—Let us refuse corporate monolingualism and insist on plurilingualism.
—Let us decelerate pedagogy, through slow reading and “difficult” theory.
—Let us challenge the championing of Digital Humanities as an investment-worthy resource at the expense of other kinds of learning.
—We need to fight against student poverty and contingent academic labor.
—We need to protect undocumented students.
—We need to resist the legitimation and mainstreaming of fraudulent institutions like “Trump University!”
—We need to recover the pleasures of agitprop, the art of political satire and caricature.
—We need to un-stall the reign of hypernormalization.5
—We must find a way to exit the gamespace of the alt-real.
—We need to counter-speculate.
NOTES1 Michel Feher, “Investee,” talk delivered at the conference “Political Concepts: The Balibar Edition,” Brown University, Dec. 2, 2016.2 Benjamin Lee, Introduction, Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies, eds. Benjamin Lee and Randy Martin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 1. Further references to this work will appear in the text abbreviated “DWS.”3 The “dividual,” writes Arjun Appadurai, “is not an elementary particle (or homunculus) of the individual but something more like the material substrate from which the individual emerges, the precursor and precondition of the individual, more protean and less easy to discern and to name than the individual, which is one of its structural products.” For Appadurai, the dividual becomes the preeminent name for the financialized subject. It “is largely an effect of the workings of financial capitalism since the early 1970s and in particular a collateral effect of the spread of the derivative form as the quintessential tool of making money out of uncertainty in this era of financialization.” See his “The Wealth of Dividuals” in Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies, 17.4 Anne-Lise François, “Late Exercises in Minimal Affirmatives,” in Theory Aside, eds. Jason Potts and Daniel Stout (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 35. A prime example of such affirmatives is culled from the impasse identified with the “desire to flee a culture that asks him to pursue, lay claim to, and activate desire, and that already anticipates his resistance, rebellion, insurgency.” Barthes, says François, responds to the “yes/no impasse” by doing no more “than lay out in disordered catalogue various types of dodges (esquives), sidesteps, deviations, retreats or fuites, all of them too fugitive to work for long or to be counted on to duplicate their success a second time” (41).5 A point borrowed from Adam Curtis’s documentary HyperNormalilsation (2016). The film’s titular concept is adapted from Alexei Yurchak’s Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, in which politicians and citizens develop ways of living in the present that comply with regimes which have erased truth-fact distinctions along with the capacity to draw such distinctions.
Image via theilluminator.org.
In The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman surveys the history and empty promises of the time-management industry. Developed in the early twentieth-century to maximize the efficiency—that is, the exploitation—of manual laborers in factories, the philosophy of time management is more popular and profitable than even today, when precarious work and information technology has dissolved the border between work and nonwork. But as Burkeman writes, any time gained by increased efficiency is almost always filled by more work, not more freedom. Check out an excerpt from the long read below, or find the full piece here.
Above all, time management promises that a meaningful life might still be possible in this profit-driven environment, as Melissa Gregg explains in Counterproductive, a forthcoming history of the field. With the right techniques, the prophets of time management all implied, you could fashion a fulfilling life while simultaneously attending to the ever-increasing demands of your employer. This promise “comes back and back, in force, whenever there’s an economic downturn”, Gregg told me.
Especially at the higher-paid end of the employment spectrum, time management whispers of the possibility of something even more desirable: true peace of mind. “It is possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control,” the contemporary king of the productivity gurus, David Allen, declared in his 2001 bestseller, Getting Things Done. “You can experience what the martial artists call a ‘mind like water’, and top athletes refer to as ‘the zone’.”
As Gregg points out, it is significant that “personal productivity” puts the burden of reconciling these demands squarely on our shoulders as individuals. Time management gurus rarely stop to ask whether the task of merely staying afloat in the modern economy – holding down a job, paying the mortgage, being a good-enough parent – really ought to require rendering ourselves inhumanly efficient in the first place.
Image via The Guardian.
Michael Specter writes a very long feature on the dangers and virtues of DNA editing, specifically the tool CRISPR, which he writes is "essentially a molecular scalpel." Specter's intro, which takes the case of Nantucket's Lyme disease problem, is below, the piece in full via the New Yorker.
Early on an unusually blustery day in June, Kevin Esvelt climbed aboard a ferry at Hyannis*, bound for Nantucket Island. Esvelt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on his way to present to local health officials a plan for ridding the island of one of its most persistent problems: Lyme disease. He had been up for much of the night working on his slides, and the fatigue showed. He had misaligned the buttons on his gray pin-striped shirt, and the rings around his deep-blue eyes made him look like a sandy-haired raccoon.
Esvelt, who is thirty-four, directs the “sculpting evolution” group at M.I.T., where he and his colleagues are attempting to design molecular tools capable of fundamentally altering the natural world. If the residents of Nantucket agree, Esvelt intends to use those tools to rewrite the DNA of white-footed mice to make them immune to the bacteria that cause Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. He and his team would breed the mice in the laboratory and then, as an initial experiment, release them on an uninhabited island. If the number of infected ticks begins to plummet, he would seek permission to repeat the process on Nantucket and on nearby Martha’s Vineyard.
More than a quarter of Nantucket’s residents have been infected with Lyme, which has become one of the most rapidly spreading diseases in the United States. The illness is often accompanied by a red bull’s-eye rash, along with fever and chills. When the disease is caught early enough, it can be cured in most cases with a single course of antibiotics. For many people, though, pain and neurological symptoms can persist for years. In communities throughout the Northeast, the fear of ticks has changed the nature of summer itself—few parents these days would permit a child to run barefoot through the grass or wander blithely into the woods.
“What if we could wave our hands and make this problem go away?” Esvelt asked the two dozen officials and members of the public who had assembled at the island’s police station for his presentation. He explained that white-footed mice are the principal reservoir of Lyme disease, which they pass, through ticks, to humans. “This is an ecological problem,” Esvelt said. “And we want to enact an ecological solution so that we break the transmission cycle that keeps ticks in the environment infected with these pathogens.”
There is currently no approved Lyme vaccine for humans, but there is one for dogs, which also works on mice. Esvelt and his team would begin by vaccinating their mice and sequencing the DNA of the most protective antibodies. They would then implant the genes required to make those antibodies into the cells of mouse eggs. Those mice would be born immune to Lyme. Ultimately, if enough of them are released to mate with wild mice, the entire population would become resistant. Just as critically, the antibodies in the mice would kill the Lyme bacterium in any ticks that bite them. Without infected ticks, there would be no infected people. “Take out the mice,” Esvelt told me, “and the entire transmission cycle collapses.”
Esvelt has spoken about Lyme dozens of times in the past year, not just on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard but at forums around the world, from a synthetic-biology symposium in Chile to President Obama’s White House Frontiers Conference, in Pittsburgh. At every appearance, Esvelt tells the audience that he wants his two young children—he has a three-year-old son and a daughter who is almost one—to grow up in a Lyme-free world. But that’s not really why he speaks at infectious-disease meetings, entomology conventions, and international conservation workshops. He has embarked on a mission that he thinks is far more important.
Esvelt and his colleagues were the first to describe, in 2014, how the revolutionary gene-editing tool crispr could combine with a natural phenomenon known as a gene drive to alter the genetic destiny of a species. Gene drives work by overriding the traditional rules of Mendelian inheritance. Normally, the progeny of any sexually reproductive organism receives half its genome from each parent. But since the nineteen-forties biologists have been aware that some genetic elements are “selfish”: evolution has bestowed on them a better than fifty-per-cent chance of being inherited. That peculiarity makes it possible for certain characteristics to spread with unusual speed.
Until crispr came along, biologists lacked the tools to force specific genetic changes across an entire population. But the system, which is essentially a molecular scalpel, makes it possible to alter or delete any sequence in a genome of billions of nucleotides. By placing it in an organism’s DNA, scientists can insure that the new gene will copy itself in every successive generation. A mutation that blocked the parasite responsible for malaria, for instance, could be engineered into a mosquito and passed down every time the mosquito reproduced. Each future generation would have more offspring with the trait until, at some point, the entire species would have it.
There has never been a more powerful biological tool, or one with more potential to both improve the world and endanger it. Esvelt hopes to use the technology as a lever to pry open what he sees as the often secretive and needlessly duplicative process of scientific research. “The only way to conduct an experiment that could wipe an entire species from the Earth is with complete transparency,” he told me. “For both moral and practical reasons, gene drive is most likely to succeed if all the research is done openly. And if we can do it for gene drive we can do it for the rest of science.”
In the aughts, as a budding art critic and curator who spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet, I heard bits and pieces about actual, physical galleries that showed internet art. And/Or Gallery, started in 2006 by Lauren Gray and Paul Slocum in the unlikely locale of Dallas, Texas, was one of such places. And/Or showed a roster of artists that have since gone on to do great things--Brenna Murphy and Petra Cortright among them. Slocum has reinitiated And/Or in Pasadena, California as of this winter. It'll be interesting to see how the gallery operates in a coastal location and 10 years later, when many of the artists associated with the gallery already have gallery representation. Read Christopher Mosley of the Dallas Times on And/Or in partial below, or in full via Dallas News.
The first show at the California edition of And/Or featured both artists who have exhibited at the Dallas gallery and a few that signal what’s next for the resurrected project. Artist Brenna Murphy had her first-ever Los Angeles solo opening, after showing a single work in And/Or’s relaunch exhibition. Her work includes everything from sculpture to tapestries to virtual reality.
Some of And/Or’s Dallas alumni have come a long way since they first displayed work at the original location. Petra Cortright may be the most glaring example. She sold her first work ever in Dallas, which should be a huge bragging point for the city. Cortright went on to show at the Frieze Art Fair, the Venice Biennale, and collaborated on a project with Stella McCartney. The artist had a 2007 work, VVEBCAM, censored on YouTube due to her use of explicit tags, even though the video content itself is cartoonish and harmless. Now a decade old, the piece looks very much like the average Snapchat clip being shared this very moment in classrooms the world over. Even in (or because of?) being banned, Cortright remains influential.
Russian artist Olia Lialina created the aforementioned tower of Myspace-era internet gifs, and has now been working with internet-based art for the past 20 years — or two lifetimes ago online. She is considered one of the pioneers of the genre. Artist Guthrie Lonergan participated in the Hammer Museum’s popular Made in L.A. group exhibition. A work by Cory Arcangel — who has shown multiple times at the Whitney Museum, including the distinction of a solo exhibition — was part of a trade deal between Slocum and the artist.
With such a heavy focus on being a highly progressive art entity, the 2017 West Coast version of And/Or Gallery is now in a very interesting place. What to do when the flash and glitz of the web quickly cannibalizes and erodes the impact of digital artwork, and it becomes as dated as any other design or communication trend? How will the new space define itself in the era of the vintage emoji?
*Image of Pasadena's And/Or Gallery via Dallas News
Don't say it was too soon: emo, that kind of embarrassing turn-of-the-millenium blend of punk and sadness that became a definitely embarrassing mainstream sensation in bands like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, is now back in the form of themed parties for millennials. The Emo Night at Echoplex in LA is already celebrating its two-year anniversary. Jia Tolentino reports on the phenomena for the New Yorker in partial below, in full here.
In the past couple of years, a strange phenomenon has taken hold: tens of thousands of city-dwelling professionals aged twenty-five to thirty-five have started flocking to regularly scheduled parties with the narrow theme of “emo.” Emo, originally short for “emotive hardcore,” is a fluid category that encompasses decades of music: the genre first emerged in the nineties, went pop in the aughts, and has lately settled into a nuanced, indie adulthood. But these themed emo nights look to a specific era: about a decade ago, after pop-punk bands like Green Day and Blink-182 had set the table for the radio-friendly emo acts to come. These later bands were, and remain, easily parodied, offering a combination of flamboyant melodies, furious percussion, and teen-age screams.
During the genre’s mainstream peak, which lasted roughly from 2001 to 2006, there was a popular emo act for every shade of adolescent feeling. My Chemical Romance was imperiously self-deprecating; Fall Out Boy was exuberant; Panic! at the Disco was vaudevillian—and all three went double platinum. Dashboard Confessional was lovelorn and sappy; Jimmy Eat World was cheerfully sincere. Brand New and Taking Back Sunday, jockish rivals from Long Island, sang about self-obsession and spite. The most radio-friendly emo frequency was bounded on one side by darker, post-hardcore bands, like Thursday, and on the other by silly pop-punk acts, like Sum 41, that were mainstream enough to appear on MTV’s “Total Request Live.”
Inside this sweaty, and almost entirely male, musical ecosystem, the simplest emotions bloomed into life-or-death melodrama. Taking Back Sunday described infatuation like so: “You could slit my throat / And with my one last gasping breath / I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt.” There was a streak of playfulness in emo, but it was the genre’s spectacular sentimental indulgence that really got people on board. It also insured that emo’s biggest fans fell within a certain age range.
A decade later, the emo teens are grown up, sort of, and they are re-immersing themselves in the sound of adolescence—that squeal of medical-grade angst and longing. There are emo nights in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Portland, Denver, Tampa, Houston, Baltimore, and Boston, among other cities. They are oddly specific celebrations of near-term nostalgia in which music made to help teen-agers flail their way to adulthood provides an opportunity for adults to succumb to the histrionics of teendom again.
The best-known and most heavily branded emo night takes place in Los Angeles on the first Tuesday of every month. Emo Nite LA boasts a cute logo of a cartoon gravestone; high-contrast, mid-aughts-style hipster party photography at every event; and a thriving line of merch. (Its most popular offering is a shirt that proclaims “SAD AS FUCK.”) Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus has d.j.’d the party; in 2015, at Emo Nite LA’s one-year anniversary, Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba performed an acoustic set. The franchise extends to a handful of other cities; the event’s organizers estimate that, in the past two years, forty thousand people have attended Emo Nite LA events.
In December, Emo Nite LA celebrated its two-year anniversary, at the Echoplex, a popular venue on the east side of Los Angeles. A long line of black-clad party hopefuls stood on the sidewalk outside. It was a more inclusive crowd than you usually see in Los Angeles, as if warring high-school cliques had united for a night. When I went inside the venue, a marching band was playing Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” and the ceiling was covered with “SAD AF” balloons. To my right, a pair of husky lurkers talked about the Promise Ring; to my right, three girls who appeared to be dressed for social media Snapchatted themselves singing along to “Mr. Brightside,” the 2004 hit by the Killers, which was playing over the speakers. The Killers were not emo.
*Image of Conor Oberst via Noisey
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 Elizabeth A. Povinelli
Although I was asked to speak on the topic of affect, my remarks might be better framed with the question, “What do white people want?” Many people have already remarked on the percentage of white men who voted for Trump. But we must also acknowledge the number of suburban and rural women who didn’t care about pussies or cocks—who didn’t care about the harassment of Trump or of the exiled Roger Ailes. And we know that some nonwhite Americans also voted for Trump, no matter the blunt racist discourse of the president-elect and those around him. But the reason for asking these questions is not to cite the theoretical misogyny of Freudian psychoanalysis but to open a conversation about the current formations of race and gender in the vicinity of global late-liberal interest, desire, and affect.
The relationship between interest and desire was the question that riveted left political theory in the wake of the emergence of Thatcherism and Reaganism in the 1980s. In the context of the US the question was simply put—why did the white working class vote against its own interest? Scholars sought to understand how Reagan’s assault on African American communities ("welfare queen") and on unions via the spectacle of air traffic controllers was crucial to his capture of the white middle and working class vote and a culmination of a longstanding “southern strategy” (Roediger); and how the supposed end of the nation-state was merely a strategy for the advancement of capital rather than a break in history (Harvey). Although articulating a very different social history, we thought we saw a similar dynamic in Thatcher’s ability to turn the white working class against itself in the infamous miner’s strike, and whites against black Britain (Gilroy). It was in this context that Gayatri Spivak famously penned “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in which she differentiated between interest and desire—capital as the international division of labor and desire as identification and subjectification. This prehistory of interest and desire is, I think, important to remember if we are to understand Trump not through the framework of American exceptionalism, but rather, as with Reagan and Thatcher, within a topological transformation of liberalism itself. If we are to understand Trump, perhaps the first thing we need to do is pull our American heads out of the exceptionalist ass of America. Just as biopolitics did not begin in Europe—and not the biopolitics of The Birth of Biopolitics, but the biopolitical of the last chapters of Society Must be Defended—but rather in the vicious excesses of the African colonies (Mbembe), so Trump’s prefiguration is not merely the Italian despots of Mussolini and Berlusconi but the Bataillean corporeal spectacle of the African postcolonial leader.
Instead of all is the same, all is different, Trump’s election provides us an opportunity to return to these questions as a means of changing our understanding not merely of the current topology of interest and the question of desire, but also the problem of affect in relation to both. What is interest now? What is the relation between desire and interest and desire and language, not merely in the context of the impossibility of identity at their intersection but in the context of what we are told is a new post-truth era in which William Burroughs’s man who taught his asshole to talk has taken office? How might separating the problem of affect from the problem of desire help us make our way through this fecal moment?
Firstly, what is the topography of interest and desire today? How do we know that the so-called deplorables voted against their interests if we don’t know what the structure of interest is? Perhaps the deplorables voted in their interest from one frame of reference, but in organizing their desire from within another unleashed a torrent of hate such that the entire separation undergoes a conflagration. In other words, what topology of late liberalism organized the rage and revolt of the deplorables? And how does it relate to the imaginary topologies in which we have been sunk? These remarks are merely remarks, so let me telegraph the point perhaps all too quickly. Since the 1980s, the imaginary of the “-scapes” (Appadurai) and of globalization have displaced the imaginary of nations and their states. Indeed, the 1990s witnessed endless announcements about the end of the local and the nation-state and the twilight of the Westphalian model. The global, glocal, translocal, and transglocal were just some of the terms and neologisms created to capture the aftereffects of transnational neoliberal capital (Harvey). Sometimes a scalar model is used to represent this new formation of interest (Drawing 1); sometimes a model of circulation is used (Drawing 2).
And yet, the arrival of Trump, the Brexit vote, the surge of the right throughout Europe and its embrace of Putinism, and other disturbances within the classic axis of liberalism demand, I believe, a slightly different topological model, one that better reflects the deplorables’ analysis of late liberalism (Drawing 3). Here we see two forms of relationality that are neither exactly different nor exactly the same as the two previous. The nation-state remains as a place for and the source of an extraction of capital for those for whom the nation-state is an irrelevant or counterform of identity. Their mode of sociality and accumulation operates via the movement through but without the same identificatory or economic constraints of the nation-state as those outside the circuits. Indeed, perhaps the best way of conceiving these circuits of identity, accumulation, and circulation—circuits that are simultaneously dependent on and independent of the nation-state—are tubular, or better, pneumonic. They are forms of suction in which extraction and flight are part of the same process. It is exactly this structure that many Trump and Brexit voters point to when justifying their vote. They present a choice to the urban, the liberal, the post-national population, and usually the financially elite circulating within these pneumatic tubes—if you are a part of the nation-state on which a part of the condition of your life depends, then you must abide by the same conditions of those of us outside. The vote might be seen as in effect an attempt to seal these tubes. And in this sense the analytics behind the vote are not wrong.
Of course the dynamics of desire, organized according to special regional histories and discourses, hardly align with this analytics of interest. The white populism of US nationalism makes “the wages of whiteness” a crucial element of the imaginary of pneumatic capitalism (DuBois; Roediger; Kazin). It is not a distortion so much as a desire to maintain a dominant relationship between economic benefit and race. Thus the pneumatics of late liberalism meets the ghetto of American race history—as white populism attempts to seal its privilege against two forms of expansion, the expansion of black revolt as witnessed in the Black Lives Matter movement and the expansion of a diverse postnationalist national citizenry at the upper and lower end of the financial spectrum (low-wage-labor immigration and high-wage multiurbanism).
So why do we need “affect” when the concepts of interest and desire still appear to do a working man’s job of analyzing the conditions of the present? Of course the usefulness of the concept depends on what we mean to indicate in its usage. Here I use affect to indicate not desire as it has been captured by the discourses of language and subjectivity but in the Spinozean sense (or the sense Deleuze gave to Spinoza), namely, a mode of thought that doesn’t present anything. A will/volition/force that is not for something and that does not represent something else, but a pure revolt. This is not Freudian repression. Not lack. It is the pure simultaneity of yes/no. And here we can no longer ask, “What do white people want?” and believe that there will be an answer that corresponds to interest or desire. Instead, Trump and Brexit voters vote yes in order to vote no. They vote yes in order to vote against the expansion of a form of existence whose viability depends on continually vacuuming ever more finite sources from the nation-state while claiming—or living as if—they had no interest in it. The global expansion of explosive affect is intensified by the simultaneous expansion of the individual via social media and the tight restriction of the same individual in terms of her imaginary socioeconomic future.
And here we reach a set of uncomfortable conclusions. This yes in order to differ makes analytic sense as it is fueled by and fuels a torrent of racism, misogyny, and anti(the right kind of)immigrant and alt-right phobias of all sorts. It also helps us understand why the deplorables are not simply white, not simply white men, but a variety of social identities and relations, though not nearly as large a voting class as the first. And finally, it helps understand why this is not a US event, but rather part of a global roiling. There is nothing exceptional about Trump.
Top image: Trump supporters celebrate his election victory. Via NPR.
Robin Pogrebin reports for the New York Times that the Met will delay their anticipated modern and contemporary wing extension, estimated at $600 million. This decision comes as a result of a budget crisis that resulted in the buyouts and layoffs of a substantial number of Met employees over the last year. The Met currently leases the Whitney's Breuer building to house their contemporary exhibitions, and Pogrebin reports that costs only $17 million a year to operate. Read Pogrebin in partial below, in full via New York Times.
It looks like the Metropolitan Museum of Art won’t be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2020 with a new wing after all.
The Met on Wednesday morning informed its staff that it will push back plans for a $600 million southwest wing dedicated to Modern and contemporary art as it takes new measures to get its financial house in order.
The Met had hoped to complete construction of an extension to the Fifth Avenue building while it was still leasing the former Whitney Museum — now called the Met Breuer — on Madison Avenue. But the Met may not break ground on the new wing for as many as seven years, said Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president and chief operating officer.
Instead, the Met will concentrate on replacing the skylights and roofing system above the European paintings galleries, work that won’t start until 2018 and is expected to last about four years.
“It’s logical that that’s the urgent project we pursue first,” said Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Met, saying the museum was “baking these long-term projects into a responsible master plan that matches our capacity with our ambition.”
Asked whether the wing’s delay was the result of an inability to come up with a major lead gift, Mr. Campbell said: “We’re very confident about raising funds for this project when the time comes.”
He declined to give a specific start date for work on the new wing, though he said there “could be some overlap” with the skylights project. Mr. Campbell also said the Met had not made any decision regarding its eight-year lease of the Breuer building, which costs the museum $17 million a year to run.
“We’re very pleased with the success of the first year,” Mr. Campbell said.
In the face of deficits, the Met has been working over the last several months to shave $31 million from its operating budget through voluntary buyouts and layoffs, and to increase revenue from its retail stores.
**Image of the Met via thousandwonders.net
ARCHITECTURE CONVERSATIONS: MARIA S. GIUDICI RESPONDS TO ZEYNEP ÇELIK ALEXANDER, "MASS GESTALTUNG"
Maria S. Giudici
Zeynep Çelik Alexander’s fascinating account of the pedagogical project of Gestaltung explains the way in which formalism became a model for modern education; a model in which the “design of forms and design of the self” coincided. Alexander’s article is a precious contribution as it sheds light on the reason why design as intellectual—and political—category is such an enduring presence and why its roots are more complex than we might think (not to mention steeped in religious convictions just as much as in an ostensible search for rationality). Interestingly, the conjuncture described by Alexander seems to mirror and invert another fundamental moment: if mass Gestaltung posited design as a core category, in the fifteenth century it was the idea of the project that emerged as the keystone of the education of a new urban class through the pedagogical model of the abaco (computing) schools. Contrary to design, project does not necessarily imply a formal resolution: it is a term that is more concerned with the management of things to come. Project implies shaping a direction by handling, influencing, and steering a number of factors we do not necessarily fully control. It is necessarily managerial, and it is more focused on the process rather than the result. It is not by chance that the emergence of a generation of architects and artists who see themselves as authors—and managers—of projects rather than artefacts happens at the very moment and in the very place in which abaco schools flourished: fifteenth century Tuscany.¹
The so-called “Renaissance” is generally portrayed as an intellectual conjuncture fed by humanistic culture and the study of Greek and Latin classics. While this is by and large a correct picture, it is only a partial one, for just as significant as philosophy and literature was the emergence of a pedagogical model heavily based on the command of arithmetic. Abaco schools had existed in all Tuscan towns since at least the thirteenth century, and in most cases they were free and financially supported by the commune or by charitable institutions. Although the very poor could not spare the labor of a healthy ten-year-old boy, the largest part of the urban male population had free access to abaco schools. They were trade-oriented in that they provided a very specific type of technical education. For a period that varied from a few months to a few years, boys aged about nine to thirteen would be trained in arithmetic and geometry through exercises that focused mostly on problems related to commerce, productivity, and military issues. This education allowed lower class enterprising kids to enter trade, but was also useful to the sons of wealthy merchants who initiated the abaco schools in the first place. Conversely, aristocrats would not send their children to abaco, instead preferring to raise them in a more humanistic tradition. Most aspiring craftsmen and artists would increasingly choose to undergo a basic abaco education to acquire computing skills before joining the workshop of an older master: artist, sculptor, goldsmith, architect, engineer, or all of those at the same time. Artists and polymaths such as Baldassarre Peruzzi² and Leonardo da Vinci were raised in this tradition; light on Latin but heavy on managerial concerns.³
The century that followed the 1348 plague had seen the Italian financial and mercantile elite develop increasingly sophisticated accounting methods; not only business was conducted on an unprecedented scale, but a refined division of labor and a novel understanding of risk became the key motivations for the search for mathematical techniques that could minimize loss and maximize profit. Abaco schools became a fundamental element in the development of a class of people who would understand the logic of the budding capitalist system. Abaco students were trained in the use of hindu-arabic numerals, which were championed by Fibonacci in the early thirteenth century but by no means widespread in Europe. In fact, some aristocrats of the time insisted on using Roman numerals as a way to distinguish themselves from people educated in the “trade” tradition of abaco.
Besides their economic role, which cannot be underestimated, and their class connotation, abaco schools introduced a different understanding of the relationship between man and the world. In this sense, the revolution they operated can be compared to the revolution of mass Gestaltung described by Alexander. The universe of the abaco schools is made of quantifiable entities, of objects that the student-subject is supposed to tame, manage, re-produce, and control. The focus is neither on form nor design, but, rather, on the strategic choreography of goods, monetary exchange and labor provision. It is a universe that for the first time is conceived of as without shadow zones: calculable, knowable, open to the preying eye of man. Several of the exercises collected by Florentine schoolmaster Paolo Dagomari in his Trattato d’aritmetica (c. 1360),⁴ relate to spatial issues such as the measurement of distances through triangulation.⁵ This kind of skill would be extremely useful not only to future military engineers, but also to surveyors and architects. Peruzzi, for instance, worked on several projects for dams on the Bruna river, a long-term engineering concern of the city of Siena.⁶ Before Peruzzi, the job had fell on Pietro dell’Abaco, not only one of the most important Tuscan estimators of the time, but also the head of the largest abaco school in Siena during Peruzzi’s youth, making dell’Abaco possibly his very teacher.⁷
Pietro was a teacher and surveyor. His computing skills made him valuable for the city of Siena in calculating the cost of materials and labor for a variety of public works. As Nicholas Adams has noted, this concern for the built environment was very explicit even in the training of abaco students at large, who were often asked to calculate the amount of bricks needed to pave a square, or stones used to build a wall. But even more interestingly, the surveyor also had to be able to forecast the cost of the most uncontrollable of all variables: human behavior. School problems explicitly asked students to calculate the cost and duration of a specific job depending on whether the workers are “lazy” or not. Abaco pushed its students to think as managers, to handle risk and to project costs and revenues, and it is in this cultural tradition that central Italian renaissance architects were by and large educated.
For post-abaco architects, the form of architecture and space would be a response to this attempt to tame reality. Contrary to the form-giving, assertive attitude of mass Gestaltung, post-abaco architects would imagine their designs as a frame to contain the uncertain. The use of classical orders seems, in this sense, an appropriate strategy: as classical orders imply a repetitive grammar, they are, as their very name suggests, “ordered.” Their modular logic escapes the issue of form as they work by addition and subdivision, without the need to create a protagonistic composition. In this sense, the explicitly non-creative tradition of Renaissance abaco is the diametrical opposite of the idea of releasing creativity (and, as Alexander underlines, controlling it at the same time) that informed the German modern pedagogical tradition.
Design’s ambition to change its context is very explicit and concrete; the project’s ambition is perhaps less immediate, but by no means less proactive. In fact, we could say that in its managerial attempt to forecast, the project is an inherently more violent undertaking, almost military in nature. The abaco culture is, after all, the culture of a rising capitalism that intends to make productive both land and human lives.
It is, in fact, in the abaco urge to control the land, its ownership, and eventually its productivity that the first seeds of linear perspective find fertile soil. As Panofsky famously remarked, perspective puts forward an infinite, homogenous space. Theological, artistic, and cultural readings of the homogeneity of perspectival space abound, but the earliest uses of perspective as a technique were perhaps more prosaic and linked to the work of the estimator and the surveyor. Perspective finds in the abaco students its ideal vehicle, as they are trained in the geometric and mathematical exercises that form the basis for the construction of the perspectival image. They understand projection and triangulation, and use them as instruments of mapping and colonization.
It is the training of generation after generation of these foot-soldiers of accounting and surveying that allowed for the development of capitalism in central Italy and Europe at large. They are an urban class, a middle class, an early example of white collar work. Interestingly, abaco students would not be confined to warehouses and counting-rooms; they would also become the builders of the physical space of the European city as we know it. They were taught to see reality as a reified array of quantities and they transferred this understanding to the city, which gradually lost its symbolic and ritual meaning to become a field: for harvesting, for battles, for profit. That most crucial form of abstraction—money—was taught to them through endless little mathematical exercises, through which they learned to use abstraction at large as a strategy to handle complex and shifting contexts. Mass Gestaltung is a strong rejection of this form of abstraction, and perhaps a healthy one.Source
While today abaco students appear to be a consistent class with a consistent culture, they never had any understanding of themselves as a project. Contrary to the Pestalozzi agenda, in the abaco curriculum there is no sense of construction of the self. In the abaco tradition the self is a given; it is the all-encompassing eye of a surveyor, of a map-maker, of a perspectival painter. As is well-known, one of the issues of linear perspective is its failure to convey the fact that human vision is binocular; perspective is conceived as originating in a single, disembodied eye. This is perhaps the greatest fragility of abaco culture: its reliance on increasing levels of abstraction that wipe the subject out of the picture, forgetting that in fact a project is nothing but the shaping of the subject itself.
The very category of project is the legacy of this controversial historical moment—a moment in which ever more sophisticated methods of conquest, control, and colonization are developed, a moment in which the architect is constructed as the opposite of the craftsman, and the intellectual act of projecting is separated from the productive act of designing. To recuperate the very intelligence of design—creation, unmediated by language and convention—is a very understandable response to the problematic consequences of abaco culture. The Pestalozzi genealogy which leads to Gestaltung and ultimately the Bauhaus is representative of such a reaction. It is also understandable how the figure of the craftsman can be conceived of as the antidote to the managerial and abstract character of the modern division of labor. However, as Alexander shows, there can be no design without a project: no action without an agenda. Even mass Gestaltung was guided by profoundly ideological aims. This is the reason to reconsider the idea of project today. In Europe, it was born as a historically-placed response to the emergence of capitalism, where it made it possible to organize labor and reify life into a commodity. If this is a negative heritage we now reject, there are also aspects of the project that can be rethought as means of resistance: the idea that creating a future does not mean necessarily to impose a form, but rather to imagine a set of relationships that can change, shift, readjust. Modern(ist) design culture has often taught us that acts of creation and self-creation are individual, that they happen here and now. But the Renaissance legacy of the project can still be useful in reminding us that in fact these actions are also intensely social, supported and shaped as they are by long-term, broader agendas. The focus on form brought by design offers a concrete edge to our actual engagement with the built world, but the focus on process brought by the project allows us to expand our field of agency to every aspect of life. It is perhaps only in this oscillation between design and project, individual and collective, action and abstraction, that we can reconstruct a position as thinkers and makers today.
¹ For a broad portrait of the interaction between abaco schools and art in fifteenth century Tuscany see Michael Baxandall, Art and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988 ), 86-108.² An interesting comparison between Peruzzi’s working method and that of Michelangelo, who had not been trained in an abaco school, is contained in Giulia Ceriani Sebregondi, “On Architectural Practice and Arithmetic Abilities in Renaissance Italy”, in Architectural Histories, 3(1): 11, 1–15.³ Baxandall uses examples from Piero della Francesca’s own Trattato dell’abaco (posthumously titled), which does resonate with contemporary abaco textbooks; however, we do not know if Piero had studied at an abaco school, while there is ample proof in Peruzzi and Leonardo’s cases.⁴ Paolo Dagomari was in fact born in Prato, but active in Florence; he is often referred to as Paolo dell’Abbaco (sic) because of his profession.⁵ Marvin Trachtenberg, Dominion of the Eye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 229.⁶ Ann C. Huppert, Becoming an Architect in Renaissance Italy: Art, Science, and the Career of Baldassarre Peruzzi (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 40-55.⁷ Nicholas Adams, “The Life and Times of Pietro dell'Abaco, a Renaissance Estimator”, in Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 48. Bd., H. 3 (1985), 384-395.
Dr Maria Sheherazade Giudici is a Tutor in the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, where she currently leads ADS1: The Domestic Imagination with Sam Jacoby and Tarsha Finney. In 2011 Maria joined Pier Vittorio Aureli as Studio Master of Diploma Unit 14 at the Architectural Association. Maria is also the founder of publishing and educational platform Black Square.
ARCHITECTURE CONVERSATIONS: GEORGIA WHITE RESPONDS TO ANDREW HERSCHER, "CARDBOARD FOR HUMANITY"
In the article “Cardboard for Humanity,” Andrew Herscher asks a series of important questions pertaining to humanitarian architecture and the inadvertent creation of new types of dependence.¹ He asks:
who or what is the humanitarian human? Might the humanitarian protection of humanity also involve a production of humanity, the fabrication of specific sorts of bodies and lives? And how might the humanitarian human exist in relation to other humans?
In response to these initial questions, rather than add to Herscher’s perspective on the Gihembe refugee camp, I would like to present a comparative scenario, one that takes place under very different conditions: Manila’s tenement housing. The Philippines’ capital—a city in which politics, architecture, urban planning and humanitarian action combine to hide, remove, and create new human conditions—continues to respond to the desperate situation of its urban poor with a complex and disjointed system of planning and housing provision that has existed since the 1950s. Manila provides a platform to study the urban characteristics of a broken planning system, legal ambiguity, corruption and extreme economic divide in the production and removal of slums and their role within the city. It also provides a historical portfolio of humanitarian practices in response to such crises.
The urban dynamics in Manila and its planning system have formed around a specific series of political evolutions that took place in rebuilding the Capital as its new industrial center after the devastation of the Second World War. The city is punctuated by dense, sprawling settlements squeezing over, under and around private gated communities, public buildings and infrastructure, giving rise to a boundary dynamic that is fraught with political tension. These settlements have their own organizational codes that defy spatial legislation and their residents are largely feared, resented and generally misunderstood.
Migration incentives, agrarian land disputes and the industrial development of the new Metropolitan Manila first led to the growth of the city’s informal urban population in the 1940s. Legislation and attitudes towards housing standards, density and land value evolved in response to such rapid migration, and incentives were offered for industries to develop external sites, away from the new center. Ferdinand Marcos, the late dictator who was eventually overthrown in a revolution in 1986, was the first to criminalize squatting, though the Slum Clearance Committee had existed since 1950. The contiguous cities and municipalities that make up Metropolitan Manila were united in 1975 and several land and housing management initiatives have been introduced with overlapping and sometimes conflicting responsibilities, giving rise to a complex and disjointed framework for planning and affordable housing provision in the country.
Since the first intervention by the World Bank in the Philippines in 1956, external contributions to development have gradually increased and government spending has receded. The current government led by Rodrigo Duterte has recently created a controversial internal dispute over the slashing of funds to key shelter agencies by 19 billion pesos (nearly $400 million USD).²
As was the international order of development policy at the time, World Bank investments began with infrastructural initiatives. The first World Bank project in the country was the Binga Power Project for a hydroelectric power plant on Luzon, the largest, northern-most island of the Philippines. Affordable housing and shelter provision has also often been a joint enterprise between government initiatives, international agencies such as UN-Habitat, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Australian Development Bank, and NGOs such as Habitat for Humanity. Yet despite the multiple agencies for shelter provision, in a paper published in July 2016 the World Bank concluded that now, “Roughly one in four people living in Metro Manila live without security of tenure.”³
The history of affordable housing initiatives and the development of slum clearance relocation sites provide insight to the limited evolution of urban strategy that still fails to address the genesis of the expanding slum populous. Though legislation such as Republic Act 7279, introduced under Fidel Ramos’s presidency in 1992, created some regulation of eviction practices, conflicts over land in Manila have still, in many cases, grown extremely violent and the city is rapidly changing as squatters are removed, relocated and often later return for lack of work or adequate infrastructure in far removed relocation sites. According to a World Bank report in 2015, “Even under Oplan Likas that advocates for in-city resettlement, to date, close to 70 percent of the ISFs [Informal Settler Families] have been resettled off-city, away from their jobs, services, and social networks.”⁴ A later report from the National Housing Summit with the World Bank and Australian Development Bank in July 2016 stated that many of these distant resettlement sites were also “characterized by incomplete facilities and services”⁵
Resettlement sites are developed mostly as medium-rise tenements to make appropriate use of city land and units are granted to their occupants on a rent-to-own mortgage, at an affordable rate over 25-30 years. They are cheaply built, usually lack funding for adequate maintenance and fall into disrepair. New tenements are now needed for evictees of previous relocation sites that have become unfit for occupation, adding previously rehoused families to the critical housing demand.⁶ Habitat for Humanity Philippines has put a substantial effort into designing low-cost medium-rise buildings for resettlement sites but accept that “The Philippine government’s current housing policy and mechanisms for housing subsidy have been deemed inadequate to resolve the rising housing deficit.” They predict that “By 2030, the housing backlog will increase to about 6.5 million units.”⁷
The result of this system of eviction and relocation, as it is currently employed, is that in many cases an autonomous system of functional housing (though often lacking in infrastructure) is revoked in order to re-provide it in a manner that is ultimately only more favorable to external forces. In the humanitarian provision of shelter to a group of people who are not actually homeless, what is revoked but not replaced is a unique mode of occupation that is at once shaped by culture and necessity. In addition to the suspect “improvement” to quality of life in such distant locations, characterized as they are by incomplete services, what is also stripped from residents, which may take years to rebuild (if at all), are the soft infrastructures of multigenerational communities, a sense of individuality and a unique borderless condition between spaces of public, domestic and commercial nature.
The creation of a legal and financial vacuum in the city—one that makes approved housing prohibitively expensive for the country’s working class and prevents citizens from providing themselves and their families with shelter that they can afford—allows the market to revoke the human right to shelter from a growing demographic. Much like with Gihembe’s forced provision of a new living standard, Manila’s poor are stripped of the ingenuity they had previously used to survive. The new human condition of such sites is removed from established communities and livelihoods, devoid of flexible individuality, and challenging to informal enterprise.
From these conditions there emerges a new people, the real numbers and lives of which remain largely hidden from international audiences. They occupy a complex human condition that remains precariously vulnerable to the city’s rapid development and vacillates between visibility and invisibility or abuse, according to election cycles and international events.⁸ While maintaining a position of political significance as a large portion of the voting electorate, their poverty makes them a target for short-term incentives and false promises.
Though massive change is require to address such dramatic economic divide in the Philippines, there are small changes that can be made to Manila’s urban planning framework and spatial legislation that can better the condition of instability experienced by the urban poor. The restructuring of government departments for more transparent processes of land purchasing could reduce corruption and provide faster resolution for disputes. Granting more autonomy to local government for small scale dispute resolution and land purchasing would allow better implementation of the Ordinance Program for reallocation of privately owned lots in the case of long term use by residents. While Community Mortgage Programs have proved grossly problematic in the past, they can be reconfigured and downscaled for a more inclusive application.
With amendments to the legislation of existing settlements’ spatial standards, smaller grants could be used to buy land, develop infrastructure and provide assistance for developing existing settlements. With better structural support and infrastructural improvement, many settlements have great potential for further development and vertical expansion with minimal demolition. Families that are given the opportunity to participate in the development of their own homes are more likely to feel a sense of ownership and pride in their surroundings, and in-situ development allows for a more nuanced construction according to existing community dynamics.
However, the sprawling National Capital region (NCR) is a city made of cities. Despite the existence of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, each of the seventeen municipalities and their councils remain largely independent on urban planning strategy for their respective areas. Only with the proper integration of planning across all the NCR’s connecting municipalities will there be a way forward in planning a sustainable future for the urban poor in the Capital.
Without substantial legislative reform and restructuring of government agency, humanitarian action can only achieve minor amelioration in the effects of an otherwise violent system that in the case of Manila, leaves a quarter of the city’s population without security of their homes or livelihoods. Lack of political change in the Philippines has rendered humanitarian assistance not only complicit in the creation of such forms of life, but has ensured the longevity of a paradigm that continues to fail the country’s poor while hindering the necessary reforms for a new affordable housing framework. As long as the current system of eviction and relocation is perpetuated, the poor remain helpless to the currents of private development and the city lacks an effective, consolidated framework for appropriate allocation of land and housing as the city continues to grow and densify.
¹ Andrew Herscher, "Cardboard for Humanity," e-flux Architecture (30 September 2016), →.² Bea Cupin, "Robredo to resign from Duterte Cabinet," Rappler (04 December 2016), →. ³ The World Bank, Closing the Gap in Affordable Housing in the Philippines (Manila, 2016), →.⁴ Oplan Likas is an inter-agency resettlement initiative aimed primarily at families situated in danger areas such as flood-prone waterways. Motoo Konishi, "Making In-City Resettlement Work for the Poor" (7 September 2015), →.⁵ Ibid., The World Bank, 6.⁶ National Housing Authority, "New, Safer Tondo Tenement Soon to Rise," Office of the President (24 October 2013), →.⁷ Habitat for Humanity, Country Profile Philippines, →. ⁸ Charlie Campbell, "Pope Francis and the Mystery of Manila's Vanishing Street Children," Time (21 January 2015), →.
Georgia White is a London based researcher and Architectural designer currently pursuing an MPhil in Architecture at the Royal College of Art. Her design-led research is based on Manila’s marginalized squatter communities and she is currently engaged in the collaborative design of an urban upgrade project for an informal neighborhood in Manila and the development of a new mortgaging system for the countries poorest communities.
The Twitter reaction from Donald Trump and his allies to Meryl Streep's stirring speech at the Golden Globes last weekend demonstrates that the upcoming US administration will not be kind to artists and other creative types. Not only are they being blasted as decedent elitists, but some of the social benefits they disproportionately rely on—such as Obamacare—are being dismantled. In light of this hostility, the novelist John Scalzi offers a "10-point plan for getting creative work done in the age of Trump" in the LA Times. His advice ranges from taking a break from social media and news sites, to being especially vigilant about carving out time for your creative work. Here's an excerpt from the piece—points six through nine:
6. Do other things that make you happy. News and social media expand to fill the space you allot to them. Last year, I realized I was spending so much time watching my friends freak out on Twitter and Facebook that I read fewer books and spent less time with my other hobbies. This year, I’m intentionally carving out space to read, to play music, and to enjoy the movies and TV shows I haven’t caught up on. Likewise:
7. Connect with friends and community. The weekend after the election, when I and most creative people I knew felt especially low, I went to a wedding of friends, with other friends in attendance. For those several hours we laughed and joked and enjoyed life and remembered that even in dispiriting times, when it’s easy to curl up into a defensive ball or to shut people out, your friends and community will do a lot to see you through. They will inspire you creative. They will plan with you politically. And they don’t mind your goofy dance moves (or if they do, they’ll let it slide anyway).
8. Give help when you can. Many creative folks have made protesting and resisting a priority for the new year. But you find you don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to engage with the world and still be creative, there are still things you can do to protest and to help others. Among the simplest: Give money to organizations that are looking out for the people most at risk under the new administration. Do likewise for people you know in need. We’re in an era where “pay it forward” is an especially evocative phrase.
9. Get help if you need it. Everything above is a coping mechanism designed to help you stay creative and engaged in a challenging time. But you know what? Sometimes articles with lists aren’t enough. Sometimes depression and anxiety don’t go away with helpful tips. There’s no shame in acknowledging depression and anxiety as real things that benefit from treatment. And in many cases, treating them can clear a path to becoming creative again. Get help; it’ll help.
Image via LA Times.
Or in the case of Trump, a robot-dictator-troll? Lindy West makes a good case for the idea that spending much of our time on Twitter may not be good for our headspace. Read West on her decision to deactivate her account, in partial below, in full via the Guardian here.
I deactivated my Twitter account today. It was more of a spontaneous impulse than a New Year resolution, although it does feel like a juice cleanse, a moulting, a polar-bear plunge, a clean slate (except the opposite – like throwing your slate into a volcano and running). One moment I was brains-deep in the usual way, half-heartedly arguing with strangers about whether or not it’s “OK” to suggest to Steve Martin that calling Carrie Fisher a “beautiful creature” who “turned out” to be “witty and bright as well” veered just a hair beyond Fisher’s stated boundaries regarding objectification (if you have opinions on this, don’t tweet me – oh, wait, you can’t); and the next moment the US president-elect was using the selfsame platform to taunt North Korea about the size and tumescence of its nuclear program. And I realised: eh, I’m done. I could be swimming right now. Or flossing. Or digging a big, pointless pit. Anything else.
Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.
I talk back and I am “feeding the trolls”. I say nothing and the harassment escalates. I report threats and I am a “censor”. I use mass-blocking tools to curb abuse and I am abused further for blocking “unfairly”. I have to conclude, after half a decade of troubleshooting, that it may simply be impossible to make this platform usable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.
Surprisingly, none of that is the reason I left. I still loved Twitter – the speed of information, the breadth of analysis, the jokes, the gifs, the fortifying albeit intermittent solidarity, the chance to vet your instincts against those of people much smarter and better informed than you. Every day, people on Twitter – particularly people of colour, trans activists, disabled activists and sex workers – taught me how to be a better person and a better neighbour, a gift they persisted in dispensing even (always) at great personal cost. I still believe, at least in the rear-view mirror, in Twitter’s importance as a democratising force – facilitating direct, transparent access between the disempowered and the powerful, the marginalised and the ignorant. But I’m leaving anyway, for a while.
*Image of Trump via Vanity Fair
The renowned Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman died this week in Leeds. Speaking last year with Peter Haffner, here is Bauman speaking about our new hesitance to love, the internet, and more. Read the full interview, full of gems, via 032c here.
Zygmunt Bauman is without question one of Europe’s most influential sociologists. His oeuvre, read on all continents, encompasses some sixty books, which he has continued to publish at a daunting pace since his 1990 retirement from the University of Leeds in England.
Bauman coined the term “liquid modernity,” which refers to the present state of our society and its transformation of all aspects of life at an unprecedented rate – love, work, society, politics, and power. He has covered a wide spectrum of topics from intimacy to globalization, reality television to the Holocaust, and consumerism to community, extending far beyond his core area of expertise into the fields of philosophy and psychology.
Bauman was born in 1925 into a poor Jewish family in Poznan, Poland, who managed to catch the last train to Soviet Russia and thus saved themselves from a terrible fate. He became a Marxist and fought in the Red Army. After his return to Poland, he served as a political officer in the security corps, fighting against opponents of the regime, and then as an employee in the military’s secret service until 1953. Disillusioned with Soviet communism, he left the Communist Party of Poland. Following a vicious anti-Semitic campaign, he lost his position at the University of Warsaw in 1968 and moved to Israel, where he taught at the University of Tel Aviv for two years before migrating to England.
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” the Greek poet Archilochus once said. In this famous categorization of writers and thinkers elaborated by Isaiah Berlin, Bauman is both a “hedgehog” and “fox.” He is not a man of details, statistics, surveys, facts, and extrapolations. He paints with a broad brush on a large canvas, provoking debates and injecting discussions with new hypotheses. Yet there is very little in the humanities and social sciences that would leave him with nothing to say. “My life is spent recycling information,” Bauman once said.
At the age of 89, the sociologist has lost none of his trademark passion for criticism and righteous fury toward the prevailing state of affairs. He still astonishes visitors with a mischievous humor that is not found in the bleak vision of the future in his books. Eastern European to the core, he insists that his guests help themselves to the strawberry tarts, cookies, and grapes laid out before him on the coffee table, surrounded by towering stacks of books. Seated on a worn-out wingback chair with pipe in hand, Bauman takes plenty of time to answer our questions. And this is very much needed, because we want to know: What is life?
Peter Haffner: Professor Bauman, let’s start with the most important thing: love. You say that we are forgetting how to love. What brings you to that conclusion?
Zygmunt Bauman: The trend of finding a partner on the Internet goes hand in hand with the trend of online shopping. I personally don’t like going to shops and buy most things online – books, films, clothing. If you want a new jacket, the virtual store’s website will show you a catalog. If you want a partner, the dating website will also present you with a catalog. The pattern of relationships between customers and commodities defines the patterns of relationships between individuals.
How does it differ from earlier times when future partners met at village fairs or town balls?
Online dating involves an attempt to define the features of a potential partner that best reflect one’s own longings and desires. Candidates are chosen based on hair or skin color, height, figure, bust size, age, interests and hobbies, preferences and dislikes. The underlying idea is that an object of love can be assembled from a number of measurable physical and social characteristics. In the process, the most decisive factor gets forgotten: the human person.
But even when such an ideal profile is defined, everything changes once you get to know the person. They are much more than the sum of all these external attributes.
The danger is that the pattern of relationships is coming to resemble the way we relate to mundane objects of utility. We would never pledge our devotion to a chair. Why would I vow to remain on this chair until my dying day? If I no longer like it, I’ll simply buy a new one. It’s not a conscious process but it’s the way we learn to see the world and other human beings.
You mean that couples separate prematurely.
We enter relationships because they promise satisfaction. When we get the feeling that a different partner would be more satisfying, we break off the old relationship to begin a new one. Starting a relationship takes the consent of two people. Ending it only takes one. As a result, both partners live in constant fear of being abandoned by the other, of being tossed aside like a jacket that’s gone out of fashion.
*Image of Bauman via El Plais
In Dissent magazine, Nancy Fraser outlines the opportunities presented by the end of what she call "progressive neoliberalism." She describes the latter as an alliance between financialized capitalism and superficial discourses on diversity and cultural liberalism, represented by figures like Bill Clinton. This is the ideology that was roundly rejected by Trump voters, writes Fraser. But the decline of this ideology presents an opportunity to build what Fraser calls a "new new left." Here's an excerpt from the piece:
Nevertheless, Trump’s victory is not solely a revolt against global finance. What his voters rejected was not neoliberalism tout court, but progressive neoliberalism. This may sound to some like an oxymoron, but it is a real, if perverse, political alignment that holds the key to understanding the U.S. election results and perhaps some developments elsewhere too. In its U.S. form, progressive neoliberalism is an alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end “symbolic” and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other. In this alliance, progressive forces are effectively joined with the forces of cognitive capitalism, especially financialization. However unwittingly, the former lend their charisma to the latter. Ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve different ends, now gloss policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives.
Progressive neoliberalism developed in the United States over the last three decades and was ratified with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. Clinton was the principal engineer and standard-bearer of the “New Democrats,” the U.S. equivalent of Tony Blair’s “New Labor.” In place of the New Deal coalition of unionized manufacturing workers, African Americans, and the urban middle classes, he forged a new alliance of entrepreneurs, suburbanites, new social movements, and youth, all proclaiming their modern, progressive bona fides by embracing diversity, multiculturalism, and women’s rights. Even as it endorsed such progressive notions, the Clinton administration courted Wall Street. Turning the economy over to Goldman Sachs, it deregulated the banking system and negotiated the free-trade agreements that accelerated deindustrialization. What fell by the wayside was the Rust Belt—once the stronghold of New Deal social democracy, and now the region that delivered the electoral college to Donald Trump. That region, along with newer industrial centers in the South, took a major hit as runaway financialization unfolded over the course of the last two decades. Continued by his successors, including Barack Obama, Clinton’s policies degraded the living conditions of all working people, but especially those employed in industrial production. In short, Clintonism bears a heavy share of responsibility for the weakening of unions, the decline of real wages, the increasing precarity of work, and the rise of the two–earner family in place of the defunct family wage.
As that last point suggests, the assault on social security was glossed by a veneer of emancipatory charisma, borrowed from the new social movements. Throughout the years when manufacturing cratered, the country buzzed with talk of “diversity,” “empowerment,” and “non-discrimination.” Identifying “progress” with meritocracy instead of equality, these terms equated “emancipation” with the rise of a small elite of “talented” women, minorities, and gays in the winner-takes-all corporate hierarchy instead of with the latter’s abolition. These liberal-individualist understandings of “progress” gradually replaced the more expansive, anti-hierarchical, egalitarian, class-sensitive, anti-capitalist understandings of emancipation that had flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. As the New Left waned, its structural critique of capitalist society faded, and the country’s characteristic liberal-individualist mindset reasserted itself, imperceptibly shrinking the aspirations of “progressives” and self-proclaimed leftists. What sealed the deal, however, was the coincidence of this evolution with the rise of neoliberalism. A party bent on liberalizing the capitalist economy found its perfect mate in a meritocratic corporate feminism focused on “leaning in” and “cracking the glass ceiling.”
The result was a “progressive neoliberalism” that mixed together truncated ideals of emancipation and lethal forms of financialization. It was that mix that was rejected in toto by Trump’s voters. Prominent among those left behind in this brave new cosmopolitan world were industrial workers, to be sure, but also managers, small businessmen, and all who relied on industry in the Rust Belt and the South, as well as rural populations devastated by unemployment and drugs. For these populations, the injury of deindustrialization was compounded by the insult of progressive moralism, which routinely cast them as culturally backward. Rejecting globalization, Trump voters also repudiated the liberal cosmopolitanism identified with it. For some (though by no means all), it was a short step to blaming their worsening conditions on political correctness, people of color, immigrants, and Muslims. In their eyes, feminists and Wall Street were birds of a feather, perfectly united in the person of Hillary Clinton.
Image: At a Fight for $15 rally in Chicago, February 11, 2016. Via Dissent.
The video Century's Container by Naeem Mohaiemen was created for State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016. Currently it is being screened at The Parliament of Bodies, documenta 14's public program, curated by Paul Preciado. Below is a synopsis of the video. For the full screening schedule of Century's Container at The Parliament of Bodies, visit the documenta 14 website.
The Muslim is the century's container for the other; but the definition is also always changing, while the expulsion impulse stays constant—just ask Polish Jews, Iraqi Kurds, Bengali Hindus, Turkish Armenians, Japanese Americans. The same year we are horrified at the whitelash tornado of Trump (after Brexit, before Le Pen), the Bangladeshi government pushes Rohingya refugees back into Myanmar and toward certain danger under the eyes of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The video includes excerpts from Judith Butler, Toby Rollo, Mona Saeed Kamal, Hari Kunzru, and Sham-e-ali Nayeem and was written for the Andrew-Weiner-organized “State of Emergency” response to the Trump election.
Naeem Mohaiemen researches the tragic past of actually existing socialism, and the unwritten futures of an as-yet-unborn global left against sectarian unities of race and religion.