back to e-flux.com

e-flux conversations

New Historical Materialisms


#1

Here begins the second of three threads that we are curating for e-flux conversations. We have another fantastic group of contributors, who will take it in turns to write a post every weekday (Monday – Friday). This time we will be considering the political and artistic significance of materiality today and making a call for new historical materialisms, in opposition to any kind of essentialising, ahistorical materialist ontologies.

Art, the social sciences and cultural theory are presently witnessing a wave of new materialisms. From object-oriented ontologies and neuroscience to affect theories and new vitalisms, a range of fresh perspectives are placing renewed emphasis upon materiality, the physical body and ‘the thing’. In opposition to the poststructuralist emphasis on textuality, or the post-autonomist notions of ‘immaterial labour’ and the ‘information economy’, these new approaches demand that we deal with the contemporary world in concrete, materialised terms. On the face of things, this may seem like a positive development, since the contemporary world remains thoroughly material and spatial and our present context of environmental crisis, globalisation and biopolitics can surely only be understood in materialist terms. However, we are concerned that the various new materialisms often evidence worryingly ahistorical and naturalising tendencies. While the present drive towards materialism offers a great opportunity for critical thought, we are also concerned that the construction of transhistorical ontologies might simply lead into new theoretical cul-de-sacs.

Our main interest here is to consider the specific historical significance of materiality and space within the current stage of capitalism, as well as in relation to contemporary art. Can we locate particular assemblages of the material and the spatial with relation to financialisation, digitalisation and the other abstractions of 21st century capitalism? Rather than a new model of what matter or space always are, we call for a reinvigorated historical materialism – a perspective that emphasises the constant reproduction of materiality in altering forms, with varying political stakes.

(Antti Laitinen - Forest Square III, 2013)

Our contributors for this conversation have all been working in areas that are relevant to these issues, but they have very different backgrounds and interests. For this first week, we would like them to broadly respond to our initial provocation in relation to their own ongoing concerns. We will see how the conversation develops after that.

We are really delighted to have such a wonderful panel for this topic and are certain that they will offer extremely enlightening ideas. Briefly, the participants are Lance Wakeling (Tuesdays), Amanda Boetzkes (Wednesdays), Bill Roberts (Thursdays) and Louis Moreno (Fridays).

Lance Wakeling is a Brooklyn-based artist whose recent work includes a set of video essays that focus in the physical sites of global telecom and security infrastructures. His new film, Field Visits for Chelsea Manning, premiered in December 2014. Amanda Boetzkes is an Assistant Professor in the School of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Guelph. Her first book, The Ethics of Earth Art, published in 2010 and she is currently working towards a new book, provisionally titled Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste. Bill Roberts is a research fellow at Warwick University. He has published essays on the work of Liam Gillick, Allan Sekula and Ina Blom and is currently researching the intersection of contemporary art with architecture and design. Louis Moreno is a Lecturer in Visual Culture at Goldsmiths College, University of London and a member of the ‘freethought’ collective who are one of the artistic directors of the 2016 Bergen Assembly. His background is in Marxist urban geography and during 2014 he published an essay on ‘the urban process under financialised capitalism’ in the journal City.

(Photograph of the making of Antti Laitinen - Forest Square III, 2013. For more, see: http://www.frame-finland.fi/fallingtrees/forest-square/)


#2

A day job shaped my current thinking on the materiality of the internet. In 2007 I was unemployed. To make ends meet I took the first job that came my way. That job was scanning books on the night shift for the Internet Archive. The work was grueling. I calculated that from the 23,712 pages I scanned I could print out a stack of paper 9.8 feet tall. The Archive’s guiding motto was Universal Access to Human Knowledge. This was perhaps the beginning of my doubts that the internet was going to usher in a new age of democracy and freedom.

In the introduction to this conversation my bio refers to a “set” of videos. I usually refer to this body of work as a series. But I now prefer the word set. I like how set defines a collection of things, in no particular order, instead of the ordered sequence of a series. The four works in this set of video essays are all first-person travelogues. Each one explores, in slightly different ways, my relationships to the landscape of the global network.

In 2011 I traveled to the beaches where the cable known as Atlantic-Crossing 1 makes landfall to make a video title A Tour of the AC-1 Transatlantic Submarine Cable. The cable, all but invisible in most places, is a 14,000 kilometer loop that connects the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany. As the narrator travels from point to point the essay branches off into digressions. On 21 May, anticipated by some to be the end of the world, I was waiting for a train at Liverpool Street station watching an electronic billboard display an animation of a cloud made of gears when I realized that my boat to Holland didn’t leave until the following day. I woke my acquaintance with an early morning phone call and explained that I left a day too soon by accident. Would he mind if I stayed one more night? Thankfully he agreed and I later went to University College London to pick up the keys to his flat. Had I not left London prematurely I may never have visited the autoicon of Jeremy Bentham, the inventor of the panopticon and father of the modern prison, who had such a bearing on the essay and the videos that followed.

While sitting at the former site of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in downtown New York an acquaintance pointed out that while the cable essay was topographical, the video that followed, Views of a Former Verizon Building, was topological. This second video, which takes place entirely in the district known as Civic Center, focuses on a 32-story limestone datacenter. It imagines an internet that is impatient to assume the world, expanding from the datacenter in a proliferating rhizome of checkpoints and prisons. Filmed over several months, the narrative spirals through a network of topics, including One Police Plaza (AKA Puzzle Palace), the production of coral atolls and pearls, a jail known the Tombs, Tilted Arc and the African Burial Ground, among others.

Promoted as the third and final film in a trilogy on the physicality of the internet, Field Visits for Chelsea Manning was actually the fourth video of a collection that continues to grow. Following similar narrative structures, Field Visits takes place in the surrounding areas where Manning was imprisoned: Kuwait City; Quantico, Virginia; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and Fort Meade, Maryland. At its core, the film is an homage to Manning in which I hoped to do the opposite of many political documentaries, which use objects to explain a subject. Instead, through a sort of pilgrimage, I hoped to encode Manning’s story onto the landscape itself, so that these places could perhaps become significant markers in the shifting boundaries of the global network, if only personally. Whereas A Tour of the AC-1 Transatlantic Submarine Cable and Views of a Former Verizon Building were centered literally on the physical sites of the network, Field Visits for Chelsea Manning responds to the days that followed Wikileaks’s release of the video named Collateral Murder, which I feel was the tipping point between the utopian internet we hoped for and the corporate militarized network we now live with.

In 2013, before starting Field Visits, I went to Mexico to make the third video, Subida al cielo. At the time the iPhone looked more like a slab of obsidian that it does today and I tried to draw out the similarities between Tezcatlipoca — the Aztec god of youth, war, obsidian and sin — and current consumer technologies. The comparison highlighted an unexpected connection between Aztec and American cultures in the symbol of the eagle. The Aztecs accepted and celebrated that war and terror were pillars of their society. American culture, on the other hand, hides this fact. In the beginning of Subida al cielo I return to my brief job as a book scanner and write, “working with technology to create a new digital consciousness: Is it necessary to sacrifice the body?”


#3

How can we reconcile “immaterial labour” and the “information economy” with the rise of new materialism? The question seems to be driving towards a concern regarding the politics of new materialism. Is the latter an escape from, or ideological fantasy produced by the former? No one disputes the material consequences of finance capital or the schematizing effects of virtual networks. But what do these material consequences have to do with speculation about the ontologies of object worlds, vibrant matter, and vital assemblages? I want to advance some ideas and artworks that posit the conjoining of new materialism with historical materialism.

To begin, I want to point out two aspects of Lance’s contribution yesterday. First, he gives material form to the global network of the internet through topographical and topological perspectives. Second, he visualizes the internet as a militarized corporate assemblage through associations between American culture and the warring civilization of the Aztecs (and specifically by imagining the iPhone as a slab of obsidian – a totemic object of Tezcatlipoc, god of obsidian, war, and sin). It seems to me that these two strategies are mutually supportive: it is necessary to access a radically different perspective of immaterial cultural activity, in order to see its material effects.

I associate new materialism with two perspectives from which we can discover its political relevance: the geological and the ecological. I also see a kinship between these perspectives (especially as these are elaborated in contemporary art), and Walter Benjamin’s “archaeomodern turn”, as Jacques Rancière describes it. Benjamin stages his variations on Marxist dialectics through a spiraling descent into the phantasmagoria of the Arcades (a procedure that risks a serious loss of orientation and perspective). Looking at objects in their ruined “archaeological” state, the remains of capitalist exchange are radically disidentified from their former lives as spectacular commodities, and instead are repositioned to occasion dreams of emancipation. Thus, while Benjamin drives deeper into the phantasmagoria, commodities become ever more dissociated from their original meaning, at the same time lending themselves to a different kind of dreaming, a discovery of “sleeping” and emancipatory meanings. Benjamin’s endeavor is fraught. Rancière notes that the phantasmagoria is also a Lethe, a river of the dead where, “meaning is produced as the presence of death-in-life and deciphered as the presence of life-in-death…” Here is the connection between Benjamin’s phantasmagoria and the critical terrain that new materialism treads. I am suggesting that new materialism considers, or should consider, the emergence of alien life nested within the death and suffering of the capitalist economy. In so doing, could it occasion an emancipatory dreaming? Only if we take seriously Benjamin’s insistence on a total dissociation with the archaeological object which has been propelled out of meaning by the catastrophe of modernism. It is this perspective that has been dissociated from its imbrication in the phantasmagoria through catastrophe itself, that I think I think warrants further thinking.

I want to give three examples of artworks that could be seen to engage new materialism, but do so precisely by linking the vitality of objects and assemblages to politicized catastrophes; the catastrophes of capitalism, the Anthropocene, and bodily suffering, respectively. To me, these are integral to the Lethe of new materialism.

  1. Thomas Hirschhorn’s Jumbo Spoons and Big Cake 2000: the catastrophe of global capitalism

Hirschhorn constructs a “world cake”, a figuration of wealth that is also a limited container from which everyone must draw to survive. It is covered by media images and headlines that together evoke the multitudes who make demands on global resources. The construction is weighted down by chains of buckets, all poised to catch every last crumb and drop, an astute depiction of how an excessive figure such as a luxurious cake inverts to become an image of penury. The cake is attached by spreading foil appendages that connect to twelve altars, each a novelty spoon made out of foil and dedicated to a “failed utopia”: Mies van der Rohe, the 1937 Nazi Degenerate Art Show, Malevich, Rosa Luxembourg, guns, fashion, the moon, Rolex Swiss watches, the Chicago Bulls, Nietzsche, Venice, and China.

Hirschhorn represents global capitalism in an excremental phase, attached to and integrated with monstrous objects. Substance, here, has been penetrated by flexible and enduring industrial materials: aluminum, nylon, adhesives, plastics. These materials are continuous with the machinic heterogenesis of the economy. Matter, bodies, failed utopias, objects are all incorporated into the growth and proliferation of an autopoietic entity.

  1. Tara Donovan’s Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2006: the catastrophe of the Anthropocene

Donovan is known for her installations of plastics and Styrofoam objects. This one presents a dissonant image of a snowy topography in which geological strata are composed of thousands of plastic cups. It envision the anthropogenic change of the planet, in a way that at once involves that individual object; the hyperobject of global warming, alongside its strong associations with Arctic landscapes and glacial melt; and the Anthropocene, a geological condition that encompasses both the history of human carbon energy-use, and the perpetuity of its ecological impact into an unknown and lifeless future.

  1. Melanie Bonajo’s Furniture Bondage series, 2009: the catastrophe of bodily suffering

New materialism does not necessarily require colossal perspectives of global or planetary assemblages. It implicates the materiality of bodies and subjects, even if we now think of subjectivity as an incorporation of these assemblages. Bonajo describes her household furniture as a “condensation of material energy”. She speculates how long she could live off that energy, and describes how she dreams of burning everything she has - a cathartic fantasy of escaping the capitalist grid. But also, this is a fantasy that invokes a palpable sense of suffering and self-destruction. Could we conjecture that new materialism invokes the drive and the suffering of this fantasy? Consider this image: a woman whose surface morphology is remoulded by a layer of ambiguous substance. She lies on her kitchen counter, on a layer of toilet paper, and decorated by birthday candles and lipsticks. The fridge is conspicuously open, so that we become aware of the food inside. I might read her as a redistributed and feminized version of Hirschhorn’s Big Cake. Bonajo presents an ambivalent scene of a body regulated between capitalist plenitude (she recreates herself as a birthday cake – we can even see the flour on the floor as evidence of this process) and physical powerlessness (she is naked, smothered by “vibrant matter”, lit up, but lying down and caught in an axis of shelving armatures, each placed like a geometric compass, in a play on Leonardo’s Vetruvian Man. Now the measures of the body are restrictive, constraining, precarious.

New materialism may appear to be ahistorical, but it is precisely in its claims to conjuring a heterogeneous earthly condition, that it can find a history with preceding materialisms.


#4

David and Hamed begin our conversation with a list of some of the most prominent among the flurry of theoretical innovations in recent years, concepts issuing from fields as diverse and discrete as post-autonomist Marxism, speculative-realist philosophy and neuroscience. As a list, it makes me wonder less about their scientific and philosophical significance within their respective fields, and more about the boundlessness of a theory industry for which the art world functions as an ever-eager filter. How do these currents of thought pass through art’s formal and informal channels, and what changes do they undergo in the process? How do they tend to impact upon, figure and fracture within art-world discourse at large, as theory’s most memorable refrains fill up the forum lists and inboxes of art’s varied publics? If we could examine the transit of, for example, Deleuze-inspired affect theory through the art world since the 1990s, might we find – as I suspect – that, whatever its purportedly pre-personal significance for theory itself, it has nevertheless seemed predisposed to legitimise yet another return to an otherwise long-debunked expressivism for artists and their critics (not least as press-release fodder)? Similarly, how far does object-oriented ontology pass through the art world today as a theory-meme on tap to shore up a market-primed return to large-scale sculptural bricolage?

These questions (and others like them) demand a thinking – a cognitive mapping – that can explore the complex imbrications of the virtual, the material, the spatio-temporal and the institutional (which, as Lance Wakeling’s work makes clear, are always and everywhere at stake together). As such, theory’s complex pathways and functions within the art world and the culture industry more broadly are, it seems to me, problems that only historical materialism is really geared up to comprehend. And this by no means precludes the productive exploration of these questions within artistic practice itself – there are no doubt avenues of practice today that sustain a critically reflexive purchase upon the commodification of theory, for example. Thomas Hirschhorn, for one, seems to figure theory as both weapon and waste, commensurate with the wider profligacy of its host circuits, as Amanda Boetzkes intimates above. Liam Gillick is another (among many), for whom one of the major intellectual legacies for the present – the aestheticisation of theory in poststructuralism – is revealed in some of its troubling ambiguity for the possibility of an emancipatory politics.

But capital’s proven ability to colonise (commodify) even the most seemingly resistant enclaves of critical thought has also led on numerous occasions to historical materialism’s own retreat down the path towards a dire defeatism, the kind of endgame suggested by Guy Debord’s ‘integrated spectacle’, as ‘an era when contemporary art can no longer exist’. Similarly, while ‘immaterial labour’ does, I think, retain a critical and analytical purchase for such things as inquiry into the forms and conditions of metropolitan work in the creative industries, the post-autonomist insistence upon the real subsumption of life under capital seems to me to likewise foreclose upon the possibility of even the most residual spaces, times and practices of resistance. It is at moments like these that historical materialism has tended to lose its dialectical edge. At the very least, we can say that until such time as artists all work at the strict mercy of time discipline and rationalised efficiency (as, I understand, is the case for the assembly-line painters churning out Warhols and Van Goghs in Dafen, China), artistic practice will, as John Roberts has argued elsewhere, remain (constitutively) relatively autonomous of the heteronomous forces that drive a wedge between intellectual and material labour within other spheres.


Introducing our new look and invited contributors
#5

The following has been sent to us as Louis Moreno’s contribution for this week:

What then would a new ‘reinvigorated’ materialism - one able to more fully engage with the historical, technological and ecological concerns raised this week - consist of? To begin to answer this, perhaps inevitably, we need to go back to the source of the problem. This way we might be able to assess more precisely the historical ramifications implicit in David and Hamed’s question: namely, that the concrete forces which shape everyday life are more than mere artifacts of the cultural imagination.

But first of all, I want to say how much I enjoy the antagonistic spirit of the question. The suggestion that there is something generally ‘defective’ within the state of contemporary theory is not just a polemical gesture. It follows the grain of Marx’s own thinking: forcing us to move against the tide, to swim upstream, to rediscover why a practical critique of theory might matter more than the practice of critical theory. So if we go back to first principles, back to the first thesis, the one where Marx launches the project of historical materialism what do we learn?

[“The chief defect” Marx says “of all previous materialism…is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively."] 1

Despite its classic status, as an opening gambit this line still has the power to shock. Perhaps because it confounds the stereotype of Marx to which we have become over-accustomed; a structuralism hostile to concerns of agency, performance and subjectivity. But more to the point, it gets us to the nub of the problem: that hitherto (Marx was writing in 1845 but why not recast it today?) history has only ever been conceptualised. The ‘historical’ he says in The German Ideology ‘appears as something separated from ordinary life, something extra-superterrestrial.’

[The German Ideology manuscript : www.marxists.org]

The name of a German philosopher ‘Feuerbach’ therefore becomes a keyword describing a defective materialism; a materialism that makes historical questions subject to problems internal to the history of philosophy. Thus the development of abstract thought comes to dictate the way the forces of class struggle, the formation of private property, the split between the conception of ‘nature’ and ‘history’, and of course the development of the capitalist mode of production, appear to us. Which, in the last analysis, means the vibrancy of ‘real’ forces are neutralised by a kind of a curation of the ‘spectres’ and apparitions’ of history. If this is still the case, is the implication that there is something whimsically Feuerbachian about the current state of art theory?

[T-shirts on Feuerbach: http://www.zazzle.co.uk/feuerbach+tshirts ]

This is an interesting question, and one which Bill alludes to when he describes ‘theory’ as a kind of conceptual smorgasbord. Fredric Jameson has also said something similar in a recent lecture. Contemporary art and contemporary theory merge becoming a kind of performance art based around recombining knowledge into ever more dazzling constellations.

However, though I like the spirit of antagonism I’m a little unclear why the notion ‘immaterial labour’ appears so defective. After all, Autonomism was motivated by a project to uncover the contemporary processes shaping capital and labour’s mutual modification. The emphasis placed on the role of cognitive labour is useful to tackle a range of questions - such as, why cultural production has become integrated within financial and business services; why neoliberalism and financialisation seems to be making technological unemployment (rather than industrial employment) the default mode of global urbanisation, and so on. Similarly, most of the creative currents of post-structuralism now appear as not so much attempts to escape from historical materialism but to create a polyphony (even cacophony) of materialisms. Many of which have provided a network of tunnels through which Marx ‘the old mole’ could escape from his own institutionalisation under 20th Century Marxism.

So to return to first principles, the prospect of a ‘new’ historical materialism perhaps makes more sense when we see it not as a competition between rival ideologies, all aiming to describe our state of perfect subjection (to finance capital, neoliberalism, biopolitics, etc.) Instead, we might - as your previous conversation pointed out - think of it as a moment when historical and geographical circumstances reinforce a reconfiguration of the planes of life, struggle, love and representation. Such that they begin to illuminate concrete pathways out of a set of global end-games.

As Lance, Amanda and Bill all suggest what constitutes contemporary art’s ‘bleeding edge’, are projects which research the complex dimensions and levels through which the totality (of the internet, of the ecological crisis, global art’s internalisation in the global marketplace etc.) can both be mapped and transformed. Which suggests that rather than seeing historical materialism as a tragically ‘idealist’ project, its revitalisation would be contingent upon Marx’s eleventh and final thesis - “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” - becoming an utterly practical precondition for both art and life.


#6

In Lance’s post at the beginning of last week he very poignantly discussed his own moment of dawning awareness regarding the materiality of the contemporary world – a realisation that his own fleshy substance was incompatible with fantasies of immersion into a ‘digital consciousness’. Perhaps we can also see something similar at play in the work by Melanie Bonajo that Amanda referred to in her piece. Similar descriptions can certainly be found in the Diana Coole and Samantha Frosts’ introduction to their edited collection New Materialisms (2010), where they write that the “new recessionary phase of capitalism that emerged in 2008” renewed the urgency of questions about materiality since, while “it has been fashionable to talk about de-territorialized, dematerialized captial flows … it is the poverty of individuals induced to take on mortgages they could ill afford that remains the material bottom line underpinning the elaborate but fragile structures of recent financial growth. Spasms in the convoluted flows of capital and futures causes immense and immediate material hardship for real individuals.”

Martin John Callanan, Nørre Voldgade, København, Danmark, 2012, from the Grounds series:

“Permission is sought, often after lengthy negotiation, to visit buildings or infrastructure closed to the public. … Once granted, permission includes lists of restrictions on what can and cannot be photographed … Consequently, the resulting photographs are generally of the entrance hall floors; of such buildings as parliaments, government offices and the world headquarters of international banks.”

However, the question is how to turn these incipient awarenesses into a determinate understanding of the situation. How can we fathom the links between sapped bodies and convoluted financial arrays? Louis and Bills’ posts have both noted the danger that theory can simply turn round and bite its own tail - criticising itself without actually concretising itself. Amanda’s post has done a wonderful job of showing that an emphasis on the persistence of materiality can throw the transience of the present situation into light. New materialism is, in this sense, a discourse of temporality as much as materiality, but we still wonder whether it is properly historicised. Louis’s comment about a mapping of the totality reminds us of another passage from Coole and Frosts’ introduction, which admirably states that “new materialist analysis traces the complex and reversible causalities that run between different levels of the social system and especially between microlevel or everyday, and macrolevel or structural.” For this week, we would be very interested to see the participants take up this rallying cry. Rather than continuing to chew on the tails of any naïve new materialists, how can we locate the ladders that run between these planes?


#7

Incantations for Post Seven

… new materialist analysis traces the complex and reversible causalities that run between different levels of the social system and especially between microlevel or everyday, and macrolevel or structural …

Black Square (After Malevich)

In synchronicity, sirens spin throughout the city at various frequencies. One low on 21st Street heading west. One high on 3rd Avenue going south. Both leaving Doppler wakes at all observable locations — recorded and echoed by a matrix of black vertical glass. The Terms have a way of always catching up.

Half a zip code high, surrounded by a cocoon of right angles, the rebel entrepreneur stands looking down on 5th Avenue ants from floor-to-ceiling corporate eyes, reciting sacred patterns 2, 8, 18, 32, 24, 8, 2. Parachutes are packed into the janitor’s closet surrounded by shrinking office space and expanding servers. Downstairs black cars are parked idling, carbon dioxide seductively leaking into the air. The muscle sneers, “don’t be jealous.”

Interference

RAID sirens spinning. So hot. Cool on the way down except for the updrafts. The widening gyre and whatnot. Plastic confetti rains down into the depths of the sea as sharks mysteriously attack decaying cables transmitting information theory at the speed of entropy. For 23 days earth’s fellow traveler transmits empty dispatches in two streams of inane radio beeps. Meanwhile, coral is evacuated en masse by its microbial hosts, then pulverized into the great sinking columns, swaying in limestone history.

Two options in the back of an ambulance. None of them theoretical. They brought cameras to film the proletariat and found no words only shy smiles. Man-on-the-street style. What can I say about capitalism? There’s no time in the back of an ambulance.


#8

What is the drive behind the quest to make new materialism “properly” historical? Would that prevent it from being merely an excitable theoretical trend? Or would that simply commit it to the ground before we think through its political and aesthetic vectors? It seems to me that some of this conversation is too quickly directed toward finding ways out, rather than studying what exactly we’re in. By emphasizing catastrophe I am insisting that what new materialism brings to perception is unprecedented; that we need to start from an acknowledgement of global, ecological and bodily trauma. We are at a point of no return, and therefore there is no proper history available to us. Paradoxically, this was also Benjamin’s insistence (thus new materialism can return to historical materialism, without mobilizing the latter as historical in the sense of inheriting a common set of events, circumstances, ideas, or theoretical parameters). I like Lance’s concluding thought “What can I say about capitalism? There’s no time in the back of an ambulance.”

Alain Delorme, Murmurations, Ephemeral Plastic Sculptures #6, 2012-2014

Alain Delorme, Murmurations, Ephemeral Plastic Sculptures #8, 2012-2014

With regards to the excitability of new materialism, perhaps instead of dismissing it, we might wonder at its sudden upsurge and spread. Could it be that the critical terrain and the exchange of ideas is more like a murmuration of birds – automatic, energetic, behavioral and reactive to the environment? In this case, new materialism is both a form and a constellation of ideas about the agency of assemblages or the ontology of objects and substances. Could this excitability be a counteraction to the secrecy of immaterial labor, the hierarchies produced by networks, the invisibility of finance capital? I cannot help but think about the tremendous online coordination that generated Arab Spring, a movement that was deeply invested in combating censorship and thus “taking hold” of the space of the internet. The task at hand is not to outsmart the system. It seems to me that new materialism is well aware of this.

Tahrir Square, Cairo


#9

I agree with Amanda’s point that the ‘conjoining’, or at least the reconciliation, of the new materialisms with historical materialism is urgent today. However, I’m not sure that they can ever really meet on equal terms, or that the solution is for the new materialisms to somehow simply be made more historical in and of themselves. It is historical materialism’s unique insight that all theorising is historically (which is to say, socially and economically) determined, even if only in the lonely hour of the elusive last instance. This is, essentially, why Marxism is not philosophy, as Jameson also reminds us in the lecture uploaded by Louis. Amanda usefully suggests a (historical-materialist) pathway for the new materialisms to then begin to be historicised, precisely as ‘automatic’ and ‘reactive’ responses to the immaterial and dematerialised tenor of much recent theory.

How, then, can art intervene in thinking both materially and historically? It seems to me that one of the ways that art is able to open up a space for thinking about the inextricability of the everyday and the structural, the micro and the macro, is in its approaching (or poaching) other, neighbouring disciplines and spheres of practice, other kinds of work. We of course see this going on in all manner of artistic ‘turns’, old and new, towards education, social work, ethnography, research, design and architecture, political activism, and so forth. This connects back to the previous conversation, ‘on claims of radicality in contemporary art’, and especially observations made therein regarding conditions of artistic labour, since these turns are all movements on the part of the relatively autonomous (artistic practice) towards more heteronomous activities and institutions (which, as Peter Osborne has made plain, is entirely different from mere surrender to heteronomy – hence ‘post-autonomous’ art).

If this is how art is presently best able to cast a self-critical light on its relative freedom from economic determination (especially social and technical divisions of labour), this is also, in turn, the lens through which it is able to reflect upon labour and production in general, and to thereby open up, once again, onto broader questions of political economy. Though his thinking on art remains problematic in many ways, Jacques Rancière puts this quite evocatively, when he talks about the capacity of the artist to be a ‘double being’, and thus of artistic practice to be both one thing and another thing in order that it may expose ‘the distribution of occupations that upholds the apportionment of domains of activity’ in society at large. By negotiating between ‘combinations of elements’ drawn from ‘the forms of art and those of non-art’, artistic practice is revealed not as ‘the outside of work but its displaced form of visibility’.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect (1975)

Mention was made a little earlier of practices of critical mapping, and we can see such a turn at work here in artists’ engaging in practices of ‘experimental geography’ (Trevor Paglen) and the like. Political economy may also, of course, be broached in spatial and environmental practices of various kinds, and art’s dialogue with design (including architecture) is a very interesting case of this. ‘Art and design’ are frequently connected at an institutional level (at art schools, for instance), but frequently cast as polar opposites in critical debate. (Design is either subsuming and destroying art or it might yet become art’s saviour – roughly, Hal Foster versus Bruno Latour…) On this basis, we’re used to thinking about art as a site of critique of design and architecture. Gordon Matta-Clark’s implicit critique, in Conical Intersect, of the Centre Georges Pompidou’s central role in the redevelopment and social cleansing of Les Halles in the mid-1970s is archetypal here, as is Dan Graham’s critique of the Modern Movement’s utopian investment in the literal transparency of glass as both an analogue for and an incitement to political transparency and moral integrity.


Redmond Entwistle, extract from Monuments (2010)

However, we can think about this exchange not simply in terms of art as social critique or as a critique of architectural ideology, but also in terms of its cultural form – as a practice mediated socially, technologically and economically (in other words, historically) – and how this relates in turn to architecture and design as cultural forms. By reflecting upon and acting upon the differences and similarities between disciplines, professions and labour practices at the micro level, new light can be shone on their relation to the structural. To take a classic example, Dan Graham’s Homes for America suggests some kind of kinship between its own distributional form as a magazine article, and the process of suburbanisation in the postwar US. Addressing media culture and the built environment, it seems, thereby, to have something to say about the relationship between the two, perhaps even implicating Fordism as a ‘total way of life’ (David Harvey), of massified production and consumption, of the repeatable, the disposable, the banal. Maybe we can also think about Graham’s glass-and-steel pavilions not simply as critiques of the architectural ideology of transparency, by way of their emphasis on the ‘uncanny’ (Anthony Vidler) qualities of reflection and distortion, but also as composites of repeatable units, often tailor-made for specific sites but with a strikingly global reach. Does their spread have something to say about the ‘urbanisation’ of space – the production of ‘abstract space’, ‘produced and reproduced as reproducible’ (Lefebvre) – as an integral aspect of the financialisation of capitalism itself? Do they somehow figure architecture as a concrete effect of capital’s real abstractions, and can they be said in this way to mediate (inter)subjective experience in the everyday and the unthinkably vast processes of financialisation and urbanisation themselves?

Construction view of Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout (2014), for the Roof Garden Commission: Dan Graham with Günther Vogt on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden (photograph: Hyla Skopitz, The Photograph Studio, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. copyright 2014)


#10

The images and themes that Amanda and Bill raise this week present a set of open questions, unresolved even in Marx’s own thinking, about the way history materialises in space and time. On the one hand, those murmurations of starlings might represent one of Marx’s most controversial theses - that humanity’s essence is not contained within the individual but consists in the ensemble of social relations. On the other, Paris’s cultural reconstruction reminds us that if, as Marx also said, ‘the environment shape humanity and humanity shapes the environment’ then the ability to mediate the assembly of social relations becomes a fundamental source of political power.

Both these images remind us that the materialist conception of history is not necessarily concerned with the problem of ‘matter’. In fact, for Étienne Balibar, what is innovative about Marx’s philosophy is the capacity to conceive of a ‘materialism without matter’; a capacity to conceptualise an objective system of social relations that frame, shape and regulate the outline of human subjectivity.

The political stakes of this move, Balibar argues, is to arrive at a critique of subjectivation whose political and philosophical power resides neither in individualism or organicism. Instead Balibar proposes an alternative conception “we have…to think humanity as a transindividual reality…Not what is ideally ‘in’ each individual (as a form or a substance), or what would serve, from outside, to classify that individual, but what exists between individuals by dint of their multiple interactions.” (The Philosophy of Marx p.32)

But to appreciate the cosmopolitical stakes of ‘transindividuality’ we still need to grasp the apparatuses and strategies which configure and construct what takes place between individuals. So to grasp the spatial ramifications of an idea like ‘transindividuality’ it may be useful to leave Marxian philosophy behind for a moment and consider a more immediate process like urbanisation.

Not only is urbanisation one of the most recognisably concrete forces of ‘globalisation’, its historical significance is manifold. On one level urbanisation is described, often in breathless terms by institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, as a profound anthropological ‘break’ where humanity is fast becoming an urban species. On another, urbanisation is seen to generate an unprecedented restructuring in the trans-national organisation of production and accumulation of wealth.

All of which was anticipated back in 1970 in Henri Lefebvre’s remarkable book The Urban Revolution. Lefebvre argued that the survival of capitalism - the way it persists as a historical entity - is precisely through the way it occupies and regulates the spatial forms of social existence. If industrialisation determined the process of socio-economic production, urbanisation was the process which threatened to control the reproduction of social life as a whole.

From the vantage point of the 1970s this scenario was merely a speculation. Nearly half a century later, what seems clear is that not only has human society become deeply dependent on urban modes of social production and reproduction, but that capitalism has imbricated itself in the urban ensemble of social relations.

What we are confronted with then is a different kind of murmuration; not of starlings, but the bearers of debt. Swarms of financial intermediaries moving across the face of the earth, looking to intervene in the way we use space and technology to connect with one another; making all differences (whether geographical, sexual, cultural, material, psychic, biological) equivalent to the requirements of one universal financial exchange. The net result makes it difficult to imagine how we create systems of housing, healthcare, transportation, information and education - the infrastructures of daily life - which do not prefigure the prerequirements of global creditors.

So while architecture may well provide multiple ways to map the world’s financial entanglements, at present ecological notions of ‘urban design’ tend to immunise this profession from real analysis into how real estate shapes its own aesthetic. Similarly while the internet offers the prospect of a virtual plane to reconfigure the ensemble of social relations, this too has become susceptible to the protocols of monopoly-capital. All of which returns us once more to the theme of ‘cognitive mapping’, but now the question turns on the cognitive limits of the political imagination.

Perhaps then the issue cannot be resolved by scaling the question of historical materialism in terms of macro and micro. An alternative proposition - implicit in Balibar, Lefebvre and Jameson’s approach to materialism - is to analyse the way the fabric of social relations enables particular historical forms of capital to impose limits on the political unconscious. Why is it, for example, that residual and often parasitic forms like landed capital and merchants’ capital have not only persisted over time, but seem to be intensifying their hold over public goods?

Such questions - raised today by Saskia Sassen’s research into the resurgence of neo-colonialist ‘expulsions’ and David Harvey’s analysis of neo-imperialist ‘accumulation by dispossession’ - could throw into relief those atavisms which colonise the infrastructure of daily life. The question of how we confront such ‘atavistic materialisms’ might present one way to reconfigure the question of socio-spatial transformation.


#11

Thank you to our contributors for their enormously thought-provoking posts last week. This is the first day of our final week on this conversation and we are aware that people may wish to continue existing lines of thought or follow up on each others’ ideas. Everyone is certainly very welcome to do that - the following text is written as a provocation in case anybody would like something further to respond to - this is absolutely not a requirement.

We are interested in departing from Amanda’s statement that “the task at hand is not to outsmart the system”. Citing the way that protesters mobilised virtual spaces during the Arab Spring, Amanda seems to suggest that we might be better off finding a way to use the enemy’s tools against them. So, while last eek we asked our contributors if they might be able to talk about the position of materiality in relation to the abstractions of capital, this week we ask whether they could think of any examples in which material or spatial assemblages might be mobilised as tools for resistance, rather than just standing as symptoms of (or contributors to) the present situation. We fully agree with Amanda’s important point last week that it is necessary to work out “what we are in” rather than unreflectively trying to tunnel a way out, but we are interested to hear more about how the present situation might contain potentialities that run against the grain of capital’s interests - contradictions and limits, perhaps.

[Paolo Cirio, Screenshot of Loophole For All, 2013. “This artwork unveiled over 2,000,00 Caymans Islands companies and it reversed global finance machination for creative agendas. The website Loophole4All.com promoted the sale of real identities of anonymous Cayman companies at low cost to democratize the privileges of offshore businesses”. http://bit.ly/1M3WZFZ]

We note that Amanda’s first post has already hinted at this possibility in very interesting ways. Regarding Louis’s points last week about issues of the political imaginary, we also think that Lance’s new film, Field Visits for Chelsea Manning may provide a powerful strategy. Lance writes that in this work, he “hoped to encode Manning’s story onto the landscape itself, so that these places could perhaps become significant markers in the shifting boundaries of the global network”. The film weaves the history of Manning’s incarceration into strands of American folk history and local culture, which are written into its landscape. Given how closely US ideologies are bound up with mythic fantasises with their roots in an idea of the land, Lance’s film seems to spoil the chalice of the nation’s spatial imaginary, imprinting it with the name of the oppressed.


#12

First of all, it has been a pleasure participating in this discussion. I have enjoyed getting to know everyone’s writing and I’m looking forward to this final week of posts. Thank you especially to David and Hamed for getting everyone together on the same page.

I.

The issues at hand — the “situation” — are too large for me to approach without comically oversimplifying their complexities. It’s hubris to attempt a diagnosis or cure. We should be weary of anyone who wants to “save the world.” After all, isn’t it this kind of thinking that got us into this mess?

In 1962, J.C.R. Licklider, then director of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office, was tickled that a cleaning lady loved to look at the art prints in his office. He gave her a Cézanne and laughed all the way home. What are you laughing at, his wife asked. He told his story and how he came up with this hilarious joke: Computers for the brasses, art for the masses. Today, the joke of technology is on us. Licklider’s little bons mots can be updated in this way: Goldman for the brasses, Uber for the masses.

The levels of exploitation and complicity run so deep, I wonder what it means to use the system against itself. I can perhaps be inspired by De Certeau to “wear the wig.” To some extent this tactic may work on a personal level. But if I wear a wig everyday then I have become someone else. What kind of life is this?

II.

A. As we navigate digital information, we leave behind and create more information, which can then itself be navigated. In this expansion, we are perhaps witnessing a sort of big bang. The 1940s and ‘50s saw the birth of the atomic bomb, the invention of computers, and the discovery of DNA. In a current project I am connecting these monumental achievements in science to each other through the common themes of entropy and information theory. I also see them as responsible for a massive shift in the nature of language. Sequences of symbols, once inert signifiers, now began to actively influence and create the world. The ancients’ delusions of spells and magic were demolished by modernism only to be resurrected and observed in real life itself.

B. Memories are living networks, which must be performed to persist, but which paradoxically also change with each recollection. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that processes spatial navigation and also short- and long-term memory. Greek orators exploited this when they used memory palaces to recite long speeches without teleprompters. To me, this suggests that memories may live as spatiolinguistic networks, but are perceived and interpreted through sequences.

Perhaps it is not accidental that anachronistic ideas of sequence and structure are dim reflections of today’s scientific discoveries.

C. A geometric sheet of ice — formed in the shadow of a warehouse and the bend of a bulkhead — floats east on an incoming tide.

III.

One of the big ideas in Adam Curtis’s recent film Bitter Lake is that the West has no big ideas. God, progress, Marxism and so on are lost to us. I disagree. While it may appear that we don’t believe in much and only wish to be entertained, we are actually quite busy in our quest to continue exploiting the world and its peoples. The West is built on the hidden pyres of human sacrifice. This is our big idea. It’s been the big idea all along.

If I am skeptical of using the system against itself, it is because “disruption” abounds. Here is a photo I took yesterday. (Sorry it’s rather dim.)

I love the appropriation of Marshall McLuhan’s now-cliché but once apt quote. Then to the left the word commerce, above the blade of a knife. As I exit the train at 23rd Street on my way to a day job, here is the pirate’s critique. In the beginning I said I wouldn’t attempt a diagnosis or a cure, but it’s simply too tempting. So here goes both: Capitalism has a pretty good rewards program. If we’re going to save the world, we need to step up our game.


#13

How can we use assemblages as tools of resistance? What an enjoyable prospect! But is it really? I immediately think of a power outages, or other kinds of blockage to energy grids, power sources, information networks or secret finance exchange. To turn assemblages into a new form of collective resistance sets the mind to imagining post-apocalyptic scenarios; the end of the world. But these possibilities would also have to engage with very real disasters – oil pipeline explosions, nuclear melt, computer viruses, orchestrated stock market collapses. Assemblage terrorism would lead to positive feedback loops. Ultimately, these are creative sabotage fantasies, whose end results would be indistinguishable from the symptoms of systemic failure now. To my mind, it seems there is a distinction to be made between strategic assemblage stoppages (disrupting the system) and the activity of new materialist assemblages, like tsunamis, plastic gyres, or global warming. It seems to me that from the start, the former is being put to use whereas the latter has been deemed fundamentally dysfunctional – the assemblage cannot be “used” for any purpose by definition (ie. Heidegger’s broken hammer as the moment of appearance of a thing from equipment). Dysfunction, non-productivity, is at the heart of this question and it cannot be used as a tool.

To return to resistance, then: how can resistance be a withdrawal from capitalist equipment (whether virtual, informational, digital or actual), without simply opting out, self-annihilating, or getting pulled under? Of course, one simply wants to say “no!” to opt out, to recede. The deeper the conviction, the more pathological this tendency could become – depression, self-destruction, suicide. Resistance has physical and psychological consequences.

Ken Lum, “I Said No!” 2010

I often think of the choice put to the gas station owner in the famous “coin toss” scene from No Country for Old Men. When aggressively pressured to call heads or tails by the sociopath Anton Chigurh (the enforcer of global capitalist exchange if ever there was one), the docile owner protests that he does not know what he’s “putting up”. Chigurh tells him that he has already been putting it up his whole life. The only choice is therefore to “call it” (the moment of interpolation). How does one say no to a sociopath? How does one even know what to preserve or salvage or gain from taking this chance? How does one resist a sociopathic assemblage? The owner wins by chance, but the viewer knows he could as easily have lost and wound up with a nail through the forehead. What is the best way to take one’s chances with a sociopath? For this surely is the question at stake in an attempt to deploy an assemblage of the scale and implications that we have been discussing here.

But perhaps this scene is too straightforwardly agonistic. I was so pleased to see the conversation take a cognitive turn and to consider psychogeographies and urban cartography. If we accepted that assemblages are as much internal formations as they are external formations (or that there is communication and deep patterning between the scale of human biological life and far more vast and unfathomable assemblages), then the first step may be to look for already existing disturbances from within. I am curious about the pathologies that accompany new materialism: the effort to overcome personal limits, and the debilitating symptoms of pushing those limits (for example, the toll of living with ever-increasing debt); chronic melancholy for the future; dissociative mental states; paranoia with no visible object, anti-ontological performativity (the intermediary zone of being completely detached from ones physical surroundings while being entirely absorbed in an online network, while still functioning in both); virtual fugues; historical amnesia. Evidently some of these are speculative. But taken together, can we consider, as Catherine Malabou does, the emergence of “new wounded” (our own emergence as “new wounded”). A collective whose psychogeography activates and lives assemblages, perhaps without knowing it. What if sociopathy itself were both the symptom and the contagion of a new wounded? I can only wonder if the therapy for such conditions would also hold the secret to wielding assemblages, in the manner of Guattari’s ecosophy. But this would also require an acknowledgement, or “letting-be” (to quote Luce Irigaray) of the assemblage, which cannot be used but which immutably “is” – a profound rethinking of thinking itself as the site of both the intervention of the assemblage and recovery from that intervention.

David and Hamed, thank you for curating this conversation, and taking it through some interesting turns. And thank you to Lance, Bill and Louis for your contributions. This has been a pleasure.


#14

I would like to echo Lance and Amanda in thanking David and Hamed for organising this stimulating conversation and for kindly inviting me to take part. To address the question about resistance in a roundabout way, I would like to pick up on Louis’s mention of architecture’s potential to ‘map the world’s financial entanglements’, a capacity often thwarted today by the insipid will-to-order of ‘urban design’. This puts me in mind of Rem Koolhaas’s promotion (old but still potent) of a ‘culture of congestion’, which we can read as both the antithesis of an ecologically inflected, liberal urban design, as well as an index and crucial effect of the creative destructions of capital itself. It is no accident that Koolhaas’s model for this in the 1970s was New York City, the capital of twentieth-century capitalism, and in championing Manhattan’s vertiginous density and perpetual upheaval, Koolhaas is anything but nostalgic in the face of the destruction of whatever used to be understood by ‘the city’. In fact this is confirmed, a little later in his career, as Koolhaas’s Manhattanism gives way to projects like OMA’s Euralille of the early 1990s, where, situated at a crucial node of Europe’s high-speed rail network, the city is reimagined as a generic, nodal space of super-efficient transit and exchange, as something like a locally delimited approximation or figuration of Manuel Castells’ territorially unbounded, friction-free (and congestion-free) ‘space of flows’. Here, architecture is clearly revealed not only as capital’s analogue but as its unabashed ally. To this extent, architecture, for Koolhaas, retains its power to symbolise only at the cost of ceding its power to reshape social life in any other way than to more effectively smooth the path for global capital. It may have been Bernard Tschumi who, in 1994, exhorted architects to ‘accelerate capitalism’, but Koolhaas/OMA is, I would venture, the original accelerationist architecture, long in thrall to what Lance calls capitalism’s own ‘rewards program’, and seduced away from what Amanda suggests may be the ‘self-annihilating’ risks of resistance.

Rem Koolhaas, Euralille masterplan, 1989

So, at the risk of ending on a sour note, I wonder whether today, to some degree at least, cultures of resistance have themselves ceded to these and other ‘cultures of complicity’ the ability to best articulate and reveal present social realities (but not, of course, to challenge them). I say this partly because it seems at least probable that the possibilities of art as resistance have themselves migrated, to an extent, to the least symbolising and symbolisable areas of contemporary practice, where art as ‘social practice’ meets other kinds of more-or-less direct political agency. Perhaps strangely, Koolhaas’s 1995 call for a ‘Lite Urbanism’ reads not unlike a manifesto for art-as-social-practice in general, concisely articulating its anti-formal, anti-visual and processual character: ‘it will no longer be concerned with the arrangement of more or less permanent objects but with the irrigation of territories with potential; it will no longer aim for stable configurations but for the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form.’ Perhaps this is not so strange, however, if we also concede that art-as-social-practice equally often takes the form of social entrepreneurialism as it does of what Amanda calls ‘creative sabotage’ and ‘stoppage’. I recall, here, Marina Vishmidt’s discussion of social projects in Chicago by the artist Theaster Gates that ‘seek to “add value” to communities through entrepreneurial artist-led redevelopment’, as a mode of ‘artist-run (rather than art-led) gentrification’. Koolhaas’s ‘irrigation of territories with potential’ is a fantastic euphemism for the investment and anticipated realisation of surplus value, the agricultural metaphor quite nicely capturing (and naturalising) the cyclical rhythms of capital accumulation…

Theaster Gates, Dorchester Projects (2009), acquisition of an abandoned two-storey property for reuse as a library, slide archive and soul food kitchen

What kinds of power, then, are left to art-as-image? David Joselit opens his exhilarating book, After Art, with a discussion of art’s ‘diplomatic portfolio’, as the object of regional disputes (the Elgin Marbles debacle) and as geopolitical soft power (liberal Chinese contemporary art as a foil for political illiberalism). I suspect, though, that these examples of art’s imbrication in politics are the kinds of exceptions that rather prove the rule of art’s broader redundancy within political processes. I think that there are – or at least that there have been, and might yet be – points at which art-as-social-practice meshes with the power of images themselves, as Gerald Raunig has argued with reference to tactical media projects that harness the web as an ‘orgiastic medium’, within which a given image or unit of information (or complex of image and information) not only mediates events, ‘but instead concatenates with the event, ultimately becoming an event itself.’ But the power of architecture-as-image today is immeasurably greater than that of art. Indeed, it increasingly appears to be the case nowadays that the diminution of art’s image-power occurs at a moment when the power and currency of images at large has perhaps never been greater.


#15

Thanks to Lance, Amanda and Bill for their stimulating posts and reflections over the last few weeks, and to David and Hamed of course for the challenging questions. The last one returns us to the hardest of all, that of the move from reflection to resistance to reconstitution.

How does the intellectual appreciation of crisis become its own movement in time? What we are looking for then are not simply signs which make political ‘struggle intelligible’, but that moment when the sensation of crisis compels a reflex action. So how does this shift from pathology to praxis work?

As Lance suggests the sheer monumental scale of the problem requires some light relief, otherwise we face cracking up like lunatics. Comedy is one route to release the pressure, but we can find it in other genres.

Today, the Hollywood conspiracy thriller usually provides some way to satisfy the unconscious desire to access the totality. Most recently, in Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015), we even have the emergence of a Foucault reading action hero - a triangulation of ‘Neo’, Bourne and Snowden - able to face up to the full spectrum domination of, what Amanda has vividly called, ‘assemblage terrorism’. (And incidentally I think Michael Mann is a filmmaker who would take Bill’s assertion - that global architecture is a sort of spatial cipher for cognitive capitalism - very seriously indeed.)

Yet as the fix of high powered spectacle fades we still have to face up to David, Hamed (and Karl’s) question. Namely, in what material basis do the real sources of power reside today? And I don’t think we need to look far to discover the spaces and materials in which a far more insipid form of ‘assemblage terrorism’ consists.

When we look at the current state of Greece, for example, enmeshed in the vampire-squid grip of the IMF, the ECB and the EU then the new horizon of class struggle becomes clear. At its most basic level, what we see is a technocratic class of intermediaries refusing to release a whole population from debt subordination.

What we have then is, at its most basic material level, is a sort of biopolitical ransom demand: where the social and physical infrastructure of daily life (the urban life support systems of housing provision, health care provision, education provision, transport, waste management and so forth) are captured in apparatuses of credit control. Controls, incidentally which comprise a new ‘German Ideology’ of financialisation combining neoliberal expediency, economic utility (the appeal to productivity growth) and moral obligation (the appeal to honour one’s debts).

Releasing the urban fabric, the building blocks of daily life, from the control of financial intermediation would be one practical way to subtend biopower. But the question of how this might be accomplished, given that the management and development of infrastructure seems to automatically generate the need for finance, appears almost intractable. “It’s as if they (the skilled, the agents, the authorities) had so excluded use [of the city] for the sake of exchange that this use came to be confused with usury.” (Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, p.188)

While it offers no consolation, the fact that there is, out of the clash between the functionaries of austerity (the Troika) and the representation of popular resistance (Syriza), some new political forces in motion, this at least give us the ability to make sense of the relations of power. For too long, politics has been hidden in an opaque zone, presented as massively complex, requiring hyper-processing power, and of course endless payments to consultants.

The unfolding of the Greek situation will not only give us a sense of the real dimensions of political control, it may also reveal points of weakness, blockages, bottlenecks in the distribution of power. If we struggle to locate a pulse of life in the arts, cinema and architecture, perhaps it’s in the field of politics that some élan vital might emerge to disrupt a recurring cycle of disappointment.