The question of organization that Greg’s second question opens with is to my mind one of the most important questions for the Left today. Antonio Negri and a good number of other movement intellectuals have started calling for more “verticality” from horizontalist social movements. Negri calls for a verticality “that’s able to express strength and political programmes.” Yates McKee says this about the “ecologies of Occupy” proliferating in such a way that they could be “scaled up” to build collective power. In her recent essay, provocatively titled “Against Activism,” Astra Taylor looks at the history of the use of the word organizer as opposed to activist, which at one time was used in a derogatory manner by conservatives to refer to leftist organizers. In the 60s, says radical historian Roxanna Dunbar-Ortiz, other terms were also in use: revolutionaries, radicals, militants, socialists, communists, and organizers.
It’s been very interesting for me in this regard to see how people in this eflux conversation have been responding to the use of the words avant-garde and vanguard. I was impressed when I first read Oscar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s explanation of their use of the term ‘proletariat’ in their concept of the ‘proletarian public sphere.’ Their reason was simple: to not allow perfectly useful and political terms to fall into disuse, or as Walter Benjamin might have said, into the hands of the enemy. I myself use the word avant-garde in the sense that Gene Ray intends it when he says that for good or bad no other word better describes the combination of art praxis and political praxis. I found it interesting how McKee contrasted in his book some of the activist groups organized around Black Lives Matter to that of Kenneth Goldsmith’s work about Michael Brown. What interests me most about Goldsmith is the Ubu Web website that he curates and the kind of work that you find on that site, which makes me think about some of the avant-garde artists who have passed away recently, fortunately not from the terror of police violence: Chantal Akerman, Robert Ashley, Amiri Baraka, Pierre Boulez, Vera Chytilova, Ornette Coleman, Harun Farocki, Eduardo Galeano, William Greaves, Charlie Hadem and Judith Malina. There’s a whole set of tools, techniques and use vales in the work of such artists and knowledge is a durable good. But it’s often nevertheless earmarked as “neo-avant-garde” and fodder for the culture industry, as people like Peter Burger and Benjamin Buchloh might say. But this kind of Frankfurt School pessimism is also inadequate for contemporary practitioners who want change in our lifetime. If the autonomy of the field of culture was hard won, as Andrea Fraser says, so has been the new field of engaged art and social practice that has emerged in what for me is the wake of postmodernism.
What does this engaged art offer the new forms of class struggle, collectivism, commonism, or communalization? It begs the question of what definitions of art we’re willing to entertain – not to mention what definitions of avant-garde art and vanguard politics we use. Greg refers to art here as an ontological imaginary, one that is sufficient to do battle with neoliberal society. A good start. In his lecture on activist art Alain Badiou agues that the language of democracy is too equivocal to be useful to us in this regard – everyone considers themselves a democrat, which is today a weak ideology. He argues that the Left today needs a stronger ideology. The idea of art as ontology is what Marxists at one time referred to as superstructural or ideological. Not only is art superstructural, so is politics, both of them to be distinguished from the capitalist relations of production and from the level of technological development. Today’s anarchist post-politics tend to collapse base and superstructure into the immanentism and metaphysics of media culture. Anarchists in this regard tend to have an even stronger sense of totality than Marxists. But how many people today are concerned with dialectics? Many writers put out stereotypes of dialectics as some kind of happy synthesis or teleological version of Soviet diamat. So it’s sometimes hard for people to appreciate the richness of theory. Certainly social constructionism and cultural studies have contributed to a kind of totalitarianism in contemporary thinking, with “no outside” to capitalism being imaginable, let alone desirable. People throw themselves headlong into animal studies and post-humanism in order to be at the cutting edge of the bad infinity of becoming – a puerile vitalism, according to Badiou, which affirms that “movement is superior to immobility, life superior to the concept, time to space, affirmation to negation, difference to identity,” and we could go on, the rhizome to the arboresque, the molecular to the molar – “a kind of speculative demagogy whose entire strength lies in addressing itself to each and every one’s animal disquiet, to our confused desires, to everything that makes us scurry about blindly on the desolate surface of the earth.” And why not? The end is near.
I’m not personally very sure that David Graeber has much to say about art. From what I’ve read of his you could learn much more from John Roberts. Anyone who’s moderately interested in the question of the avant-garde should have read Peter Burger by now but also John’s new book Revolutionary Time and the Avant Garde. It’s really the best thing since Burger. But Graeber is the author of Direct Action, and he’s been involved in organizing Occupy Wall Street, among other things. We need to put these kinds of projects together.
But to take up the question, I love Surrealism, and I’m Lacanian, so that keeps me in their orbit. Regardless, Henri Lefebvre in The Critique of Everyday Life made the observation: “The Surrealists promised a new world, but they merely delivered ‘mysteries of Paris’ [a reference to Marx’s critique of the novelist Eugene Sue]. They promised a new faith, but did that really mean anything? Oh Literature, what petty crimes are committed in your name!” The book is worth re-reading, especially insofar as Lefebvre was an important critic of orthodox Marxism and argued that alienation would exist even in a communist society. This makes sense to me as a Lacanian also. Misrecognition can’t be wished away. The unconscious can’t be simply pushed in the direction of consciousness. For Lefebvre, the Surrealist avant-garde had come to a dead end around 1930 since it translated struggle into literary alienation. If there was to be a revolution, for Lefebvre it would not be an armed struggle, but a revolution of and within the everyday. And Lefebvre was no slouch. He fought with the Resistance and with the Communist International during WWII and by the end of the war was giving lessons to French army generals on how to mount campaigns in the southern Pyrénées mountains. Like Debord he had read and understood Clausewitz.
The critique of the term avant-garde due to its association with military metaphors kind of ignores the sources of the use of that term by the Saint-Simoniens of the early nineteenth century. Yes, they borrowed the term from the military but what they actually meant by it was the idea that artists would be the activists who would spread progressive ideas in society. So the critique of the idea of the avant-garde as a military metaphor falls flat, at least insofar as it refers to its original uses. When people more accurately refer to avant-garde as a military term they are referring to the “Marxist-Leninist” use of the term, which came into effect around the turn of the last century and with the emergence of a “vanguard” within the restricted field of art, retroactively, from Realism and Impressionism all the way to the Situationists (there is no such thing as Situationism). That narrative more or less came to a close with 70s pluralism and postmodernism. The Situationists borrowed many ideas from Lefebvre, least of all his emphasis on leisure and disalienation, but Debord wanted to provoke a crisis in advertising spectacle and leisure consumption. He was a serious person in comparison to some of the people he purged from the group. In Seeing Power Nato Thomson says we should build social capital rather then engage in those kinds of purist endeavours since it doesn’t build solidarity. I personally think we can afford to have all kinds of radical groups, from collectives all the way to communist parties. Even solo artists like Thomas Hirschhorn and Billy Bragg or intellectuals like David Harvey can make valuable contributions. Think of Trotsky’s great book on Literature and Revolution. He had his preferences and his agenda but he also had a great deal of respect and understanding for all kind of artists and movements.
The idea of prefigurative politics assumes perhaps that you can eliminate alienation. For Lacanians this is fantasy pure and simple. Yet the Lacanian injunction is do not give way on your desire. I’ve written elsewhere about avant-garde fantasy. For Lefebvre, being aware that you are alienated is the first step towards disalienation. This is exactly what the avant-garde supersession of art is about and this is why it is accurate to describe the many art practices involved in and around Occupy as avant-garde. After the dissolution of art after conceptual art and pluralism, the ontology of art was relativized into the expanded field of the social and the everyday. This allowed for new kinds of links to be made with the historical avant-gardes, whether in architecture, design or music. The philosophy of aesthetics was ostensibly dissolved by postmodernism and cultural studies into representation and discourse (only to come back with a vengeance in the 2000s). One consequence of this is that everything becomes aesthetic and performative. Zizek says something similar when he argues that the “art thing” as objet petit a can easily slide from the most meaningless everyday material to the most sublime: a Bernie Sanders T-shirt, a meme like the 99%, a cardboard sign that says Hands Up Don’t Shoot.
Art is conditioned by the biocapitalist mode of production and by the real subsumption of labour, which today involves social media and I argue an increasingly activist function. We need a new essay by Daniel Buren describing the function of activist art. The networks that extend communication and communities are the feedback mechanisms that Franco Berardi says increase in magnitude to the point of self-reinforcement and semio-inflation. Think of the Donald Trump phenomenon. The shift from mass consumption to prosumer mass customization replaces politics with technosocial automatisms. This is why the question of avant-gardism causes bewilderment to even those people who could most easily be considered in the vanguard. It’s a common symptom. Because people can no longer see themselves outside of these mechanisms they no longer try. This is a problem for not only art institutions. So we’re caught between two deaths, as Zizek says, between the ontological imaginary and the heteronomical immanence of biocapitalism. But what is the epistemological-ontological mediation and point of ontological failure? One word for this is ideology, or the subject in ideology (castration). The phrase Strike Art expresses this beautifully. The strike in this case is not simply aesthetic; it represents a largely unsymbolizable class struggle, the division between division and non-division.
This is another reason why the avant-gardes of the past are prefigurative. And so why not mention Surrealism? To do so is neither futurism nor postmodern pastiche, it’s part of what John Roberts calls end of art historicity as well as art’s ontology of conceptualization and non-identitary abolition of art as art. The relation between ontology and heteronomy is therefore one of struggle. The kinds of practices described in Strike Art create use values that lead beyond the art world and that fight against the devaluation of life and labour. It is a revolutionary politicization of art in advance of neoliberal culture and that renews the programme of avant-garde struggle. This renewal of the avant-garde does not happen just by itself but is the result of struggles in the present. Aesthetics do not trivialize the social causes to which artists are lending their efforts since art has an autonomy from politics that does not undermine revolutionary consciousness. When conscious of art’s oppositional histories and of art itself as a social relation, artists contribute to revolutionary consciousness.