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Superconversations Day 33: Joshua Johnson responds to Liam Gillick, "Weapons Grade Pig Work"


Generalized Fluidity

Dilapidated display object embedded outside of the Long Island Science Center, Riverhead, NY. Most likely representing a cockpit control cross-section. Photo Credit: Joshua Johnson.

We have a new type of rule now. Not one-man rule, or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decision.

They are representatives of abstract forces who have reached power through surrender of self. The iron-willed dictator is a thing of past.

There will be no more Stalins, no more Hitlers.

The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident. Inept, frightened pilots at the controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push.

–William S. Burroughs [1]

Liam Gillick presents a satirical scenario [2] in which an artist has fully adapted to the managerial models of Silicon Valley, where short term and fluidly tactical responses are de rigeuer and the market both drives and anesthetizes production. There are obvious parallels in this critique with Gilles Chatelet’s excoriation of cyber-capitalism in the book, To Live and Think Like Pigs [3]. Chatelet argues against the reduction of people to the statistical measure of the average man, which turns human beings into an atomistic element in a simple input-output schema and managed as a ‘cybercattle’ resource by a neoliberal elite. The average man is little more than “Robinson-particles”, [4] which are defined by a minimal sociology of game-theoretic models and mechanistic billiard-ball like interactions in a Hobbesian war of all-against-all. Gillick’s lampooning of the current state of the art through his unidentified idiot-savant narrator echoes Chatelet’s concern with the methodological individualism which replaces freedom with the pre-arranged calculus of market identified “choice”: “People have to step along the path from cautious cynic to submissive consumer of my stuff. Aggressive mediocrity is the best way to achieve this.” (Gillick)

Suhail Malik, who has critiqued Contemporary Art as a hegemonic genre interpenetrated with market forces and the rule of capital, points to the ideological genericization of the subject as one if its grievous ills. [5] It has become one of the tenets of current artistic practice to no longer set specific criteria for a work, but rather to produce artworks which are deliberately indeterminate so as to court as wide a range of potential subjective reactions as possible. While some boosters [6] see this as a positive development towards a democratization of the arts, Chatelet viciously scolds this cretinization of the public sphere:

Narrow and dislocate the spirit of the people to make them obey–Hobbes and Pareto saw this clearly: miniaturization is indeed the key to the efficiency of the market and the stability of the fixed point. Why not go further? Why not sharpen the offensive of thermocracy yet more by inventing a microphysics of obedience, a neurocracy that would permit one to close in on the absolute zero of politics, passing from a thermo-civil pax to a cyber-civil pax. [7]

Contemporary Art deals with the historical failure to determine a foundational ontology by making its indeterminacy absolute; it embraces the anarchy of chaos which black-boxes rational thought in the crawling contingency of Nyarlathotep and converts it into a formal strategy. It attempts to bulwark this position by rendering the content of individual judgements in terms of an equality of micro-politics. Since these agonistics cannot be decided, it is better to hedge – that is, to bet on the array of opinions in the present and represent them as the democratic truth of the present because they are most immediate. However, since art lacks the resources to decide the outcome of the hedging, it cannot break the deadlock itself. Whatever is virtuous or valuable in respect to an individual’s judgement is not calculable, since there is no means by which to adjudicate on the value of those opinions from the perspective of art’s own disciplinary measures. The one mechanism that is universally agreed upon – capitalist value – comes to the rescue. It is the sole recognized binding agent of any communal decision making for the future. Institutional support is converted into social capital and presented as buzz for the calculable risk of the art object, which is itself now little more than a spontaneously generated fiat currency, representing the social and financial investment. The aesthetico-political is neutralized by its refusal toward any systematic tendency and converted into a manageable market mechanism. [8]

Gillick ruefully presents the nadir of this state: The artist caught in the quagmire of scenario-thinking, juggling contingencies with the dynamic adaptive tactics of a post-fordist production, and coming to terms with the new cybernetic rule. It is a commendably harsh self-accounting of the dark side of his own practice, which has skillfully combined a critical interest in the historical developments of capitalism, while attempting to recuperate some of its techniques. In an early paper, he contrasts this method of scenario-thinking with an ironic reference to the history of planning:

It could be argued that the great Cold War divide in socio-economic structuring was rooted in the different kinds of results that you get if you apply either one or the other technique to working out how things might end up in the future. And it is claimed that scenario thinking won. Our vision of the future is dominated by the ‘What If?’ scenario rather than the ‘When do we Need More Tractors?’ plan. [9]

The ‘When do we Need More Tractors?’ plan suggests a post-utopian irony about the potential of any systematic planning, and its possibilities of future liberation. But a leftist politics “content with establishing small and temporary spaces of non-​capitalist social relations” [10] has found itself subject to the abstract forces of capital at ease with the management of elementary particles.

Yet, what would it mean for art to treat its projects systematically? Gillick gives us a picture of a profoundly barbaric form of management – one that is to be rightly maligned. Yet, criticism without construction simply follows the path of norm-consumption [11] which has led us to this state of indeterminacy. As the successive revolutions of modernism and post-modernism have defenestrated genre, medium specificity, and any categorical determinations of the discipline whatsoever, criticality remains the sole reliable norm. The excrescence of negativity has become the automated response of an artworld which isn’t willing to bet against the house, but makes the meta-bet that the house, too, doesn’t know exactly how the dice will land. Mastery is bad cut for these pale-priests – much better to be the Cassandra than Agamemnon. Or, if one can’t help but be successful – Ozymandias [12] the satirist. In this most finite of all knowledges, a generic contingency will always assert itself at some point, so one cannot help but be right. But one must get tired of cloth sacks and the taste of ash, and what use is all this DOOM if we cannot avoid it? Yet, anyone who attempts to shout above this horde of wandering prophets is immediately marked for an apostate. Best set the fool straight before they mistake themselves for a middle-manager. But isn’t it these very prophets who best fill the role? “You don’t like the system,” they say, “and we don’t either, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that you could understand it, let alone manipulate it. Upper management does not permit such indiscretion. We file our quarterly reports and send them up the line. Best you do the same.”

While the splintering of knowledge into the discourses of the sciences, whose theoretical edifice no longer speaks directly to the pharmakon of the senses, is the great bane of the postmodern critique, the post-Copernican human could be liberated by its alienation. [13] While the current focus on affectivity and other subjectivising discourses, saturated with cultural essentialism, police the boundaries of a micro politics and feed a paralysing envy, [14] we should instead affirm "the right of everyone to speak as no one in particular.” [15] Against the average man, Chatelet presents the figure of an anonymous anyone “who, at once singular and innocent, might be the vehicle of an exception that, as Carl Schmitt says, ‘thinks the general with intense passion.’” [16]

The complexity of the modern world and the struggle against the fog of contingency demands a new schema of navigation and the adoption of long-game strategy. [17] The arts as a privileged site of practice should no longer be confused with a virtuous criticality, whose ethic short circuits the practice of politics into the production of yet more and different art, [18] but should be taken seriously as a constructive theoretical and institutional issue in concert with a hegemonic politics “at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.” [19] Abandoning the technical and scientific advances of the modern world leaves some the most powerful tools of human creativity in the hands of capitalist rule.

An art which hopes to contribute to the development of this project must reconfigure its practice. We need not continue to wallow in a piggish phenomenal whimsy. The interface of the sensible provides no privileged access to the truth of this world, [20]but is nonetheless a unique site of gestural construction and heuristic navigation which art may manipulate as a sophisticated form of cognitive technology [21] in concert with the demands of systematic thought. We have access to reliable constructivist and communal based knowledges in the forms of the sciences. Multiperspectival and pluralistically-compatible, [22] the various specializations of the scientific disciplines form an artificial basis for our accounting of the generic. The merging of our theoretic descriptions of the world with the intentional capacity of the human [23] and the construction of new oughts based upon this systematic knowledge suggest that we take seriously the methodological perspicuity of artistic practice and its institutional framing.

While the genres of the past have been exhausted by the revolutions of modernity, the particular practices and functions of our theoretical knowledge provide normative criteria for judging the intent of artistic gestures. An art which takes seriously the constructive application of its role as a cognitive mediator, and responds to the specific content of the special sciences, may no longer speak to the debased average man, but it might join the chorus of that anonymous anyone who is a vector of liberation.

Joshua Johnson is a New York based artist and writer. He founded the online research and resource hub Uberty. He is also a co-organizer of Fixing the Future.


[1] William S. Burroughs, “No More Stalins, No More Hitlers,” from Dead City Radio, Island Records, 1990; and Interzone, Viking Books, 1989.
[2] My use of this word is not accidental, as it refers to another text of Mr. Gillicks, “Should the Future Help the Past?”, 1998. His text for Supercommunity might be seen as an example of the critical and reflexive use of “scenario-thinking” which has informed aspects of his project.
[3] Gilles Chatelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs: The Incitement of Envy and Boredom in Market Democracies, trans. Robin MacKay. Urbanomic/Sequence, UK, 2014.
[4] ibid., p. 35-40. As Chatelet explains in the appendix, he is making an oblique reference to Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe, via James M. Buchanan’s The Limits of Liberty. Buchanan was a neoliberal economist and president of the (in)famous Mont Pelerin society. His work applied economic game-theoretic models to issues of public policy and political decision making. Chatelet’s ironic and derisive application of the imperialist figure of Robinson Crusoe probably need not be further explained here, though Buchanan approvingly cites the story of Crusoe’s relationship with his servant Friday as an example of the formation of the social field in his own text.
[5] Suhail Malik, “Exit from Contemporary Art”, Artist’s Space Talk, May 3-June 14th, 2013 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fimEhntbRZ4, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJkHb0YsdLM, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrrfk904kKo). Soon to be formalized and released as a book from Urbanomic – On the Necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art.
[6] See: David Joselit, After Art, Princeton Press, China, 2013. “Instead of a radiating nimbus of authenticity and authority underwritten by site specificity, we have the value of saturation, of being everywhere at once. In place of aura, there is buzz. Like a swarm of bees, a swarm of images makes a buzz, and like a new idea or trend, once an image (whether attached to a product, a policy, a person, or a work of art) achieves saturation, it has a ‘buzz’.”, p. 16.
[7] Chatelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, p. 67
[8] I draw this term and some of the general form of the argument, spiced with finance jargon, from Suhail Malik and Andrea Phillips “The Wrong of Contemporary Art”, Reading Ranciere, Continuum, NY, 2011, p. 111-128.
[9] Liam Gillick, “Should the Future Help the Past?”
[10] Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”.
[11] Negarestani, Reza, “The Labour of the Inhuman: Part I”, e-flux Journal #52, February 2014. I am generalizing a point Negarestani makes regarding the negative critical maneuvers that have become common in leftist discourse, particularly as regards Marxism:
“Once practical negativity is valorized and the intervening attitude or the constructive deportment is dismissed, the assessment of humanity and its situations becomes fundamentally problematic on the following levels.
Without the constructive vector, the project of evaluation—the critique—is transformed into a merely consumptive attitude toward norms. Consumption of norms without producing any is the concrete reality of today’s Marxist critical theory.”
[12] Keith Tilford makes a similar point in his earlier response to Dis Magazine, also part of The New Centre/e-flux Superconversations: “Just as experimental practices of negation operating within the logic of Contemporary Art can only occasionally puncture Capitalism’s horizons of expectation, satire about what the future might be can only occasionally offer an adequate substitute for the collective responsibility of thinking how it ought to be.“
[13] Jacques Ranciere, following a post-modern logic, suggests that without a common measure (The Future of the Image, p. 34-43) the field of aesthetics opens an autonomous space wherein the rearrangement of the sensible might substitute as the mechanism of politics (The Politics of Aesthetics, p. 12-19). However, our senses are often quite inadequate in dealing with the complex problems which confront us today and the immediacy of the sensible itself is insufficient without compensatory structure; problems which often can only be approached through the theoretical edifice of the sciences. Pluralism is not incompatible with universalism.
[14] Chatelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, “Let us reassure the concerned reader : the oil deposits will dry up long before the great sump of consensus! One ‘social issue’ will always succeed another, just as one ‘scourge of society will always succeed another… Hate and cowardice will never go hungry. This is confirmed for us every day. One Just Cause always takes the baton from another Just Cause; thus antidrug hysteria–a bit old fashioned now–has had to give way to antipaedohile hysteria, politically a much more plentiful hunting-ground.”, p. 97.
[15] Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”. “Science is not an expression but a suspension of gender. If today it is dominated by masculine egos, then it is at odds with itself— and this contradiction can be leveraged. Reason, like information, wants to be free, and patriarchy cannot give it freedom. Rationalism must itself be a feminism. XF marks the point where these claims intersect in a two-way dependency. It names reason as an engine of feminist emancipation, and declares the right of everyone to speak as no one in particular.”
[16] Chatelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, p. 155.
[17] ibid. “[O]nly patience-work entails an unprecedented amplification of freedom–both in extension, by developing each person’s power of acting, and in intensity, through the discovery of a plasticity proper to human individuation.”. p. 150.
[18] See my forthcoming paper “The Wrong Domain: The Functions of Art and Politics”.
[19] Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “#Accelerate
[20] Wilfrid Sellars, “Empricism and the Philosophy of Mind”. See also Donald Hoffman, "The Interface Theory of Perception: Natural Selection Drives True Perception To Swift Extinction”.
[21] Merlin Donald, “Art and Cognitive Evolution”.
[22] The various subfields of the sciences do not all provide continuous explanations for their areas of local application. Famously, this is apparent in the disconnect between micro and macro physics, where quantum theory does not align with relativity. In other areas, such as climate science, attempts to knit together multiple levels of reality under complexity theory typically maintain several multi-perspectival and pluralistic views. For more on the compatible pluralisms of complex systems see Jon Lawhead, “Laws, Patterns, and Integrative Pluralism in Modelling Complex Systems”. The social sciences must also deal with the issues of complexity and the requisite divisions of labor – for Durkheimian inflencted view of this see R. Keith Sawyer, Social Emergence, Societies as Complex Systems. Finally, James Ladyman, James Lambert, and Karoline Weisner suggest that computability not only constrains our ability to understand complex systems, but can be utilized as a measure for them. See “What is a Complex System?”.
[23] Wilfird Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”. “ [T]o complete the scientific image we need to enrich it not with more ways of saying what is the case, but with the language of community and individual intentions, so that by construing the actions we intend to do and the circumstances in which we intend to do them in scientific terms, we directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes, and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living.”

Excellent read on Gillick’s piece, Joshua. Interesting to think about his satirical writing in relation to his practice: an administered production of the furnishings of “adhocracy” as phenomenological whimsies. I’m not convinced however that at this juncture " the successive revolutions of modernism and post-modernism have defenestrated genre, medium specificity, and any categorical determinations of the discipline whatsoever" Placing a deterministic onus on social and aesthetic history like this is exactly the reason for the continued efficacy of the indeterminacy of art. Rampant fluidity doesn’t need to be contained by a reification of a phenomenology of history. It is the phenomenology of history itself which allows for a generalized notion of fluidity as trans-historical agency. An “averaged” person might look towards spectacular events, critical turns, as the extremes to their means. This is one of the implicit points of Chatelet’s “To Live and Think Like Pigs”. His averaged individual desires implicitly for it’s slop or slaughter as its deliverance from trans-historical determinacy. “(The) chorus of that anonymous anyone who is a vector of liberation” may be the refrain that gets them, faithfully, into the pen.


Hello Tom, I think you’ve located one of the tensions in the text, which is a result of my attempt to blend Chatelet’s diagnosis with my prospective project. There are of course tensions within Chatelet’s own text, as represented by his vituperation of the Hobbesian order and the identification of Schmitt’s analysis with his vaguely sketched and somewhat ambiguous conclusion in this figure of the ‘anyone’. How this figure is realized, and the question of the emergence of history and its relation with the individual is heavily dependent upon how you view that process. I know you’re coming from a Laruellean perspective, so I think your positioning this between the phenomenology of history contrasted with the Badiouian event is in vein with that. My familiarity with Laruelle is limited, so I’m afraid I won’t be able to respond to your provocation in detail without greater investigation into his position, but I think I can offer some views on my position here. I am, of course, coming from a Sellarsian perspective, so the motor of historical and social development comes not from a phenomenological order (though phenomenology does play a somewhat limited and local role in Sellars navigational schema) but from the development between theoretical (normative) knowledge and the inter-subjective position of persons. My siding of Chatelet within this picture is reliant upon his own role as a mathematician. Chatelet, of course speaks strongly to the importance of gesture, but again, the priority of this movement is dependent upon how one views the relation between ‘Humean’ causes and ‘Aristotelean’ concepts. I follow Johanna Seibt’s recent work here (https://www.academia.edu/12274390/How_To_Naturalize_Sensory_Consciousness_and_Intentionality_Within_A_Process_Monism_with_Normativity_Gradient_A_Reading_of_Sellars) in where I place Chatelet’s contributions to these problems.

As to ‘critical turns’, I think I think I’ve addressed this somewhat with my own response to “criticism without construction”, and I am highly dubious of the theology of the event. I’ll try to return to this in more detail later, but the days ‘events’ are already calling to me :smile:

Also, I don’t think we are really disagreeing on this point. I think I initially misread you as advocating for a phenomenology of history – but anyway the defenestration of genre, etc., as disciplinary criteria is something I am drawing from Ranciere (though unfortunately did not site, but The Politics of Aesthetics, p. 20-30), who sees it as a welcome condition in the generalization of the aesthetic. I disagree with that assessment, but nonetheless do not think we can return to the historical conditions that produced the original disciplinary conditions - so there is the labor of constructing new ones, which I attempt to indicate at the end of the piece. I also think its extremely important that this process not follow the ideological methodology of individualism, which sees persons as ontologically irreducible. One of the fascinating things about the Sellarsian picture is its emergent process ontology of human which sees it as a part of a theoretic continuum of nature, yet epistemically defined by its inter-subjective (communal) relations, and therefore also revisable and constructivist. It is this view with which I attempt to align Chatelet’s ‘anyone’: [O]nly patience-work entails an unprecedented amplification of freedom–both in extension, by developing each person’s power of acting, and in intensity, through the discovery of a plasticity proper to human individuation.” (Chatelet)

Yes Joshua. My comment was more of a parallel query than a disagreement. I think your response to Gillick is complexly considered. Gillick is obviously taking the piss out of the contingency of consumptive fluidity using colloquialisms that illustrate the quotidian aspect of late capitalist “adhocracy”. His piece could be considered a whimsy or a meta- discourse meant to clarify what happens, virtually autonomically, within the false agency of the unemancipated specteriat. Your response operates on multiple levels to problematize this flippant read. This is helpful to further clarify how “the ideological methodology of individualism” becomes commodified as critique. I was simply referring to a larger discourse that tends to encapsulate progressive history in a reductive, deterministic way that serves to activate the type of whimsical emancipation that Gillick’s piece represents.

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