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Superconversations Day 43: Mohammad Salemy responds to Federico Campagna, "After Nihilism, After Technic: Sketches for a New Philosophical Architecture"


#What Can Art Teach Us About Capitalism?*

Screen capture from Google Finance


There is no such a thing as capital, only the process of capitalization.

Capital, both in its financial and symbolic form, functions as a process which aims to materialize — in the form of “capitalized” power — the invisible, unmeasured and nevertheless existing complex social power. Thus, the actuality of capital can only be realized, gauged and accumulated through the hegemonic organization of all possible social — human and non-human — relations that include, but are not limited to, those involving the Marxist categories of production and labor. Capitalism, as the technology of objectification, measurement and accumulation of power, is a social machine and not an economic one and operates in all aspects of life and not just in what is known as the “economy”. This broader view can show that despite its historical claims of material objectivity, capitalism has been nothing but a highly forceful and subjective reorganization of the chaos of social power through the enforcement of a future forward cascading pricing regime at all costs within a univocal and evolving value system.

It is not that in capitalism numbers and their logical relations don’t matter at all, but that the quantification of capital also encompasses other types of figures that until the arrival of the digital age were considered to have little to do with quantitative measurement. In fact, networked and digital computers are being utilized socially as a quintessential sub-technology of capitalism since they lend themselves to accelerating the quantification of life by providing a digital platform for the unification of data about the world with the organizable signs of communication and signification — audio, visual, textual, numerical, spatial and temporal — a multiplicity of sign systems that are the brick and mortar (media) of all social relations. This complex system of quantification, like computer operations, only on the level of code (i.e. its size in bytes), transpires it’s true quantitative basis.

Social power, the object of the above process, in both its “cultural” and “financial” incarnations, operates mostly without a great deal of actual numbers and is tallied, in specific intervals, only for the sake of adjustment and accumulation. What actually propels capital’s specific power relations into every aspect of life is the future forward process of quantification, even though this process involves a different kind of measurement whose effectiveness rests on how it strengthens the logic of discrete mathematics with the magic of words, sounds, images and infrastructural spatio-temporal experiences. This is not to suggest that labour, which itself is a universal form of social power with specific spatio-temporal signification, has nothing to do with capital, but that the algorithm of what we have historically called “capitalism” involves more than labour alone and therefore its logic cannot be solely sought in the dialectics between production and the relations of production. The assumed centrality of labour and production to capitalism is only part of the picture because all forms of social power, not just labour, are increasingly measured, bought, sold and, essentially, accumulated as capital.

This claim problematizes Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital by emphasizing how the two categories of capitalist power, the symbolic and financial, are essentially the very same system since they both can only be upheld and enforced socially and discursively using the same tools and techniques. There is no doubt that Bourdieu’s definition of symbolic capital has been useful in broadening our understanding of political economy through revealing the financial essence of our symbolic order. However, through a false bifurcation, his sociological system stops short of describing the whole of capitalism. By mistaking the category of “power” for that of “economy” and by dividing a complex whole into two spheres of symbolic and real, it essentially creates a false distinction between capital’s real economic sphere and its reflective component in the symbolic world. It is not that once conceived distinctly, symbolic capital does not end up to appear as if functioning similarly to its financial counterpart or vice versa, but that the whole separation of the two spheres are the result of an epistemological error and its consequence: the human-biased misrecognition of social structures whose proper understanding requires not the separation of the whole of capital into distinct spheres but instead their integration into a general and broader field of social power.


The obvious often conceals the crucial details of what it can otherwise reveal.

Critical reflections about the art world often depict it as the apex of the Debordian spectacle from which the meta-aesthetics du jour of capitalism trickles down to the rest of the image world. This presumption, as accurate as it seems, neglects how the art world is also a very unique place that can potentially identify the workings of the entire capitalist mode of power more honestly than the science of economy. Conversely, the false spectacle of capitalism can be better found not in the art world but the theatre of objective statistics and analysis sustained by Wall Street, the financial press and academic economics, in the name of economy. To study the mechanisms of capital accumulation as a whole, it is misleading to measure the house of cards of economy in which the liars have perfected the pseudoscience of lying to themselves. Instead, we ought to look closely at the art world where the raw flesh of social power, be it by individuals or institutions, is not only acknowledged as such but has long been celebrated in the name of the love of art and veneration of artists.

The art world is itself the evidence that the whole of capitalist economy is unquantifiable, and that its inevitabilities are in fact false and imposed socially on the market through the enforcement of a pricing regime that is based solely on the system’s relative ability to organize social relations in order to guarantee its desired outcomes in the long run. The art world brilliantly exposes the truth of the economy. It inadvertently reveals how the strengths and the weaknesses of capital, which is supposed to be based on the measurable concepts of production and consumption, is only a secret play in which the objectivity of the economy is engineered in reverse, with the help of multiple sign systems that make all social relations possible. The mechanism of capital accumulation transpires its truth in the art world where prices, unlike the financial markets, are enforced plainly by the qualitative force of social power and not the quantitative measurements as they relate to the labour of the artist or the preciousness of the work of art as a physical object.

The art world shows how the engine of capitalism rather than running on notions of production and labor, or the concept of supply and demand, is actually fueled by capitalization, or how much one is prepared, or rather has been prepared, to pay the price today in order to receive a profit tomorrow. What guarantees future profits in the financial markets as well as the art world is not the logical algorithm of growth but the social power that can be systematically mobilized in both environments to enforce today’s prices and to guarantee a higher return in the future.

Unlike the financial markets, the art world does not have to pretend to adhere to objective measurements on the basis of which its rate of capitalization is justified. The purely discursive power of the art world, unlike the fabricated scientificity of the financial markets, is shamelessly honest. The art world needs plenty of qualifying agents like writers and curators but rarely and maybe only recently requires quantifying ones like market analysts and economists even though the task of a critic is essentially similar to that of a financial expert: to help enforce the system’s pricing regime in the last instance.

One can look straight into the art world and see how in this rather closed system, the exercise of social power, like in the financial world, is supported through the use of strong, widespread and convincing arguments and possibly aggressive, even violent, actions against those who refute its claims. Studying the art world reveals that the power of banks, investors and financial experts is as synthetic as the so-called cultural capital of the auction houses, gallery owners, collectors, curators, art historians and artists.

The analogies in this short text are drawn from the works Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler and the British theorist [Suhail Malik’s “Ontology of Finance” and his collaborative piece with Andrea Phillips, “Tainted Love: art’s ethos and capitalization”.

Mohammad Salemy is an independent curator based in Vancouver & New York and an organizer at The New Centre for Research & Practice. He holds an MA in Critical Curatorial studies from the University of British Columbia.

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