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Superonversations Day 17: Tom Trevatt responds to Jan Verwoert, "Torn Together"


On Being Incorruptible

Photograph: Milton Friedman meets the Reagans (source).

It would be easy to give into temptation and follow Jan Verwoert’s poetic text deeper under the surface of the corruption, providing further excursus on the etymological roots of corruption, co-rruption, to be ruptured together. Perhaps we could extend this discussion to include similar terms - corroboration, collaboration - as though this would reveal some hitherto unknown truth about the words, about the world. But this text, this response, attempts to avoid this; it shall not be a further corruption (as corruption keeps the secrets hidden below the surface), but be a distinct betrayal of the initial text. It shall deceive and double-cross. It shall rupture from without, an act of hermeneutics perhaps. Certainly an act of reading, cross-reading. Here we shall focus on three specific phrases to write from them, to use them as starting points, and from there open the discussion up (rupture). Here are the phrases we care about:

One - “Corruption invokes the fateful nature of the social bond. By means of corruption, a community reminds its members that no one can extricate oneself from what is common”

Two - “If saying “I want” (to get that, go there, be this) briefly lifts the “I” above water, corruption pulls it back under, into the depth of “we want” […] Whenever desires are consolidated as common, corruption will occur”

Three- “Institutions are manifestations of consolidated common desire. They have the logic of corruption built into their workings from the very start. Insofar as institutions reflect common desire, their function is to make all who enter function on one level”

What fateful pact have we signed that removes us from the collective task of creating or protecting that which we hold in common?

A task of safeguarding and stewardship that has been privatised – you, you personally, must take responsibility for your own downstream externalities – and cleaved from the collective agenda. “We are all in this together” is a corruption of every word in that sentence. When Milton Friedman wrote in 1962 that the aim of the liberal was to “leave the ethical problem to the individual to wrestle with” he clearly outlined the limits of his new political economy (Friedman, Milton. 12: Capitalism and Freedom. 1962). What later became known as neoliberalism was forged in this simple formula: no longer would economic policy regard the ethical question, as to do so would be merely non-rational, emotional. Instead, we encounter the deontological not through the institutional frame of citizenship, but through the privatised compact with the market. We are interpellated as members of society through our economic relation – it is your responsibility to buy organic, to buy energy saving lightbulbs, to scrap your car in favour of a hybrid.

Precisely this injunction to privatise the ethical extracts us from the commons. It becomes increasingly difficult to identify what is “in common”. The economic logic of late capitalism de-humanises, reducing all to growth matrices, margins and calculable profit. In the face of such an evisceration the response has too often been a humanisation of capitalism, to reduce or mitigate its most unethical effects or to create interstitial enclaves of commonality, autonomy, equality. These may be models, but what exactly can they obtain? Neither a sugar coating nor local instances of escape from its logics can overhaul the necropolitical project of neoliberalism. We must act as though all is up for grabs, all is in common, or perhaps, to use Verwoert’s phrase, all can be corrupted. The political frame that attempts to remove every institution, every square inch of space, every assemblage from common hands would want to limit our capacities to change our contexts, to produce ruptures. But, understanding the co-rupturing of the commons can provide the impetus for context changing activity.

The question of whether the genus homo has any existence except as individuals is a question of whether there is anything of any more dignity, worth, and importance than individual happiness, individual aspirations, and individual life. Whether men really have anything in common, so that the community is to be considered as an end in itself, and if so, what the relative value of the two factors is, is the most fundamental practical question in regard to every public institution the constitution of which we have in our power to influence. ( 2 Peirce, C.S. cf. Forster, Paul, 3: Peirce and the Threat of Nominalism)

That ineradicable contemporary desire to be an individual, to obtain full happiness, to succeed, to live as though one were a project to be endlessly worked on, as though this were the telos of existence, that desire is the motor of capitalism. As a corrective to this, commonality demands we construct and reform institutions, consolidate common desires, and sediment the political. As Peirce affirms, commonality asserts collective capacity for reform and the continual renewal of the political within the institution. To be a citizen is to be understood through the frame of the co-construction of the common.

In this context I must ask three questions,

Is the rupturing of Verwoert’s corruption efficacious?

Does it not demand the obverse of this tendency to construct?

Should the logic of crisis that rupture suggests be the privileged logic of change?

Reading and responding to this text also reminds me of Friedman’s statement - “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Under the prevailing logic, those ideas belong to a particular ideology. The overwhelmingly neoliberal response to the 2007-8 banking crisis purports to that. Surely then, we need to think outside the logics of the rupture, the crisis, and towards a pragmatic logic of continual revolutionary reform, or as Roberto Unger puts it, “a deeper freedom to renew and recombine the institutional setting” (Unger, Roberto, 21: The Left Alternative, 2005) that “practices structural change […] piece by piece and step by step.”

Tom Trevatt is a writer and curator based in London. He is a PhD candidate in the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths.


First of all I don’t agree that it is very easy, to continue the etymological diving, especially if feelings are involved. Putting it this way has the implication like if such text is a natural texture, we are finding it in a river-bed or it has been too romatic to be good enough to be seminal. Yet I think what Verwoert’s text does is to provide the reflective space which demands taking emotional aspect, as well as awareness of our modus operandi.

If this is supposed to be different in the version of the corruption Verwoert suggests, one should think, what kind of corruption is involved in the reply?
“It shall rupture from without…” How? Elaborate on without please.

I feel the reply has ignored the fact that starting point is already is in the no position of the primary text. I remember corruption of the youth, corruption of eflux, art, criticism, philosophy, humanism, etc, as desired corruptions which the reply kind of excludes, as if one is atrempting to to beyond being corrupted or corrupting. Although Verwoert has not mentioned but imagination should bring ipone already to the primary corruption, which is mother/child version of entering the realm of language.

I find he examples given before reaching to the questions, too limited to cover a world beyond wester imagination of what neoliberal problems are. The disclosure within Verwoert’s text, to me, is mobilizing way more than pointing out a neoliberal problem to arrive to the simple question if the text is good enough or not. The text is good enough, it is full of possibilities, it is accelerating disclosure of the corruptions of the mother culture of capitalism, it’s current situation, it’s limited imagination, and it doesn’t limit it to Dutch/European/Western problems.

Probably the question to be asked could be, is 'how much such disclosure help in the real of politica by being metapolitical? (If the question is directed to political examples mentioned)

Or how much such a disclosure helps us accelerating our rational understanding of our seemingly irrational operating systems?

I think Jan’s text is very good. I also find in it some echos of Peter Sloterdijk and Boris Groys. But what strikes me and intrigues me, as it does in these other two writers, is that this comic/ironic anthropology casts the value of any political action into doubt, and one doesn’t normally find that on the left.


Where the norm is self-interest, corruption is being other-interested.


But I dont think in everyday human relations self-interest is the norm. This taking of external world norms, in economy and political systems is exactly why i think the reply has deprived itself from broader everyday realities? Teacher-student, mother-child are just two simple examples beyond neoloberal problems. Secular discourse lacks discourse on motherhood, but that doesn’t mean motherhood is over. Although then one can apply Verwoert’s text to something like motherhood. But approaching problems solely based on external and ‘neoliberal’ problems is too poor.

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@Arsam, I think tom asks very pertinent questions in regards to the ways in which we can approach the problem of corruption. I personally prefer Trevatt’s approach to corruption that Verwoert’s for whom the socio political dimension of the act is reduced to a natural and naturalized process of being a human member of a community. & I think there are ways to overcome corruption.

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I think Verwoert’s text beautifully makes us stop for a second to refigure our location in the coordination system. but of course they have different natures.


It’s a very specific feeling when someone that everyone thought was untouchable suddenly is brought down by another arm of the state: I think of Zhou Yongkang, former head of Sinopec, by Xi Jinping, or even Andrew Cuomo under attach by Preet Bhahara. At moments like that, the usual response is not either-or, but rather a mix of optimism and cynicism: this is both unquestionably good, and this is merely political maneuvering. Who really wants to celebrate the FBI, even if they did depose Sepp Blatter? Buddy Cianci started his career as a tough prosecutor of the New England mafia, based in Providence, and headed by a man called Patriarca (really), and went on on that strength to become the most corrupt mayor of Providence yet. The ease of transit between the oversight (let’s say, judiciary) functions and the corruptible (executive?) function of an entity shouldn’t be smoothed over with a resigned shrug, but examined thoroughly.

Bodies that don’t decay, one of the boxes that have to be checked in the process of canonization, which requires a lengthy auditing process by a postulator from one of the Catholic orders. One of the other criteria is documentation of hilaritas: the ability to laugh uproariously, without cause or warning.

Do we need a definition for corruption? Does undermining of an organization’s capacities suffice as one?

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@dxb For the late Ayatollah Khomeni, corruption was that which not only defined the borders of legality but upheld the power of state. Corruption functions as the preemptive strike by the state against all those oppositional non state entities who might think through breaking the law they might undermine the authority of the official power.

First of all, thank you very much for the reply to my response. I have wanted to reply for a while now, but haven’t found the time. I need to unpack your reply a little more to understand exactly what you’re saying; both this one and the longer paragraph above. So what appears is in some way a defence of my text.

Firstly, the opening statement of my text was a rhetorical device, if you notice that I follow on with a mini engagement in etymological questions…I do in fact continue the “diving” as you put it under the surface. What I meant from this statement was not that Verwoert’s writing was in anyway “easy”…far from it, I found it intriguing and instructive, and writing a repsonse to it was a rather tricky endeavour. Hence why I pinpointed three sentences to focus on.

Secondly, I had a very limited space to write into, so the response was understandably shorter than the original text deserved (which may account for why you found my examples limited). However, I would say that I am writing within a very specific context and that I can only really attend to that context through this work.

What I have tried to do in the response is to engage with parts of the original text I felt I could talk to, that I had some understanding of. So, questions of the common, institutions and equality perhaps were forefront in my mind. I see Friedman’s statement about ethics as a key moment in the formation of the current prevaling consensus. Remember, I am writing about broad ideological issues not trying to focus on examples. So, economic policy in my work is seen as a contributing factor in the interpellation of subjects…this is a key part of Thatcher’s “hearts and minds” project in the eighties.

In relation to your point about self-interest I agree, although again, my writing here seeks to find ideological axioms rather than engage with everyday realities precisely because I want to point to a continuum through all relations rather than engage with the contingencies of particular relations. I agree that self-interest isn’t the most important aspect of mother-child or teacher-student relations and so on, however, it is true that an overriding political ideology would seek to impose those types of market conditions on these areas and it is important to be able to recognise those conditions when they appear - hence the need to understand the neoliberal continuum.