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Sven Lütticken: "A Matter of Form"

A Matter of Form: Notes from the 51st State of the USA, aka much of the rest of the world

Text by Sven Lütticken

Now is the time to discuss form. In art, formal concerns are often considered as antithetical to the social and political, so at first this may seem like a bizarre statement considering present politics. A neofascist campaign has landed the US presidency for a self-described billionaire who has a penchant for race-baiting and pussy grabbing as well as a Putin-esque approach to the media—and now the power to reshape the Supreme Court.

This is to date the most serious symptom of the end of the neoliberal era, but obviously Trump’s promise of economic protectionism and opposition to TTP and TTIP is not likely to result in a more egalitarian society. In conjunction with 1%-friendly taxation and ongoing warfare against various elements in society deemed “un-American,” such a policy will strive to placate angry white voters, whose fear of decline elected Trump, while creating a utopia for corporations and plutocrats. Undoubtedly, then, the art industry will continue to churn out mild-mannered neo-post-retro-zombie formal art for big league collectors. Perhaps such art will be supplemented with or supplanted by some kind of Trump-approved Las Vegas realism, with paintings showing skylines full of buildings bearing his gilded name. Whatever.

When I say form, I mean something like Agamben’s form-of-life, as slippery as that notion may be. Living as Form, Creative Time’s broad survey of socially engaged art from a couple of years ago, which itself obliquely invoked Agamben, showed that questions of form as matters of life (and death) quickly become organizational matters.[1] Social form here is often self-organization, self-constitution. Organize yourself before others do, as a wise man once said. When emailing with Hito Steyerl after the Trump news broke, her immediate response was: let’s found an organization, and it doesn’t even really matter it is or what it is supposed to do, or what it’s called. Perhaps International Brigades. My proposal was to call it The Organization (as a generic name that can be replaced by its equivalents in other languages: L’Organisation, Die Organisation), etc.) It combines a certain quasi-modernist reflexivity with a pleasant ring of pulp fiction conspiracies.

Talking later that day to Jonas Staal, I brought up the title of a book about the 1960s group Subversive Aktion, some members of which have since moved to the extreme right: Der Sinn der Organisation ist ihr Scheitern (The point of the organization is its failure).[2] Jonas’s response: we may no longer be able to afford that kind of mentality. Perhaps; however, we also have to reassess what counts as failure, and what counts as a success. Not every way of organizing forms of living and working together may have the same goals.

Historically, the Organisationsfrage has been about the (Marxist) party.[3] With the disenchantment with the party form, there has been a proliferation and sometimes idealization of “horizontal” grass roots organizations, which have in turn been attacked as “folk politics” that are ultimately powerless to effect real change. In Europe, here has been a certain reinvestment in the party form among activists, intellectuals and artists, but a reinvestment that acknowledges the need to base the party in a “constituent power” that never becomes fully actualized in and identified with the party apparatus and hierarchy. It’s different in a two-party state in which every third party is accused of ruining the lesser evil’s chances. To put it in technical terms, the political system of the United States is a clusterfuck wrapped in omnishambles. On the Democratic side, the kleptocratic, bank-cuddling and warmongering Clinton clan just had to get direct access to the main source of their wealth and influence again, and the DNC machinery did everything to facilitate the candidacy of a hyper-establishment candidate in a climate of widespread disenchantment with the establishment—while sabotaging the other main contender, who would have been able to mold some of that resentment into more productive and progressive forms, and actually win the election in the process.

Now may be the time to try to enter the DNC and reshape it from the bottom, à la Labour in the UK. If the process already meets with serious opposition (from the Bairite cadres and the press), and in the case of a European social-democratic party, then what does this say about the chances of such a process in the case of the Democratic Party? On the other hand, abandoning the Democratic Party and truly breaking the two-party system would require a complete overhaul of the United States Constitution and the country’s legal and organizational infrastructure—especially getting rid of the first-past-the-post principle and the electoral college.

In the 1990s, the rise of the internet produced utopian visions of networked practice as intrinsically egalitarian and emancipatory. After an election race dominated by Twitter- and Facebook-dominated filter bubbles in which human or algorithmic trolls worked their hardest to confirm bias and prejudice, the dream has become an utter nightmare. This only makes the formal, organizational question more pressing. How can networks of bias dependent on weak links and easy clicks become—or host—organized networks (to use Ned Rossiter’s and Geert Lovink’s terminology) of “strong links,” dialogue and collaboration?[4] How to organize without just producing more echo chambers? How to be focused yet diverse? How to deal with institutionalization in a context in which so many key institutions—from schools and media to health services; and with Ayatollah Pence as VP, reproductive rights will soon be a distant memory—seem like sitting ducks?

While certain institutions must be defended, they are not enough. Fredric Jameson’s insistence on the need to think in terms of dual power is to the point, even if his specific proposal (in An American Utopia) is off the mark.[5] Lenin’s notion of dual power contrasted the Provisional Government during the first phase of the Revolution, before October, with the power of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils; the latter were the real constituent power of the new society. Once the Bolsheviks were in power, the councils would of course be marginalized or suppressed, as the Soviet State became a Party state. Today, self-organized power from below does not have one single form; contemporary councils can take a myriad of forms, all striving to ensure that “the single ways, acts, and processes of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always and above all power.”[6]

After a post-factual campaign took Trump to the White House, the rule of the factual will be oppressive for many, and for some more than for others. In it and against it, we must maintain and create organizations that open up possibilities and form life differently. As a wonderfully dialectical German saying puts it: we have no chance, and we must use it. Below, besides, above and traversing the party level and that of the structures of education and the media, a multitude of social and organizational forms is possible and necessary. Create publishing outfits and radical sewing groups, gardening collectives, legal collectives, hacker brigades; networks that congeal into groups and groups that spread out into networks. Some are fiercely local, others resolutely transnational. Let a thousand organizations bloom.

Obviously, this is not to say that it will all be great. Some forms of success may be fatal, and some failures may be worthwhile. Some organizations may find it wise to remain somewhat formless, to avoid congealing into something with institutional traits and visibility. Which forms, or ways of avoiding or deforming form, are valid, and when? What counts as success, and why? These are questions that must be addressed. Formal criticism (dare I say formalist criticism?) is needed. Perhaps this could be the task of The Organization as a meta-organization, as a conspiracy of form.

Thanks to Paul Chan for prodding me to write this.

[1] Nato Thompson (ed.) Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 (New York/Cambridge MA: CReatve Time/MIT Press, 2012), esp. pp. 26-29.
[2] Frank Böckelmann and Herbert Nagel, eds., Subversive Aktion. Der Sinn der Organisation ist ihr Scheitern (s.l.: Verlage Neue Kritik, 2002).
[3] See Georg Lukacs’ 1922 essay “Methodisches zur Organisationsfrage,” which defends the Bolshevik Party and attacks theorists of spontaneous revolutionary mass action: https://www.marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/lukacs/1922/orgfrage/index.htm
[4] See Geert Lovink, “Before Building the Avant-Garde of the Commons” in Open!, November 1, 2016, https://www.onlineopen.org/before-building-the-avant-garde-of-the-commons
[5] Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. Slavoj Zizek (London/New York: Vers, 2016) identifies not councils but the US Army, to be transformed into a “universal army” through universal conscription, as the incubator of a communist society.
[6] Giorgio Agamben, “Forms of-Life” in Means without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 4.

*Image of Jonas Staal’s “New World Summit” via Ibraaz