Compléments de Multitudes 15


Partagez —> /

[Ce texte, malheureusement en anglais pour le moment, fait suite au numéro 15 de Multitudes. Dans la préface de ce numéro, nous avons décrit la manière dont les biennales et autres megashows agissent comme appareils de capture, pour gérer des flux humains, économiques, symboliques. Maurizio Lazzarato avançait l’idée de “création de mondes” par les grandes entreprises, qui délaissent la gestion directe des usines pour souder ensemble producteurs et consommateurs dans une appartenance artificielle, “fabriquée”. Ici – dans une réflexion qui anticipe sur un travail commun, encore en chantier, avec Suely Rolnik – j’essaie de décrire le rapport contemporain entre la subjectivité désirante des producteurs culturels et le marché institutionnel de l’art, tel qu’il se présente à travers les expositions internationales. Ce texte a été écrit pour une expo “périphérique”: la Yugoslav Biennial of Young Artists qui ouvre à Vrsac, à la cambrousse serbe, le 4 juillet. Devant le sentiment de déception et de désarroi général, clairement manifeste dans les autres textes du catalogue, j’ai voulu aller droit à la question la plus importante. – BH The “world market.” Never have two words encompassed such promise. Power. Pleasure. Ubiquity. Freedom. And it’s no illusion. The world market can get you that – if you obey its injunction. To distinguish yourself from the others. To stand apart. To rise above. To become the supreme individual.
What is the paradox of the market individual?
To conform – through uniqueness and originality – to the perverse law of value which gives rarity its price.
Within the world market, amidst the abundance of power, pleasure, ubiquity and freedom, each rare and precious individual has a price – on their head.
Let us consider what such statements might mean in the world of art today.

Among the paperback archives of vanished sciences is a 1971 work by Bertell Ollman, entitled *Alienation*. It is not, as you might suppose, a book that turns us away from a collective condition (workers’ exploitation) toward an individual plight (the loss of one’s authenticity, soul, or whatever). Because Ollman, in his interpretation of Marx, conceives of alienation as the severing of a social relation:

“The distortion in what Marx takes to be human nature is generally referred to in a language which suggests that an essential tie has been cut in the middle. Man is spoken of as being separated from his work (he plays no part in deciding what to do or how to do it) – a break between the individual and his life activity. Man is said to be separated from his own products (he has no control over what he makes or what becomes of it afterwards) – a break between the individual and the material world. He is also said to be separated from his fellow men (competition and class hostility have rendered most forms of cooperation impossible) – a break between man and man. In each instance, a relation that distinguishes the human species has disappeared and its constituent elements have been reorganized to appear as something else.”1

If I look to the artists and cultural producers whom I respect and appreciate, it appears that Ollman has summed up everything most important to them. The decision as to what the artistic work will be, and how it will be carried out – and when, and where, and why – is not merely their individual choice, but it is never dictated from the outside. The desire for cooperation – and thus, for sharing the decision – has always been made into a substantial reality, either through the formation of groups, or through different kinds of temporary or long-term associations. The capacity to control, or at least, to remain responsible to the artistic products in their material circulation through society – and thus, the capacity to maintain the ethical basis of the project – is always a priority, resulting in elaborate mechanisms of presentation and distribution, principled conceptions (or rejections) of the rights to copy and authorship, and above all, a continuing concern for the ext
ent and quality of use. None of these things should “appear as something else.” The problem of alienation, in other words, has been taken seriously. Indeed the art, in these cases, is no longer an elaborately finished object arising from a unique inspiration; rather it is an ongoing process of relation which attends exactly to the questions of production, cooperation, responsibility. As though, even in the labyrinth of the most singular and intimate expression, what lay at stake were exactly what Marx and Ollman saw at risk in the relations of capitalist society: the sense of infinitely shared possibility “that distinguishes the human species.”
Why is it so difficult to inscribe this possibility in contemporary institutions? Paolo Virno most persuasively develops this theme, in his discussions of the fundamentally linguistic form of work which he calls “virtuosity.” He explains that three central functions which have traditionally been separate in the self-understanding of the Western societies, from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt, are now impossible to distinguish. These functions are labor, conceived as the productive expenditure of bodily energy; intellectual activity, which is silent and solitary; and political action, whose vector is public speech. But since the three have melded together with the advent of intellectual, affective and communicational forms of work – the so-called “immaterial labor” of the “general intellect” – Virno says that we virtuoso performers of the semiotic economy have come to live under a condition of infinite publicity without a public sphere. And the impossibility to make public meani
ng out of our performances – that is, the impossibility to shape a politics leading to concrete changes in society – is a humiliation of that which is at once the highest and most common of our faculties, namely the capacity of speech itself. The very capacity to articulate the infinite promise of our “species being” (Marx).2
The experience of transnational art shows over the last fifteen years bears witness to this feeling of humiliation. Despite the continuing attraction of the events, no one is satisfied with the relations they have yielded – to say the least. Mika Hannula: “the art of faking an orgasm.” Boris Buden: “I don’t want to be a Balkan in a subsidized biennial.” Are these declarations a sign that the façade is finally cracking? The institutional market for the arts expanded dramatically after the late sixties, when governments suddenly felt compelled to buy off the new forms of expressive politics invented in the streets; and it ballooned yet again after 1989, when European structural funds and globalized finance entered a vastly expanded scene. But the cost of access to the fantastically enlarged production and distribution machinery is still the radical shrinkage of your symbolic ambitions to the level of cheap decor, or to the adolescent gestures of transgression, abstract denun
ciation, spectacular cynicism. All of which will serve as promotional material for foreign corporations and local politicians. The “institutional market” – where the general intellect stiffens into administration, or is spun off into saleable products, each with its personal signature – seems to occupy all the cultural space. And so in the world of art, despite admirable efforts, we have not yet surmounted what Marx and Ollman call “alienation.”
Still, Virno’s reflections add something to the picture. In fact they invert its terms, its figure/ground. For he is no longer talking about a stiuation in which the inherently emancipatory powers of art are blocked by archaic institutional structures, or damaged by the ferocity of the market. Instead what he describes is a productive machinery saturated with art, as though driven by the motor of invention. This is the postmodern economy which generates surplus values with images and signs, which fabricates artificial rarities (and therefore, class disctinctions) from an initial situation of abundance (indeed, of infinite possibility). But how did this situation arise? What is the secret link that makes virtuosity, or artfulness itself, coincide so perfectly with publicity? That is, with the general form of communication, and indeed of subjectivation, in a market society?

The contemporary writer who has most effectively raised these questions is the Brazilian schizoanalyst Suely Rolnik. Her understanding of social relations begins from a phenomenology in which creative activity has a specific place. Our sensibility is divided, she explains, into perception and sensation: on the one hand, an empirical grasp of the world as form, leading to the establishment of fixed representations; on the other, an intensive encounter with the world as living force, which can be mobilized again in expressive activity. Empirical perception allows us to consolidate relatively stable maps of our situation in the world, but these constituted maps also act as an obstacle to the sensation of the constant irruption of otherness in our sensibility – and therefore to the creation of new modes of relation, which can only be effectively expressed through active resistance to the conservative forces shaped by the old schemas. From this outlook, we can conceive an agoni
stic involvement in the world, but one which does not only result in sterile confrontation with an objectified enemy; for political resistance itself is understood within the transformational dynamic of reknitting and even reinventing the relation with the other. Yet this expressive politics, which became widespread in the sixties and seventies, has been submitted over the last two decades to extremely sophisticated devices which split the force of creation from that of resistance. These devices (the specific forms of production in the postmodern economy) cause the creative process to turn nervously around its own axis, motivated by a capitalistically profitable, but existentially frustrating quest for the unattainable safe-havens of “luxury subjectivity,” whose glossy image is continually projected by the media. In this reading, the prestigious exhibitions in which we compete to participate appear as simply another capture device for the force of invention (resulting in wha
t Virno calls “servile virtuosity”).3
Thus an economy based on the incessant production of images and signs is able to conjure up and expropriate a “wellspring of free invention power” – in a context where the word freedom has become a synonym of separation. In this situation, where each continually refines his or her originality in the endless, competitive quest to attain a higher personal price, it is not difficult to see how the “constituent elements” of a distinctively human relation have, in Ollman’s terms, been reorganized “to appear as something else”: the exercise of the productive force reappearing as a hunger for technological power; the ease of cooperative sociability reappearing as an egotistical thirst for pleasure; the sense of responsibility to the material complexity of society reappearing as a restless claim to ubiquity in the world-space. Suely Rolnik uses the figure of “perversion” to describe the way these distorted or twisted promises appear on the world market; and the word has the advant
age of insisting on a dimension of subjective agency, even within a very large-scale productive apparatus like the communications media. But the urgency is surely to map out the specific social machines which carry out this reorganization of the human promise, and more, to describe their breakdown, to participate in their derailing, through activities which bring ourselves and our own position within the social arrangements into motion.
Opportunities for this kind of subversive mapping now exist, amidst tremendous change coupled with a mounting sense of frustration and disgust at the enduring status quo, even in the “luxury” realm of the art world. But who really makes this distinction of worlds anymore? The very extension of the market is erasing the differences, superimposing the maps, allowing for a clearer view of the basic processes at work. For example, the violent break-up of the Yugoslavian federation after a period of intense and often very positive cultural experimentation in the 1980s, and the authoritarian turn within its successor states, no longer appears so exceptional, so inexplicable. At a larger scale we can see that the tremendous ambivalence of the 1990s – by which I mean the violent deterritorialization of the capitalist globalization process, paralleled by the extraordinary freedom of communicational experimentation, the emergence all over the world of new social movements in the wak
e of the Zapatistas, the first attempts at coordinated global struggles4 – has now given rise to exactly what the philosophical generation of the 1970s taught us to recognize and to flee: the “dialectical” return of the same through the clash of seeming opposites. In this case, the return of neo-authoritarian American imperialism, in the face of a worldwide backlash against transnational neoliberalism; and the emergence of a regime of organized violence in which the “inner” and “outer” fronts continually intersect, resulting in a state of permanently episodic planetary civil war.5 Of course, it may be difficult to accept that the modest practices of art have anything to do with such tremendous confrontations. But if we give up the specialized notion of art to recognize the wider role of “invention power” in the contemporary economy, then clearly what it produces has everything to do with the cultural conflicts in the world today.

Since the advent of democracy – and since Géricault’s shockingly realistic studies of severed hands6 – the question of going “beyond art” has been that of knitting a specialized, highly experimental and always threatened symbolic production back into the social body. Here is the secret link between politics, the avant-garde and healing, hidden in even the most alienated artistic representations (like the fantastic and depraved literature of William Burroughs). But never has there been a period so propitious for the deployment of this secret link as the present time, which has moved definitively beyond the avant-garde, to the extent that symbolic production has been taken up by broad sectors of the population. For this exact reason it has become much more crucial to understand the ways in which expression is made to turn around itself, in separation from its consequences in the world.
It is within this context that the art professionals wonder what to do with their museums, educational facilities and biennials. The question will not be answered so easily. Among the younger artists, at the “low end” of the transnational circulation, the familiar image of schlock virtuosity – necessarily quick and cheap – will continually re-emerge as a kind of swallowed or half-muttered protest against “high-end” production values and the imposing displays of prestige that accompany them. Along the edges of this divide, the retreat into fine-arts nostalgia – or conceptual overkill – will remain classic, repetitive escapes. But in reality all that is obsolete today. The urgency is express the paths of new cartographies, which transversally link artists, social movements, civil-society initiatives, knowledge-production centers and media technologies, always across the major center-periphery divides (whether these are encountered at urban, national, or transnational levels)
. And it would clearly be useful if many more people – across the spectrums from “high” to “low,” from “center” to “periphery” – would openly proclaim the current impasse, and begin to take the risks of transformation.
The mere existence of an event like the Yugoslav Biennial represents, for many, a rare and important chance to participate in the flux of exchange that is the very essence of social life in the early twentieth-first century. But that chance is not reason enough to make humanity itself into a rarity. Or to put an alienated price on your own head. The creation of new social machines begins with the power of exodus, in a kind of passion that “pays for itself in a currency of its own fabrication” (as Stendhal said of love). But to reassert an expressive politics, and in this way, to invent a new form of public existence, more adequate to the complex demands of the present, but also more able to liberate the abundance of the human promise, seems to me the real challenge of our time. And this is a contemporary meaning for the word “emancipation.”

Brian Holmes

1. Bertell Ollman, *Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society* (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 133-34.
2. Virno also speaks, more precisely, of “the general aptitudes of the mind: the faculty of language, the disposition to learn, the capacity for abstraction and relation, access to self-reflection.” Cf. Paolo Virno, “Virtuosité et révolution,” in *Miracle, virtuosité et déja-vu : trois essais sur l’idée du monde* (Paris: L’Eclat, 1996); on line at . The virtuoso’s humiliation within infinite publicity was discussed in his lecture in at the MacBa in Barcelona, Dec. 1, 2003.
3. See, among many others, Suely Rolnik, “Creation Quits its Pimp, To Rejoin Resistance,” in *Zehar* 51, 2003; online at .
4. For initial work on the internal relations between capitalist globalization and networked resistance movements, see Brian Holmes, “Flowmaps: The Imaginaries of Global Integration,” on line at .
5. Cf. Philippe Zarifian, “Pourquoi ce nouveau régime de guerre?”, *Multitudes* 11 (Winter 2003), pp. 11-23; online at (Portuguese version: =1123).
6. Gericault, *Study of Truncated Limbs*, ca. 1818-19, Musée Fabre, Montpellier; image online at . Also see Chris Marker’s film on the worldwide revolutions of 1968, *Grin without a Cat* (1977), part I, “Fragile Hands,” part II, “Severed Hands.”