Several arguments I’ve had lately have stalled in what I am tempted to call a kind of ‘ontological disarray’. That is, the people I start these conversations with, in affable conviviality (ie in the pub) seem to give up too quick and angry. We each know these are necessarily first moves, so why concede/defer? Is it because I am slurring my words horribly, and threatening to punch people? But I am pretty sure that is not what is going on, at least not every time. Here for the record are the themes:
1. Contemporary art is not revolutionary and smells bad
Artists and critics have merged in a discursive boosterism that promotes ‘contemporary art practice’ as the be all and end all of socio-cultural or intellectual worth. This is at its worst when the boosterism is mitigated by an enthusiastic embrace of, at least a rhetoric of, challenge, critique, interdisciplinarity or conceptual experimentation (these are not ‘the same’). Sometimes the prime pumped place of the artist-critic-practitioner is glorified as disruption, provocation, and even chaos. It seems as if the dilemmas and complicities that stalled Dada and mainstreamed Surrealism vis-a-vis politics (no less than three major exhibitions planned) plots the tempo of the treadmill upon which we are condemned to run forever.
Pirates have been in fashion for quite a while, despite the efforts of Disney and Johnny Depp. Is it just a shallow question then to ask if they are still worthy of our attention? – either as the forgotten first wave of neoliberal capitalism, or as cool multiculturalist anti-slavery activists with boats. This theme at least has a Deptford connection, and appropriately the argument was on the steps of the Town Hall - and was over the work of another of those celebrants of pirate-chic whom I quote here:
“The decade between 1716 and 1726 was the golden age of piracy, Marcus Rediker informs us. The significance of piracy during these years was twofold – it was multiracial and it was against the slave trade. They blockaded ports, disrupted the sea lanes. The pirate ship ‘might be considered a multiracial maroon community.’ Hundreds were African. Sixty of Blackbeard’s crew of a hundred were black. Rediker quotes the Negro of Deptford who in 1721 led ‘a Mutiny that we had too many Officers, and that work was too hard, and what not.’ They also prevented the slave trade from growing. This was the complaint of Humphrey Morice, MP, Governor of the Bank of England, owner of a small fleet of slavers, who led the petitioning to Parliament and who suffered severe losses in 1719, the year that serious blacking commenced. A naval squadron was sent to west Africa. Four hundred and eighteen pirates were hanged. The conjuncture of apparently very distant forces, struggle for common rights and the Atlantic slave trade, in fact met in intimate proximity” Peter Linebaugh in Mute
Linebaugh has a good line on Daniel Defoe though – and we can hear the echo of Marx’s comments on Crusoe from part one of Capital, which is always fun. Here is Linebaugh again:
“Robinson Crusoe, Mariner was published in 1719. The book dramatises the labour theory of value, glories in the intricacies of the division of labour, and puts the European foot (Crusoe) on the African neck (Friday). Alexander Selkirk, the actual person who was the prototype of Robinson Crusoe, died in February 1721 as a sailor in a naval squadron that was sent to west Africa to extirpate the piracy interrupting the slave trade” Peter Linebaugh in Mute
OK, Let’s discuss.
3. Consmopolitanism yak yak
The debate in Manchester called ‘the conversation‘, where I was lucky enough to share the stage with Mary Louise Pratt, descended into something not quite farce. Is the discursive effort deployed to elaborate an equitable global cosmopolitanism worth the effort? I mean, compared to other efforts to organise and institute an alternative to Capitalism? THe conceptual arabesques around cosmo seem very often to rehearse Eurocentric imaginings (Hedwig was right to say: ‘You, Kant, always get what You want’).Is this Kantianism from outside not quite close to a plan that contains cross-border disruptions in a cultural resource marketing regime? I have yet to consume all though, having just bargain bonus snapped up Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism ‘because’ it has a special extra half-size promo wrap with picture and quote from none other than Kofi Annan. Whoa, bestseller! [Thus, more on this is to come - a longer post on the conversation with M-L-P that I have been saving... too lazy ... to write up soon... promise...]
4. “Maoist” Philosophers are hot stuff, shaboody
Alain Badiou as the latest theorist refashioned from obscure secret to the next theoretico-personality cult idol of the chattering teacher-class, as reviewed by Peter Osbourne in Radical Philosophy. I was intemperate enough in my criticisms of this to suggest what those theorists who become publishing fashion (as it has to be said is the fate of AB, no matter how excellent are the efforts of Alberto Toscano et al) are rarely elevated on the basis of their personalities. Rather, the personality cult here is that of the veritable hordes parading amongst the campus seminar cliques carrying aforesaid idols’ books and quoting key concepts like badges. Of course I am not against sloganeering – heaven forbid – but a slower reading and a resistance to the way display table choices shape debates might be welcome. That conversations about Mao, or politics, or borders, or democracy are shaped by a confluence of The Today Show (radio current affairs) and the display of shiny books shelved by author name (in places like the LRB or Tate Bookshops) seems just another sad consequence of the same idolatry because the discussion never gets beyond personal presentation. The latest theorists now, the next ones quick. Shop shop shop. But I am among the worst in many ways – buying books on impulse because of the quality of the binding, because of an innovation in format (Iconoplush!) and other foibles that deserve attention. This is very far from Mao. As is Badiou. Try this instead: Comrade Gaurav at Goldies.
[Pics are Michael Leunig cartoons - from my Saturday paper every week in Melbourne through the 80s and 90s].