June 6, 2009
Here is the first of ‘Eleven theses on art and politics’ for my talk in Copenhagen on thursday (‘Forms of engagement, Configurations of politics’ conference):
1. Do Bees have art?
“what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax.” – Marx, Capital I, p284
In Marx’s passage about the bees and the architects, clearly it is the bees who do not have representation, despite their excellent construction skills. The (human) architect constructs a structure in the mind (or on paper) before building it in the world. We can call this art. If we are to take Marx’s analogy seriously, bees do not have art, they have sting and a love of nectar, but no art.
But if art is different to politics, do bees have politics? Is the art of politics one of opportunity and struggle in the real? Or is strategy and tactics the equivalent of art in the human? Debord’s interest in strategy, as well as that long tradition within communism, will be relevant here. It may be that bees, with their hierarchy in the hive, but also their expansive quest to pollinate, have in fact a politics that can teach us.
But perhaps the bees have been caught up and caged. In England, we are told that bees are under threat and our entire biosphere is in danger if bees cease to do the endless work of pollinating flowers – which connects up nature to culture to economy in ways only hinted at by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Meanwhile, in the advanced sectors of capital:
Nicole Pepperel writes: I have to admit, I’ve never particularly thought about the industrial organisation of crop pollination, until I read this column from the New York Times discussing possible responses to Colony Collapse Disorder – the mysterious plague that causes adult bees to desert their hives, leaving honey and larvae behind. I found this image particularly striking:
“…it is important to add that, here in the United States, the majority of our crops are pollinated not by wild bees, or even by honeybees like mine, which live in one location throughout the year, but by a vast mobile fleet of honeybees-for-rent”.
“From the almond trees of California to the blueberry bushes of Maine, hundreds of thousands of domestic honeybee hives travel the interstate highways on tractor-trailers. The trucks pull into a field or orchard just in time for the bloom; the hives are unloaded; and the bees are released. Then, when the work of pollination is done, the bees are loaded up, and the trucks pull out, heading for the next crop due to bloom”.
(Originally posted by N Pepperell 29/01/2009http://www.roughtheory.org/content/worker-bees/)
Clearly there is a politics of bees, and it is of more importance than we often concede. So, as Adorno says…
October 13, 2009
(…continued – parts 2 & 3 – Part one was Do Bee Do Bee Doo: here).
2. The ‘secret omnipresence of resistance’ is Adorno’s enigmatic turn of phrase in The Culture Industry for a subtle judgement on art and politics. ‘It is a delicate question whether the liquidation of aesthetic intrication and development represents the liquidation of every last trace of resistance or rather the medium of its secret omnipresence’ (Adorno 1991:67). To understand the liquidation of intrication we have, I think, to move some years forward to his book Aesthetic Theory – an indispensable and difficult commentary on the complicity of art with the culture industry. Here you will find condemnations aplenty, of the complaisance of those who find politics in art, or who find crisis – of the separation and reification of art that relies dialectically upon otherness to confirm the soulless totality of the society in which it is other – an other with ‘the marrow’ sucked out of it (Adorno 1970/1997:31). Also find: condemnations of the injunction against self-awareness which insists that ‘nothing should be moist: art becomes hygienic’ (Adorno 1970/1997:116) and a critique whereby the reception of art oscillates in a tension between ‘do-not-let-yourself-be-understood and a wanting-to-be-understood’ (Adorno 1970/1997:302) that is held more significant than the work’s appearance. Introspection, where it is exists as a protest against order, is mere inwardness and indifference to that order, fully compatible with wage slavery (Adorno 1970/1997:116). It is monopoly, especially the monopoly form that is bourgeois film, that abolishes art along with conflict. Here, in the face of an omnipotent productive power, ‘all preservation of individual conflict in the work of art, and generally even the introduction of social conflict as well, only serves as a romantic deception’ (Adorno 1991:67).
3. Cinema is the art form of our times (even if now transformed through multi platform formats and televised via laptop and mobile phone). In his book Film Fables, Jacques Rancière offers the intriguing suggestion that documentary fiction ‘invents new intrigues with historical documents’. It ‘joins and disjoins – in the relationship between story and character, shot and sequence – the powers of the visible, of speech, and of movement’ (Rancière 2001/2006:18). Rancière is talking of Chris Marker’s great film The Last Bolshevik and Jean-Luc Goddard’s ‘Maoist theatricalization of Marxism’ in the pop age. These fictions using historical documents and making pointed reference to political struggles and current events (the collapse of Soviet power in the USSR; the cultural revolution in France) are glossed by Rancière as an indication that laments about contemporary commercial cinema or mass television as the death of great art, or even over the impossibility of cinema after Auschwitz, are premature. Not just a ‘machine for information and advertisement’ (Rancière 2001/2006:19), Rancière has a more nuanced, even Adorno-esque critique of television (and I do not mean the Adorno as rendered too simply as an elite critic of mass culture, but the Adorno that wrote of the two torn halves of a bourgeois culture, ripped asunder by industrialization, and which cannot, perhaps should not, be repaired). Rancière writes:
“cinema arrives as if expressly designed to thwart a simple technology of artistic modernity, to counter art’s aesthetic autonomy with its old submission to the representative regime. We must not map this process of thwarting onto the opposition between the principles of art and those of popular entertainment subject to the industrialization of leisure and the pleasures of the masses. The art of the aesthetic age abolishes all these borders because it makes art of everything” (Rancière 2001/2006:10).
Although there is no reference here to Wiesengrund, nor even to the notion of real subsumption, there are reasons to consider the predicament of the political fable here as the question Adorno brought into Marxism, in however European a way [Euro-Marxism] and consider the possibility that the question of art remains a ground of struggle for representation and politics in the widest sense. Do the bees, as it turns out, share with us a co-constitution of art and ppolitics, of institution and design, a symbiotic relationship between appearance and essence. The frame through which, or rather in which, ever tightening, something is exhibited, excludes other possibilities. Adorno’s sentence about the ‘secret omnipresence of resistance’ that I have so often quoted, seems apt yet again here as I try to bring forward the discussion of cinema to include not just the staples that reach from Eisenstein’s montage through to Marker or Goddard, but also the much more prosaic art of the pop promo and the documentary television moments of the period immediately after Rancière wrote his book. Has representation collapsed, or is there a secret resistance to be revealed in the silence of the images of which we see and hear so much?
October 15, 2009
4. There is good reason to consider the art object in the widest sense, as a mode of containment. This is true if we are talking of a literary work, graffiti on a wall, or a state monument – each can be a provocation, but each allusion to ‘politics’ can be overtaken by the real.
Politics can be contained in various forms – Berlin ‘walled’, Rushdie burned, China Wendered. Mere representation as representation (vertreten/darstellung) appears as a way of containng/erasing politics. The ‘political’ in art is a neutralization. This is more often than not a vote for order, for the status quo. Radical art must be a process, not a thing – a thing, even where critical, is compatible with wage slavery.
Even films are things. The pop promo is as much conceptual art as commercial format designed to sell records and jingles. A distraction machine even when, perhaps most often when, it is explicitly ‘political. The sensational fascination of the ‘Rage Against the Machine’ is complicit even as it enacts opposition. The overtly political is a release valve and a containment – at best a fable illustrating values that are wholly other than those its existence (and its audience) puts into play. The antithesis of political creativity, the committed artist is no better than a cornered ant. (Ants, I note, cannot pollinate flowers – there is no possible stand-in for the bees if they die out. Why cannot ants pollinate – something to do with how plants have stems…)
That the political artist offers conflict in a way that deflects conflict is not a new point. But here we do get to the issue of architect and intention. And this is not even yet to speak of those who shun this complicity in a higher-minded aspiration that belongs to art ‘as such’. Still more hygienic, conceptual art takes a distance from traditional forms (painting, sculpture) but is nevertheless governed by the same old ‘atmosphere’ that insists on hygiene – that art should remain artistic. Conceptual politics would also distance itself from sculpture, and elections, but still be caught in the logic of representation. Politics as everyday art of life trades upon sensation and eschews depth (party, programme, personality) and trends towards temporary and surface effects.
October 18, 2009
[Thesis five, six and seven (of eleven)]:
5. Trinketization would be a diagnosis of limited responses to global reconfigurations of commodity fetishism, where affect and shopping disguise an unbroken deal with hierarchical social relations locked in, unchallenged. Where class/race/gender politics was, we now have lip-service mockery of these same themes, articulated by the celebrity/televisual machine. The contradictions of news entertainment stand starkly exposed and still without purchase. Participation in conceptual politics is voluntary and belongs to an economy of contribution (Boutang 2009) or the ‘attention theory of value’ (Beller 2006). Here circulation, valourization and expression are governed as the activity of bees – who are dying out, but architectural reflection on this process is in even shorter supply.
The contribution economy is appropriate to a Google mode of production – algorithms are enhanced by voluntary activity of ‘political’ subjects – even ones professing artistic opposition to the system. Accumulated hits (like bees visiting plants for pollen) are aggregated in the hive mind of the virtual. My attention to images accrues value for some rather than other scenes. A calculus of image and attention operates to place some scenes before us and to erase others – the significance of Mao or of the collapse of the Berlin wall would be examples.
Surplus attention, surplus value and conceptual elaboration are the machineries of representation as productivity. It is no longer a case of ‘they cannot represent themselves’ but that they are represented by way of their own activity – the algorithm is Napoleon. In the 18th Brumaire Marx offered this formula as a critique of the little nephew, not an indictment of the lumpen and the peasantry who were unorganised, but a condemnation of the opportunist organiser – that Louis Bonaparte who stood above them as their advocate, while all the time advocating only himself as Queen Bee.
6. Art engaged with politics must engage with institutions – galleries, art books, colleges, conferences – and commerce infiltrates and orchestrates every corner of this quadrant so as to show over and over again that the connection politics-to-market is reinforced with steel. Evaluations of art are then always invested, and self-awareness a false economy, still for sale, worked by the hive-mind. In London, even the most ‘political’ of (art) institutions – the Stephen Lawrence Gallery – which at present hosts a show called ‘Re-Framed’ contrasting and dialoguing between street artists and conceptual artists – stages its own branding niche marketing commercialization for attention’s sake on the basis of the old high and low art façade. Adorno had stressed that these two halves are neither halves of any particular whole, nor either immune to the saturation of industrial processes that diminish them and threaten that secret omnipresence.
7. But what is bad art? What judgement will be made of art when if fails in the service of politics because politics fails and falls short in terms of:
- aesthetic excellence, technical competence, significance, relevance, impact
The most political points made inside a certain frame – gallery, exhibition, border, cartoon – invalidates politics to the degree that it is art, even at its most critical. Billie Holiday only sings ‘Strange Fruit’. Bob Dylan’s times did not a change – and it is no real concern that this jingle now sells automobiles at a time when the automobile industry is in disarray.
Art as decoration is a demystifying containment. Desecration of art contains politics for the domestic. Wallpapers design is now as much a historical condemnation as was Duchamp’s urinal, as Jarry’s Pere Ubu. Merde. No-one even laughs uncomfortably anymore.
Art as insult. The occasions where inwardness or introspection makes for art that exceeds its own containment are the points at which we might be interested.
October 24, 2009
8. The cartoon is contained in the frame, and can safely say so much more because of that protection. Oftentimes what is illustrated in art and comedy can be far more critical than the editorials or headline ‘breaking news’. But as we also know, even in Denmark, politics can spill over the border of this containment. There are many such incidents – it seems no coincidence today that the 20 year old furore around Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses marks the beginning of a global ‘attention’ to a politics of Islam. Rushdie’s novel can be discussed in a wide variety of ways of course. Certain anthropologists identified the ‘Rushdie Affair’ as a moment of awakening for a diasporic identity formation in the UK (we can safely consign them to a sidebar, see Hutnyk 2006). Other writers, however, assimilate the event to new times. Recently Kenan Malik attempts a strange amalgam of anti-racist activist history and condemnation of ‘the multiculturalist’ tendency in the British context that owes much, but does not fully acknowledge, the work of Sivinandan and the Institute of Race Relations. What happened around Rushdie’s book? Banned first a few months earlier in India, there was then a celebrated, televised, burning of the book in Bradford by those who, according to Malik, acted in large part:
“because of disenchantment with the secular left, on the one hand, and the institutionalisation of multicultural policies, on the other. The disintegration of the left in the 1980s, the abandonment by leftwing organisations of the politics of universalism in favour of ethnic particularism, and the wider shift from the politics of ideology to the politics of identity, pushed many young, secular Asians towards Islamism as an alternative worldview” (http://www.kenanmalik.com/lectures/rushdie_boi.html accessed 6 June 2009)
The critique of ethnicity, identity and multiculturalism misfires, however, where Malik insists on universalism as if it were the only and antithetical inverse of identity and ethnicity. Caught in a complimentary logic, Malik repeats the obvious and automatic reaction – and endorses an integration model for Britain. The case can be, and has been, made that ‘ethnic funding’ elevated culturalist ‘community leaders’ as a ‘bulwark’ with which to undermine militant anti-racist alliances, but to then diagnose the problem as culture and insist on its overcoming in some naïve secular French Republic type model is a deeply conservative, even nationalist, error.
More interesting is Gayatri Spivak’s essay on The Satanic Verses, which uses the occasion of Rushdie to consider other cases written out of the record (Shahbano made a ‘figure’ in a contest over votes), to reflect on the position of Southall Black Sisters in relation to the ‘controversy’ as crisis, to then in this context think about ‘freedom of expression’-talk and the ‘uses to which the spectacular rational abstractions of democracy can sometimes be put’ (Spivak 1993: 241). Rushdie, accused of complicity with the West’s imperialist ‘crusade’ against Islam by Ayatollahs and others, surely did not know or intend the extent to which his little fiction would offend, even as he aimed to offend indeed (as he had oftentimes done – Midnights’ Children and Shame both also banned).
The Satanic Verses, as art, went unread. Instead something of a rumour (Spivak 1993:228) spread that Rushdie had engaged in ‘gossip’ about the prophet, that he had blasphemed against the Quran. Again politics, here on the part of postcolonial metropolitan activists (not subalterns) proceeds without full representation. Of course it is almost bad taste now to think of Rushdie’s book in terms of the theoretical interests or fashions of its time of writing. The controversy has a different context now, that cannot ignore the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, Iran was central in a different way, an the Ayatollah railed against America. Then also, the death of the author thematic, signed under the proper names of Barthes and Foucault, alongside celebrations of the schizoid self, did not make for easy jokes about he fatwah.
Spivak pointed out at the time that there might be critics of her reading of The Satanic Verses that might complain that she ‘gives resistance no speaking part’ in Rushdie’s text (Spivak 1993:226). But if the book does not enact resistance as a character, perhaps we can agree with Spivak that to ‘“state the problem” is not bad politics’. She continues: ‘In fact, it might be poor judgement to consider academy or novel as straight blueprint for action on the street’ (Spivak 1993:227). I do not find this far from Adorno’s critique of an introspective protest against order that is indifferent to, and so compatible with, that order. Rushdie’s book explores blasphemy and ambiguity within Islam – a complication neither trenchant defenders of the Holy Book, nor those who attack Islam, and desecrate the book in prisons like Bahgram or Guantanamo, can assimilate.
Any art as blueprint for action of course again invokes the metaphor of the architect, not the bees. A novel, or academic test, as blueprint for action condemns actors to repetition (18th Brumaire) and containment (its not the 1960s anymore). This is true if one is wanting postcolonial engagement around race and gender ambivalence, or if revolutionary change is a goal – in each case scripted responses invite containment.
9. Book burning has its own heritage – degenerate art, lost libraries, the exotic image of Alexandria and the horrors of National Socialism. Pornographic books destroyed, Andre Malraux’s manuscript burned on his capture in 1944, the Leuven University library in Belgium in WW1, the Jaffna, Sarevo and Abhazian libraries in recent civil wars. Kafka’s books, the Master’s manuscript in Bulgakov’ Margarita , the chivalry books of Don Quixote, the firemen destroying books in F˚451
On May 10, 1933 the Deutsche Studentenschaft (German Student Association) burned a great many books in Berlin’s Opernplatz after proclaiming them degenerate and un-German.
In 1953 Senator McCarthy and Eisenhower ordered overseas US libraries to remove from their shelves books by communists and fellow-travellers (they burned them).
Rushdie’s book burned in Bradford, insults the Quran. The Quran itself associates the word of god with the honey of bees (‘Honey is a remedy for every illness and the Qur’an is a remedy for all illness of the mind, therefore I recommend to you both remedies, the Qur’an and honey’ (Bukhari)http://www.islamicresearch.org/bees%20hidden%20miracle.htm accessed June 5 2009). Beekeepers know that smoke is a tool of control. Rushdie’s insult is to make pornography of the revelation, the sacred origin of this text. He inserts new verses into the revelation, and authorship of them is given to a doubly mischevious archangel. As they appear in the drama of the book, those verses were of course already something to be interpreted politically, in terms of blueprint and control. They are a script the book excised in exactly the most insulting passage that offended those in Bradford. Rushdie has the ‘businessman’, a false but read as if the, prophet, tussle with the angel in a way that makes the revelation of the book pornographic or at least obscene. The prophet wrestles with the archangel in a cave 500 feet below the summit of Mount Cone with tongues in mouths and fists round balls only to end up with ‘Mahound’ pinned to the ground and the archangel’s mouth ‘open and making the voice, the Voice, pour out … [and] pour all over him, like sick’ (Rushdie 1988:123). That Mahound awakes later in the cave and realizes a previous visitation had been Shaitan’ ‘that he had been tricked, so that the devil came to him in the guise of the archangel, so that the verses he memorized, the ones he recited in the poetry tent, were not the real thing but its diabolical opposite, not godly, but satanic’. Mahound rushes back to the city to expunge a previous false revelation – ‘to expunge the foul verses that reek of brimstone and sulphur, to strike them for the record for ever and ever, so that they will survive in just one or two unreliable collections’ (Rushdie 1988:123).
Of course this is an insult to Islam, and in some ways indeed worse, more mischievous, than the insults so well known in Bahgram. Have you ever burnt a book? Golden Bough…
November 8, 2009
10. Repetitions as farce from the Brumaire. 20 years ago Rushdie was the part catalyst for an insurgent Muslim political articulation in Britain. Among the reasons why the threat to Rushdie was picked up so prominently – as a case of freedom of expression – was that the demonization of Islam and the Ayatollah greatly suited a West that had recently lost its favourite cold war era demon. 20 years ago this year also the Berlin Wall fell down, heralding the end of sausage-and-three-veg socialism. Recently we organised a conference in Berlin on the theme of Borders and the anniversary of this event was a topic of conversation after a presentation by the Goethe Institute on their plans for a commemoration ceremony (here accessed 6 June 2009).
The wall was famously a site for artistic expression in critique, and sometimes denial, of its repressive function. Famously graffiti marked the wall, appearing for example in films like Christiane F and Himmel Uber Berlin – during which the artist ThierryNoir appears himself, chattingtoBruno Ganz. Each act of resistance becomes a contribution to the economy of film. In 2009, the commemoration involves recreations of some of the art work – controversially – and the Goethe Maurriese project which also, not without problems, focus only upon artistic elements and wholly ignore, for various politically sensitive reasons, questions about the political wall, the place of the former DDR in contemporary Germany, the changes since unification, and the ways this symbol of division has become a marketing tool for a new (hygienic) Berlin. Instead, neat project this may seem, with cheesy website, foam sections of the wall have been made and shipped to Goethe Institutes worldwide. These are to be decorated by children at the various global Goethe offices, and returned to Berlin where they will, in November, be lined up in the manner of dominos along part of the path of the former wall, to be ceremoniously toppled on the anniversary. Without irony this is presented as the Goethe Institute’s effort to do work within ‘all’ Germany and to change its perception as primarily a West German international agency.
The fall of the wall marked the end of the Cold War and ushered in a new demonization, of Islam, that culminates in the 1990s and early 21st century Iraq wars, not to mention ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Palestine. But it should be noted, that just as the fall of communism has been cleansed, the art burned but resurrected in film and in commemorations (though there will need to be two new walls to protect the reconstructed domino wall), there is a readiness to move on in Berlin that moves past the old wall and border. The wall was degenerate, not the art.
11. Might things also be moving on elsewhere? Is it plausible to see another event of 20 years ago as significant? This month in June the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen is commemorated. The build up to Tiananmen had been a protest by students, then joined increasingly by workers, against the corruption of the Dengist capitalist road clique. A media event as much on television as in China, the protest was aggressively crushed, a famous image of a man in front of a tank becoming the iconic, and ironically inverse, image of Beijing controlled by tanks and the 4th Army. Deng Xiaoping’s control affirmed, in some ways this event can be seen as the confirmation of China’s economically driven capitalist restoration today, with Tiananmen erased – no press or TV commemoration in China – in favour of a new nationalism, ‘to be rich is glorious’, the celebrate the Olympics, to take a place on the security council, China ascendant, significant growth rates… Only outside China is Tiananmen recalled in books, and even in a Tank Man ballet, a favourite on you tube (with instructions on how to perform the tank man dance). Here art contains a critique that is inverted in the real. That the elevation and erasure of the tanks coincides today with the credit crisis and global anxiety about the environment. Three Gorges Dam, plastic manufacture, six billion car owners and other news about economic growth is calculated in terms of climate change and corruption, so that China-anxiety has a certain significance not unrelated to the triple crisis of the automobile industry, financial regulation and environment. Would it not be a surprise to see China emerge soon as the new scapegoated demon for a war that is neither cold nor hot, but played out as an art of manoeuvre, with orientalist backdrop, over which an inter-imperialist rivalry of a new type is engaged between the West – Obama/Clinton – and the East – Deng/Hu Jintao group. Art – the tank man – here becomes hygienic yet again in the face of a struggle over productive power – the struggle for productive dominance, mediated via the financial markets, the steel industry and climate (read oil). It may seem a strange thing to say, but the culture industry could be set a task now, if we were cynical enough: never more than ever was there a need for Chinese Rushdie. What shall we burn?
Of course that would not be serious. But the exposure of Art as always being caught up with politics, at both its moment of explicit politicization and at the times when it claims conceptual or abstract separation, are in a certain way equivalent. The role of bees is to busy themselves with flowers, but this does not set them apart from the biosphere nor disconnect them from architecture, or institutions, or commerce or geopolitics. The secret omnipotence of production shoots through the most obscure corners of the culture industry and only the bee that turns to drawing has a chance to make this apparent – there is where attention can be focussed, there is a contribution towards changing the world – the point is not just to paint it.