Talk notes for Taipei conference on Time and Possibility, circa December 2009

More notes not written up, not fit for filing ‘cept in the rapt that is WordPress.

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Trinketization with respect to Benjamin’s obsessions with kitsch – mediation between magic and positivism

… with respect to Benjamin’s obsessions with kitsch: Adorno writes to Benjamin trying to wean him from his trinket mania, get him to sort out the Arcades, and get him on a boat to New York. Along the way (I think) he invents the theory of trinketization. Keen to affirm his institutional solidarity with Benjamin, Adorno is careful not to insist on any orthodox version of Marxism, but he also warns against an abdication from Marxist theory:

“The impression which your entire study conveys – and not only to me with my Arcades orthodoxy – is that you have here done violence upon yourself. Your solidarity with the Institute, which pleases no-one more than myself, has led you to pay the kind of tributes to Marxism which are appropriate neither to Marxism nor to yourself. Not appropriate to Marxism because the mediation through the entire social process is missing and because of a superstitious tendency to attribute to mere material enumeration a power of illumination which really belongs to theoretical construction … you have denied yourself your boldest and most fruitful ideas through a kind of pre-censorship in accordance with materialist categories (which by no means correspond to Marxist ones)” (Adorno to Benjamin 10 November 1938, Benjamin/Adorno 1994/1999: 284).

This suggests that Benjamin was merely coquetting with the forms of Marxist theory and not thinking them through – coquetting is Marx’s diminutive word in Capital for where he used the language and style of Hegel, in an analysis that went well beyond Hegel, see the Forward to Marx 1867/1967. On Adorno’s reading – of the draft – Benjamin might be confirmed as ‘the [nice, harmless, cute, ‘bad’] Marxist that you could take home to meet your mother’ (as someone, I forget who, once said). Adorno is teasing and pushing him to be more inventive and rigorous with his connections – all at the same time. And it is connections to which he is attuned, noting:

“a close connection between those places where your essay falls behind its own a priori and its relationship to dialectical materialism … Let me express myself in as simple an Hegelian manner as possible. Unless I am very much mistaken, your dialectic is lacking in one thing: mediation” (Adorno to Benjamin 10 November 1938, Benjamin/Adorno 1994/1999:282).

Mediation then would be the theorization of connections between the ‘mere’ material observations and fascinations of the Arcades, of the baubles that interest the flaneur, of the observations of the analyst, and of the notations of the writer – mediation is the vehicle of analysis. Adorno marks this as a phantasmagorical and mystical error:

“Your ‘anthropological’ materialism ‘harbours a profoundly romantic element … The ‘mediation’ which I miss and find obscured by materialistic-historiographical evocation, is simply the theory which your study has omitted. But the omission of theory affects the empirical material itself” (Adorno to Benjamin 10 November 1938, Benjamin/Adorno 1994/1999:283).

At pains not to offend his friend, but also careful to call for something more, Adorno rephrases the same point again and again:

“To express this another way: the theological motif of calling things by their names tends to switch into the wide-eyed presentation of mere facts. If one wanted to put it rather drastically, one could say your study is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism. This spot is bewitched. Only theory could break this spell – your own resolute and salutarily speculative theory. It is simply the claim of this theory that I bring against you here” (Adorno to Benjamin 10 November 1938, Benjamin/Adorno 1994/1999:283).

It might be too easy to score credits here on some biographical outcomes chart (a research assessment exercise) as Adorno goes on to write The Dialectic of Enlightenment with Horkheimer, while Benjamin ends up sitting bleary-eyed far too long in the cafés of Marseilles, and finally does not make it over the mountain. But the suitcase he carries is lost and we do not know if these prods in the direction of theory had recast the manuscript. A terrible gap.

Bees again

Nothing can be understood, as Adorno said of Hegel, in isolation from the whole:

‘in the context of the whole, but with the awkward qualification that the whole in turn lives only in the individual moments. In actuality, however, this kind of doubleness of the dialectic eludes literary presentation’ (Adorno 1963 Hegel: Three Studies – in the third one)

But the thing is that we can also cite Adorno’s aphorism from Minima Moralia that ‘the whole is the untrue’, and be sure here that although Marx now reveals the secret of value, this is, also, untrue. It is neither correct except insofar as a great numb of conditioning factors are held aside, nor is it incorrect, but it certainly is in need of supplementing. Without Hegel, and I would say without Adorno to guide a reading of Hegel, there is no chance of getting Marx. Lenin says as much as well.

Adorno’s Hegel is important for example when he says that Hegel does not fall for the uncritical facade:

‘there are good reasons why the dialectic of essence and appearance is moved to the centre of the Logic. This needs to be remembered at a time when those who administer the dialectic in it’s materialist version, the official thought of the East Bloc, have debased it to an unreflective copy theory’ Adorno Three Studies p8

We should be wary of appearances for sure, but also of essences. The essentializing character of seeking out value, or the tool, or the primitive instinct, over against the essence of human creative labour as architect, even the worst architect. Mediation has to be kept alive here, as perhaps a labour of thought. It is not a middle term, but it brings thinking to life between essence and appearance, and it is a permanent confrontation, this dialectic. It is not a world view (Adorno Three Studies p9)

Marx had said of the Phenomenology, as Adorno notes, that in it Hegel had grasped the nature of labour and man as the result of his labour. This labour is social, labour as something for something, or someone, else (Adorno Three Studies p18). This is quite a thing, to suggest Hegel’s spirit is social labour

 ‘the crucial connection between the concepts of desire and Labour removes the latter from the position of a mere analogy to the abstract active of the abstract spirit. Labour in the full sense is in fact tied to desire, which it in turn negates; it satisfies the needs of human beings on all levels, helps them without their difficulties, reproduces human life, and demands sacrifices if them in turn’ (Adorno Three Studies p22)

But idealism is mistaken to turn the totality of labour into something existing in itself as metaphysical principle, as if social labour could be conceives as separate fro nature on which it depends. No nature as such either, of course, and no abstract desire. We do not talk of human nature, nor think there are universal needs.

Adorno quotes Marx on nature and labour from the Critique of the Gotha Programme, ‘labour is not the sours of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use-values’ (in Adorno Three Studies p23) even as Marx notes this is both ‘correct’ and a bourgeois children’s book phrasing that cannot be left without a comment or two about the way in which humanity works with nature and that any suggestion that nature is a basis for subordinating those who only have their labour power to sell to be compelled to sell it ‘as a slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour’ (in Adorno Three Studies p 24)

This is followed by a critique of Hegel,s idealism in which labour is detached and becomes ideology as an inherent value. Adorno mentions the section on lord and bondsman but passes quickly rather to Hegel’s comments on religion and ‘spirit as artificer’, as labour, as an instinctive operation ‘like the building of a honeycomb by the bees’ (Hegel in Adorno Three Studies p24). To this inclusion of labour in spirit Adorno suggests ‘only a little more would be needed – remembrance of the simultaneously mediated and irrevocably natural moment of labour – and the Hegelian dialectic would reveal its identity and speak it’s own name’ (Adorno Three Studies p25)

Still, at least we can see where Marx got his interest in bees.

Hegel, in Phenomenology of Spirit, in the section on The Artificer, writes:

‘SPIRIT, therefore, here appears, as an artificer, and its action whereby it produces itself as object but without having as yet grasped the thought of itself is an instinctive operation, like the building of a honeycomb by bees

The first form, because it is immediate, is the abstract form of the Understanding, and the work is not yet in its own self filled with spirit. The crystals of pyramids and obelisks, simple combinations of straight lines with plane surfaces and equal proportions of parts, in which the incommensurability of the round is destroyed, these are the works of this artificer of rigid form. On account of the merely abstract intelligibleness of the form, the significance of the work is not in the work itself, is not the spiritual self. Thus either the works receive Spirit into them only as an alien, departed spirit that has forsaken its living saturation with reality and, being itself dead, takes up its abode in this lifeless crystal; or they have an external relation to Spirit’ p421

Market project Talk transcribed

The folk at Market Project incredibly transcribed what I had to say at their gig in November at Colchester. Much obliged to them. This was after Alex Pearl‘s project Pussycat film (which recommends a final solution for artists), and debate contributions from others that you can also here and here. Mine in full follows. The discussion still to come perhaps.

Market Project’s public debate TOO MANY ARTISTS took place on November 9th 2011 at Firstsite in Colchester.

On the panel were: From Market Project, artist Alistair Gentry and TED Fellow Julie Freeman (with the latter chairing the debate); Dave Beech, artist, writer and member of Freee collective; Professor John Hutnyk from the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths University; Susan Jones, director of a-n The Artists Information Company.

 

Julie Freeman: Our final speaker tonight is John Hutnyk. He’s a professor and academic director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University of London. He is author of a number of books on politics and cultural studies. He’s been the editor of several volumes of essays, including ‘Disorienting Rhythms, the Politics of the New Asian Dance Music’ and has contributed to the journals ‘Theory, Culture and Society’ and ‘Postcolonial Studies’. He’s woprking on a new book at the moment called ‘Pantomime Terror’ and writes occasionally for ‘Stimulus Respond’ and is a contributing editor of ‘The Paper’, which I believe he’s got a few copies of with him…

John Hutnyk: We gave them out today at the rally in London, so we’re running a bit low.

Julie Freeman: He’s fresh from being kettled. You can find him at hutnyk.wordpress.com.

John Hutnyk: Right, thank you very much. Thanks for inviting me. I’ve got the lucky position of having to speak after all these comrades. So I want to- it’s going to be a typical cultural studies thing, I apologise for this, the thing that we usually do is kind of dismiss the categories in which everybody else has spoken and try to redefine the grounds in order to win the debate. So I’m going to say that the categories are wrong! I do appreciate that there are too many artists in Putney or wherever, or active engagement in producing art, but I think that depends on a bourgeois notion of what art is and issue of what is an artist is just too big a question. And it’s not about making bread, although I do appreciate the question of labour.

I want to ask who makes art. Not 1%, but 99%. Before you think I’m going to talk about Occupy Wall Street all night and the occupation of St Paul’s, I think the 99% has to be decolonised and there are many differences and so on, but for the purposes of this I’m going to say even one word can be part of the 99%. Did you read the paper today, The Guardian, no, sorry, The Evening Standard had a spread on The Rolling Stones. They’re still wayward, they’re still drinking. Ron Woods although sometimes reformed and in rehab has a second career after the Rolling Stones of being an artist. I figure if Ron can be an artist, we all can. Well, he did go to art school, it’s true, he did go to art school in the 1950s. He met Keith Richards and the Small Faces and fifty years later he’s become an artist.

I should talk about artists, but to make my point about the 99%, talk about Anthony Gormley. I like Anthony, he comes to Goldsmiths occasionally- and in fact if you think about his work, he does employ artists to make his work… but that’s a question about the labour thing. He could be doing bread. But this is remarkable, I was reminded of this just reading the paper yesterday, he was one of the people- because [government minister Theresa] May’s in trouble over immigration, a few years ago Anthony came out as a sort of spokesperson for a campaign to make the UK Border Authority, the governing body of fortress Europe if you like, or fortress Britain, ease up on restrictions over bringing artists into the country. Freedom of movement for artists was the call, and I think that’s welcome and important but deeply problematic because why should artists get freedom of movement, why should they have privilege of movement, in fact? Why shouldn’t it be freedom of movement for all? Which is the No Borders campaign slogan. So let’s see what Theresa May thinks of that one, if she’s still in office tomorrow. What would the passport check be on the artists, to check whether they come in or not?

So I’m asking just what is it we mean when we say “artist”? Or baker, or breadmaker, or candlestick maker? Is it about getting in a gallery and selling your work, or is it about getting into Goldsmiths and getting a grant? There are two sides to that, I think.

Gentrification’s another issue I want to talk about. Gentrification, or it was called regeneration at one point, sorry, I want to change the terms of the debate again. Gentrification- I think there are too many artists because it’s changing the way we live and certainly colonised Goldsmiths and New Cross and Deptford, I’m uneasy about this because it’s welcome and so on but- great employment for artists or art students at Goldsmiths, we do have a few of them there, in fact everybody in every department thinks they’re going to be artists, the 99% are there alive and well, still pretty privileged and pretty white mostly… but they’ve found a pretty pleasant line in being recruited by real estate agents who want to develop the old schools in the East End.

There was one thing called The Assembly a few years ago, which the developer knew they were going to develop the school into luxury flats, Yuppie flats, Gentrification, but it was going to take two years to get the money and the contracts together and they didn’t want squatters coming in to the school in the mean time so they gave the premises to Goldsmiths and the RSA for a couple of years to run a show, have as studios, basically as holding operation to keep anarchists and undesirables out. Problematic. We had too many artists in that sense.

The other thing is commodification. We talked about the cost and sales of work… Ron Wood is selling work, great good on you. There hasn’t been a Rolling Stones album for a couple of years, but they were pretty lucrative as well, those Rolling Stones albums. Actually what was really lucrative for the Stones was not the ‘Street Fighting Man’ years, the old Decca label stuff and the good songs when they were rebels, and we do recognise that were rebels once, don’t we? Before they started to do tours sponsored by Volkswagen? Advertisements on the telly, I could go through a whole list of musicians who started to do it. There’s one, who’s started to sell insurance now.

Julie and Alistair: Iggy Pop.

John Hutnyk: He must be really bored. “I’M BORED. I’m the chairman of the bored.” He really is, now. The Rolling Stones were “street fighting men” but they became complicit in another kind of sonic gentrification, if you like. Pacification. I have problems with that… complicity has always been part of the game for artists, even the rebels. You’ve got artists in the employ of the state, you’ve got artists providing their work- however critical and troubling- it might be on the walls of bourgeois homes on the West coast of America, and even banks, most banks. Soon we’ll have Banksy on the wall of banks, let’s just drop the “S Y”, well he has: ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’. Complicity is one big thing, royal patronage and T-shirts and cappuccinos and lovely coffee shops with galleries attached. It’s all part of the commodification where Artists with a capital “A”, that’s what I’m saying we’ve got too many of. Turning us all into, and I’m worried about something that was said, viewers. Are we going to get to view, rather than make? I think we can all make.

Yes, the artists are rebels but they get co-opted and consumed, recuperated by the culture industry. It makes me want to talk about an old, grumpy German theorist called Theodor Adorno, I’m sure you all know about him, because we actually started with a sort of homage to Adorno, which was the whole thing about art after Auschwitz. [Note: JH is referring to Alex Pearl’s Project Pusscat film which was shown at the start of the presentation]. OK it was sort of displaced into comedy and I appreciated that, and Sarin gas, I like the pantomime terrorist thing but I like to think about the Adorno art after Auschwitz thing as something you have to keep on the boil. Instead of art after Auschwitz, talk about art after Guantanomo… is it still possible, Adorno asks, to still make art after that crisis? After that atrocity, after that moment of barbarism?

I want to talk about that, but Adorno is one who talks about the culture industry and the way this recuperation, this commodification and this complicity keeps on working to draw artists into the mode of production we know as capital, or capitalism. And of course that’s what the people, the 1% versus the 99% thing is about at St Paul’s. Art is an instrument of capital.

This of course has its history in the post war reconstruction programmes, I’ll skip some of it, the 1980s programmes of art to mollify and placate communities that were rising up in London, let’s just take South London where I live, in Brixton and Lewisham and so on, when the black political uprising movement, rebellion, whatever you like, something very similar to what happened over the summer here, was in full flight. Scarman’s report, then, throws money at the “ethnic arts” in order to divide up the allegiances of the black movement. And I think art in the employ of politics and artists in the employ of the state is something we need to discuss.

Of course capital “A” Artists, not all of them get grants. In fact it’s 1% of artists that get grants, and certainly does imply that we all make are, we could make art. In fact the question is: what is art? I mean is art only the bourgeois category of stuff that gets into galleries, or is handwriting an art, or is knitting an art? Singing at the football, is that an art? It depends on what we mean by art and what we mean by artists.

But to go back to the percentage, I’m not so worried about the percentages, that’s another part of the debate I want to displace, but if you think about who gets grants- and I’m surprised that you applied, Alex, to something like the Arts Council for your project. You should have applied to the makers of Zyklon B, or someone like that. Who gets an Arts Council grant is not the relevant policy domain. The thing that’s effecting artists in this country right now is the cuts, and social policy. Unemployment benefit, housing benefit [Kirsten Fockhart’s excellent PhD at Goldsmiths – completed 2011 – discusses this in detail], and all those artists, you know the landscape painters who do a little bit in their shed, they’re artists as well. They don’t get into the same establishments, but they’re more effected by social policy and the winding the back of social policy in this country which has been grave, serious, desperate in the last couple of years, well, in the last ten years. They’re much more effected by that than anything the Arts Council could do with its, what was it? .0093% of the budget. Sorry… see, I wasn’t very good at statistics… .093 of a billion [£] compared to £49.1 billion spent on defence. So arts policy, talking about Arts capital “A”, is not an issue- we have too much of that. What we have is a blind spot to social policy, that’s more important.

So, Adorno. He’s famous for this dictum, “Art after Auschwitz”, but it’s not something that he said in his own voice, it’s really important to see that he was putting this forward as a two part dialectic in the voice of those who at the level of satisfied contemplation, at the level of critics, did not break with the bourgeois categories, it was the idle chatter of that class that both said “you cannot make art after Auschwitz” and were incapable of understanding why it was barbaric to make art after Auschwitz. Now, everyone says Adorno was elitist, he was anti-art, but no. In that dialectic he actually has a more important place for the real rebellious possibility of art as something that we all could do. It would be co-opted and recuperated… well, actually he’s still anxious about that. He thinks under capitalism it’s hopeless. Well… not even.

He talks about it being a still undecided question, whether in the culture industry, in the contemporary bourgeois capitalist regime, it might still be possible that there is a secret omnipresence of resistance, a kernel of rebellion in the project of making art, but only insofar as it resists recuperation by the culture industry. And I’m sorry, our mates, our capital “A” Artists are recuperated, they are in the employ of the Borgias. There are too many artists.