Critical Strategies in Art and Media Discussion - part 05
Jim Fleming: The whole autonomist perspective includes the argument that capital uses these periods of crisis, aufhebung-like, to reconfigure itself, finding new methods for moving forward. Rather than crises being somehow only exceptional moments of instability, they are also often the basis for capitalist renewal. My own instant candidate for a primal American villain is Alexander Hamilton, who had a very self-conscious project — perhaps inspired by the proto-factories of the Caribbean sugar plantations and their crucial role in developing global exchange — to actively destroy localized economies and to develop the primary corporatist mechanisms of American Empire, through central banking and all the rest.
Konrad Becker: Ted with his starting intervention was taking up not eons, but millennia, and I would like to get away from this narrow focus, whether we are now using a certain internet technology or not, and look at the broader picture. Picking up with what Brian was saying: is there another future really imaginable? Maybe it sounds a little banal, but Ted openly acknowledged that we are not afraid of banali-ties, and Steve said we are not afraid of getting a beating.… We heard earlier that Judith Malina said, okay, we do this step by step and we have a vision. So at that point I didn’t have a chance to ask, but I do have this question: Do we actually still have a vision? Do we share a dream on a broad basis? There is a saying that goes somewhat like: “Who tells the stories, rules the world.” So not getting into details of tactics or technology, what are the stories we have to offer? I was referring earlier to this idea of — how is it possible that this simple set of Neoliberal religious beliefs could take over the world? It was obviously a narrative that caught on, but what stories can we tell?
Peter Lamborn Wilson: This reminded me I wanted to respond to something that Ted said. It’s quite true about some of the more sinister origins of America right from the beginning, the ways of looking at the American Revolution as a big real estate scam for example. If you realize how all the Founding Fathers were heavily investing in Western real estate and the role that this fact played in the idea of independence. That’s the master narrative you might say. I guess that’s the way we would use that term, the master narrative because it’s the narrative the way the masters tell it. But there is of course also something that we been very much involved at Autonomedia over the years which is the lost history. The other story. The story as told from below, told by the rebels and the non-conformists and the outsiders. That also deserves to be told, and told right from the beginnings of the new world, right from the moment for example, the German Rosicrucian Johannes Kelpius came to Pennsylvania in 1694 and attended a session in which the Quaker leader William Penn was trying to convert the American-Indian shamans to Quakerism, to Christianity. He wrote a beautiful essay where he says, “This William Penn is full of nonsense, he has more to learn from these shamans than they have to learn from him. He should go to them to learn about spirituality.” So this shows that the idea that there were no Europeans and no white people who understood Indian spirituality was wrong. One scholar I know said that there were no Euro-Americans who had the least bit of understanding of native American spirituality until Henry David Thoreau, but that turns out not to be true. One of them was one of the earliest immigrants to America, interestingly a Rosicrucian. And there was a whole Rosicrucian story behind the settlement of America that looked on it as a kind of unspoiled paradise where the shamans, the Indians, would be full of primordial wisdom. Of course that turned out to be a tragic dream in a lot of ways. But ever since then there has been this undercurrent of American history and there has been a story that needs to be told not by the master class, but by the outside class, the underclass if you will. That includes everything from runaway slaves to pirates to unruly sailors, in the 1740s and 1750s, laying the groundwork for the American Revolution, not as a real estate scam, but as an actual revolution. I’ve always thought that there were these two stories about America and one of them gets told everywhere, children learn it in high school, even in elementary school, and the other one never gets told. You have to go and search it out for yourself. You have to go read obscure local histories written by amateurs and crazy radicals… the material is there, but you have to go search it out, otherwise you will never hear what I call “the lost and hidden history of America.”
Rene Gabri: I think there is a question about what is particular about Neoliberalism that is unique, outside of the history of capitalism or markets. So I think what Claire brought up and Ayreen mentioned about Brian Holmes, orDavid Harvey, or even Neal Smith: They’ve also tried to map out something particular about the rise of Neoliberalism and what its particular kind of values are; I think David Harvey’s book A Brief History of Neoliberalism is a really good beginning. But the other question about crises — they always existed. I found a lecture by David Harvey online sometime in the winter that was great. He went through this history of crises in a really succinct way, talking about three crucial categories within these crises: natural resources, money, and labor. It is within these three categories that capitalism has always been very ingenious at finding its way and finding a solution. In Bifo’s seminar, he was trying to — which could go under the category of labor — say that actually because this cognitive labor requires so much affective and “nervous energy” as he called it. This might be a new crisis which is not related specifically to labor, natural resources, or money, but related to the psychic kind of capacity of human beings whether as consumers or workers. It’s about a certain kind of exhaustion of people’s capacity to not just buy into the values, but to come to this ritornelle where it is believed that repeating the same patterns of behavior is going to make them happy. But how many times can you actually buy a new iPod? That’s a really reductive way of putting it, but you can multiply that in different arenas....
Konrad Becker: I’m glad you bring this up because I do think there is a crisis on various levels and it’s important to acknowledge that. We have already referred to this problematic question of “green washing” and “boutique activism” which is the corporate spin and false flag marketing smokescreens as well as the fashionably followed ritualized and aestheticized practices that are safely inconsequential. Beyond the crisis of financial over-accumulation there is a crisis of natural resources, of the ecology and of climate change. With all that environmentalist art around it makes me wonder if that greenwashing and eco thing veils an imminent new eco-capitalism or eco-fascism, based on conflicts of interest about drained global resources. However, since there are cumulating crises, I am glad you brought up another crisis. Actually Bifo didn’t make it here and we have a short clip by him.
Franco "Bifo" Berardi (via video): In the last ten years I was spending time with media activist projects like Telestreet. It was about creating a network of tactical media thoroughly connected to the territory, to the neighbors, to the street and so on. It was a big success in Italy between 200 and 2004 and then everything disappeared when YouTube came on. It’s easy to understand why. A young media activist producing images goes to Telestreet if he has no other possibility but if he can go global via YouTube he goes there. I have been thinking of the YouTube experience and about its failure. The real problem or enemy of democratic media and media activism today is not so much the information of the power but is essentially white noise, the infinite dispersion that is the white noise of the YouTube model. What should be done in a situation like this, the problem of media activism in the next 100 years? Silence. I think silence is the real goal of the next media activism to come.
Konrad Becker: Bifo famously has this concept of cybertime. Supposedly cyberspace is infinite, but our biological time and our attention are certainly very limited. And so there is this stretch, tearing us apart which results in panic and depression and related anxiety disorders. We know that depression is a number one clinical disease worldwide according to the WHO, and it is on the rise fast. So I do think we are in a climate where more than one crisis plays out on various levels. Ted was speaking about the millennia, and he was not saying exactly if we are at the end of something or at the start of something, but sometimes during this talk I got the feeling as if we are on a smooth journey: okay well, we are sailing slowly on this plane, only disturbed by financial bubbles that are bubbling all the time anyway. Except maybe there is something more happening and maybe we have to find out new ways to deal with crisis, on a personal level, on an environmental level….
Claire Pentecost: We have been telling these stories of history, Peter brought up these alternative histories, but it’s important also to tell the stories of now, that are not the kind of broadcast cant that we are exposed to every day. That’s part of why I want to focus on artists’ attempts to refuse the terms of professionalization, their attempts to work instead toward creating a culture that’s more about a politics of care. One of the most urgent questions now is “how are we going to take care of each other?” And I don’t just mean that in a palliative sense, but in the sense of everything: intellectually, materially, and socially. How are people pulling out their affective labor and applying it in social structures of their own making? And I think that it is tantamount to a strategy; it’s a strategy partly in response to this crisis of exhaustion. People are saying “Enough!” on so many levels. On the level of boredom and exhaustion and anger. So it’s a strategy of redirecting our energies, but it’s not total withdrawal, it’s not the same as what Peter was talking about in terms of claiming the territory of the drop-out and the hippie, refusing as much technology as possible. It may be folly to think that we can manage the level of technology in our lives, so that it does not overwhelm us and put us on cybertime all the time and keep us a prisoner or at least a tortured “enlistee” of that time. So would it be folly to think we can manage levels of technology and cybertime?
Peter Lamborn Wilson: I would just like to make the point that the relationship with technology is never a one way technology. It always strikes me that there is this incredible multiple, complex feedback between the people who make the technology and the technology that remakes the people. This is actually a cliché of social history. So I just wanted to make sure that the point is made.
Jim Fleming: Let’s just take these three scenes: the environmental or ecological, the financial, and work. With respect to work I think our strategies have to be in some fairly pragmatic sense full strategies of refusal. While depression and anxiety may not be ideologically inspired, they probably promote the refusal of work. If I were a big (nonpharma) capitalist, I wouldn’t want to have a workforce that was depressed and anxious, I would want to have a “motivated” workforce. The money form is precisely the language of capitalism, and the kind of energumen capitalism that Bifo keeps talking about, semio-capitalism, is the kind of capitalism that’s become largely angelic, speaking in tongues, truly divorced from the calculations of wealth and material reality. According to recent statistics from a major Japanese banking trust, the calculations of global “paper” wealth are alleged to be about five times greater than the measurements of all material goods and actual services on the real surface of the planet. So this kind of hyper-capitalist financial calculus just feels to me like a kind of schizobabble in the King’s English of capitalism. If we are looking for ways of escape, we will have to get out of the money form. Capitalism has a lot of trouble finding profit or finding ways of recuperating what we do if we can’t be reified, caught and measured in that old system of quantification. And if there’s some value about the non-market-driven concept of art, it is that there are artful ways of making that escape happen. Similarly, I suppose, with environmental questions; and this is where the concept of community somehow meets the surface of the earth. I am much taken by the idea that communities can be established in ways that may be more environmentally sound, though I think we aging hippies have a tendency to think that means “going up the country,” and I’m not sure that’s true. Many of the environmental communities that we need will probably be more ecologically sound if we are aggregated in larger numbers, cities. But this kind of community building — “commonsing” — is a necessary strategy.
Amanda McDonald Crowley: I was on a panel recently talking about environmental sustainability issues and there was someone on the panel with me who was very clear in his call to the audience that his audience didn’t need to know anything about the environment or issues of sustainability. There had to be innovative thinkers because this is where the new money is. So in environmentalism and money at this moment there is somewhere where they are actually colliding and it’s a space I think where we need to act. And I think it is a space where art and cultural practice connect because… whenever I arrive back here from Europe or Australia, it’s astounding that you are in a city or in a country where there are massive vehicles with the word “hybrid” written on them, huge vehicles, there are European cars that are four times the size of how it is in Europe made by the same producers, and I can sit on the panel with somebody who with a straight face can say “you need to know nothing about the environment, this is where the new money will be” to his audience and think that this is positive thing. I think it’s a dilemma that we are facing.
Ted Byfield: Rene, when you were talking earlier about David Harvey’s article, I wanted to ask if his argument put these things—labor, resource, and money problems—in a sequence? Or does he just identify them as some sort of theological triad?
Rene Gabri: No, it’s neither theological nor chronological actually he says that often one problem like a monetary problem that they get displaced so it’s not that one happens and then the other, there is always the question of, that some problems happen somewhere… and they find a solution, that capitalism is very resourceful in finding a solution, it’s a very compelling argument, but I’m not the one to make it tonight. I just was trying to point a finger on it, but I can hold some ground and defending it, if there is some question about it.
Ted Byfield: “Back-of-the-envelope” structuralism works for me, based on what you’ve said; but when Jim was talking, I started to wonder: OK, is there a historical sequence to these things, and does it point toward a strategy? You asked, “Can we come up with this mythology of the next period?” Right now, based on the state of the discussion, as much as I’ve enjoyed listening, I’m not very optimistic..
Claire Pentecost: You brought up those three categories by Harvey, natural resources, money, and labor and these are precisely the three categories that Karl Polanyi calls “fictitious commodities” in The Great Transformation. At least one implication is that, when you make these things into commodities you are going to have problems that cannot be solved until you find a different way to treat them. And it occurs to me just listening to what Amanda said that when you separate them too, as things to address that you also run into problems like if you separate the problem of speculative, capital making money off of money, and then labor from the problem of the natural resources that you are going to get something specious, something we called “green washing,” now there is “art washing” which is teamed up with green washing and we have to be even more careful.
Rene Gabri: I did not only want to emphasize those three. I just wanted to introduce the idea that maybe we should consider to add today a fourth category which is more ethereal and less material in terms of its visibility, but is this whole affective and psychic space. Bifo gave another talk on Tuesday in which he used the terms “sensibility” and “sensitivity,” saying that those two words link to our possibility or ability to actually understand things outside of language. Those two words point to this possibility or capacity we have to understand, and that increasingly if we are just tied to zeros and ones and language then we lose this capacity. And part of these kinds of limits or exhaustion is based on also losing this capacity of sensibility and sensitivity.