Critical Strategies in Art and Media Discussion - part 06
Steve Kurtz: As long we are shifting around on problems, if we come back to the community question, which I find attractive, I do understand its magnetism. But I also know — from reading Autonomedia books — that they generally don’t work out very well. They either break up horribly, or worse, they are killed, as in the case of MOVE. In the US, making real alternative communities which are trying to stand outside of society goes back to the early East Coast utopian communities — but they starve, they die of disease, they get killed by the Native Americans, the guards from the Puritan towns nearby come arrest them. I think that history is very steady, and the contemporary example would probably be something like MOVE. They definitely had an alternative arrangement in Philadelphia, and the authorities came for them in the worst possible way, the massacre way, just like the massacres back in the 17th century. My point is how and where we actually make these arrangements — and especially when you are talking about them in urban environments — are we not making a suicidal gesture?
Peter Lamborn Wilson: The first thing that occurs to me would be to mention the Anabaptists. In Europe the Anabaptists took a revolutionary stance and they got wiped out in Münster and elsewhere and the remnants then adopted a pacifistic view such as characterizes the Amish, the Mennonites and the Quakers now, a complete non-resistant, pacifist and escapist position. They ran away to the New World and they didn’t get wiped out, they are still with us. The police tried to close them down in the 20th century over issues like military service and public education and they failed because of the peculiar, American legal respect for what we call freedom of religion. And they crept in under this freedom of religion and to this day don’t go to public school and don’t serve in the army. They also don’t use — if we are talking about the old order Anabaptists — they also don’t use modern technology. They refuse modern technology not because it’s satanic or because God told them to, but out of a process of reasoning about it that made them come to realize that if they adopted the automobile, the telephone and the television it would destroy their community. Now we have used the word “community” here in a number of different ways. For them it means something extremely — you should pardon the expression — organic. In other words: community is not just who you share ideas with although they do that and to the point where if you disagree with them they form a schism. But it’s primarily about physical proximity, it’s about the idea that if you get used to talking to your fellow humans on the telephone pretty soon you don’t associate a face or a smell or a feel or a heartthrob or a pheromone or anything with them except a disembodied voice and on the computer obviously it’s also true, it’s almost disembodied text although you can get voice too, but you certainly can’t get smells. And so for the Amish, I don’t want to defend them as perfect human beings, because to me they are Protestant maniacs. But they are not capitalist to the core. There are things that are more important than money to them. They are not outside of capitalism, but they are not capitalist to the core and their whole religion includes a critique of the rise of capitalism. I think, that’s the way I read it anyway. If they were capitalist to the core they would not be living in community. Some of them, like the Hutterites, are Bible communists who have no private property and hold everything in common. So I like to look at them not as examples of perfection, but as examples of groups who have dropped out, who have not been killed by the police or the Indians and who are still with us and still sticking to their traditional positions about things like technology in human society.
I like to use the phrase “secular Anabaptism.” I don’t understand why we have to be religious fanatics to do this. Can’t ordinary secular human beings achieve this kind of life together? Or do you have to be a maniacal Protestant Puritan to actually make it work? In other words: what has to be sacrificed here? And I continue to believe and to hope that we will see the emergence of something like what I would call “secular Anabaptism” or “neo-Luddism.” Communities living together on the basis of accepting only those technologies which support their community and their community values rather than ones which have to be constantly struggled against because they are inherently anti-communitarian, anti-human. So obviously we have heard a lot about the Sixties, and we know that most of communes in the Sixties failed. And they were mostly not fanatical religious communities. So it remains a question to me: Exactly how much belief and self-sacrifice has to go into constructing something like this? But as far as I can see it also has such great pleasures to offer, this kind of community organizing. The hedonic element here is very strong. You can live ecstatically, closer to nature, even in the city as we saw earlier with those beautiful window gardens. You could live ecstatically in your community without losing your individuality. This is strategy that I’m talking, not tactics. In the days when the Soviet Union was still there and the world was still divided into the spectacle as the Situationists called it, the two-parts-spectacle, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of capitalism versus communism, the whole idea of strategy seemed suspect. If you spoke about strategy you had a corpse in your mouth of some kind since you were seen as either aping some kind of Marxist dictatorship or capital’s capitulation. But now there is only one world, that being the world of global neoliberalism that is so problematic for this discussion today and has appeared in so many guises, mostly however negative. It seems to me that we can begin to talk about strategy over and above tactics. We need to feel once again that there is a possible strategy involved. I hesitate to use the word revolution because it seems so silly in terms of modern American history. If we were in South America now maybe I would shout the word out proudly. Here it’s awfully difficult to use. So let’s just say strategy. I think we should no longer be afraid of strategy in that sense because we are alone now. There is no spectacle now that would allow us to evade it by becoming any sort of third way. I remember a group of anarchists in New York called “Neither East Nor West,” that put it very succinctly. If you remember in the Sixties and Seventies various third ways were all the rage. Third-world neutralism, third world socialism, neither East nor West, neither this nor that, positions of political rebelliousness. Now there is no possibility of a third way. Not in that same sense anyway; the dialectic got ruined. So really what remains: it’s up to us to start the dialectic moving again. I mean that sounds really insane, I know. But if history really did come to some kind of bloody end like that bloody Fukuyama guy said, then what? Are we just going to passively sit around and wait for some accident to start it up again or will we participate finally in making history? And if we are going to make history, if we are going to think about that consciously again then we must think in terms of strategy and not just tactics.
Marco Deseriis: Yes, I would like to go back to the overidentification question. To see whether there is something that is still worth saving from the tactics that have been developed from the punk movement onwards. And I think that Brian Holmes in that clip we showed before is reading only a part of the over-identification question. When Žižek wrote about over-identification he referred mostly to Laibach and to a specific over-identification strategy that was successfully performed within the Eastern Bloc. Laibach and NSK were able to “arrest the efficiency” of ideological interpellation in Yugoslavia, by foregrounding the hidden violent kernel, the “obscene underside,” as Žižek would put it, of a system that was fundamentally repressive. Transferring this analytic model to Western groups such as The Yes Men may be fashionable, but it is not entirely accurate. As a matter of fact, Western capitalism is a system oriented towards the incentivation of desire. It constantly pushes us to exceed ourselves, to consume, to buy, to participate in every possible way. This, I think, is related to what Bifo said in this recent seminar at 16 Beaver on the question of exhaustion. Bifo mentioned Baudrillard a few times, saying that his philosophy has been misunderstood in many ways. In particular, if I am not wrong, Bifo said that Baudrillard understood the force of objects as the ability of dead capital to subsume the subject and living labor. Now Baudrillard’s resistance strategy was a catastrophic strategy. In his Symbolic Exchange and Death Baudrillard argues that rather than relying on an outdated antagonistic and dialectical model (alternative vs. mainstream, the working class vs. the capitalist class, etc.) things have be pushed to the limit until they collapse. This catastrophic strategy was recuperated by the industrial, post-punk movement, namely Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Laibach and so forth. When you come to the Yes Men or to other overidentification tactics that we have seen burgeoning over the last decade in Western countries you see a more cheerful kind of performance. If those interventions are entertaining and not gloomy, as Laibach’s, it is because they are over-identifying with the capitalist surplus of jouissance I was referring to. So my question is: Can we retain something of the catastrophic strategy advocated by Baudrillard and set in motion by Laibach? Because when you just talk about exhaustion of environmental and human resources, withdrawal and refusal of labor, you take a negative stance, which was perhaps popular in the late 1970s, but does not seem to be tuned to the spirit of our times. I don’t see at all at the moment the return of, say, a punk aesthetic, an aesthetic of self-mutilation, a strategy of subtraction and radical refusal. Rather, the real issue for me is how to talk to the youth that is hooked up to the digital machines. I think that the most sensible approach is to use those tools and extensions to produce a new kind of myth that we can use to disconnect from the mega-machine. You need to approach the youth with something that speaks to their imagination and is able to show a meaningful way out. Obviously if you do not have a community in which you are rooted, you are just acting on a symbolic and exemplary level. You are just positing an example out there, perhaps through a movie, an action, a cultural intervention, which does not necessarily affect and transform the practices of everyday life. So in the end we need both. We need both to build life-changing communities, but also non-escapist tactics that cross over and confront reality and the new lifestyles for what they are.
Claire Pentecost: I will respond to that because I’m the one who used The Yes Men as an example; I know Žižek’s article is about Laibach, but what I understood was that what was repressed in Yugoslavia at the time was fascism and a fascination with fascism and that was the open secret or the unnamed desire that Laibach performed. My point was that The Yes Men are doing that for their time and place — the comparable thing that is repressed or that thing which is not actually spoken, but is the truth of the way things are, the way things operate. In this case the bloodless cruelty of capitalism and in other of their works, the desire for something different. Those are the things they have been outing.
Amanda McDonald Crowley: I just want to make a really super quick comment and almost a response. And in fact maybe it’s also a response to the room we are sitting in. I think that one of the strategies is the social. And this is not a social room, this is not fun. Sitting on the stage here, having a conversation with people in the dark — and I think that one of the strategies needs to be about humor and fun and… it’s about enjoying life. How we intervene in the debate needs to be about fun. Might sound banal, but you told us, Ted, that we are allowed to talk about the banal.
Audience 5: There is something I have been thinking about since the beginning of the forum, that in the appropriation of the strategies that we are talking about, where the people who we are all concerned with know what’s going on and what we need to do. But the people who really move, the opposition, are people who are not informed or people who are not enlightened or don’t understand enough about their own situation to know how to change it. And it goes on with this whether it’s institutions like fashion or just this kind of big media that have got their tactics down. How to get these people? I think that part of the big popular support for the countercultural movements in the Sixties is free love and, putting a big “sex” label on the idea of what was going on.
Ted Byfield: To briefly acknowledge what Marco said: thank you. That was really sharp — and balanced. Having said that, one word that’s being bandied around quite a bit today is “technology.” It’s not a bizarre external category, and we shouldn’t think or talk about it as such. There’s no question that consumer shit is pervasive, but you can refuse it; and, as you do so, you begin see more deeply how each one of those compromised objects shapes and binds particular and disparate aspects of our lives. Peter, you’re living evidence of the fact that one can refuse them and spend one’s time in other ways But I’d like to suggest something very simple as a basis for a strategy — that we stop using words in these ways, starting with “technology.” Its repetitive use certainly isn’t helping us to think clearly. The idea of a “technique” — spell it however you like, in French manner with one set of associations, or in the German manner — offers a much more engaged understanding of the relationships between our material reality and our imagined realms, one that lends itself to analyses like Marco’s. I never miss an opportunity to quote Kierkegaard, and this is one. The term “community” has taken on very schizophrenic patterns of use, and I’m often left with no clear sense of what someone means by it — so I’m left with something Kierkegaard said in his Concept of Irony: “All of this talk of sociability and community is partly inherited hypocrisy and partly studied perfidy.” This doesn’t suggest that they’re empty or illusory, but it doesn’t suggest that we need to be very, very skeptical about the use of these terms. Most people in this room are probably painfully aware of the extent to which the word “community” has been commodified and used in trivial contexts like web 2.0, but we can’t drop the term simply because it’s undergoing the first phase of appropriation by capital — the trend. We need the term, we need the idea, we need the phenomenon. But we also need to be very careful of the way in which the idea is being reconstituted, because an important “target audience” of this bowdlerized definition is younger people, who may not be aware of prior social qualities, people who didn’t have the opportunity to, for example, go to Living Theater performances and see, feel, experience those sorts of intensities. (Not that I did, mind you.) But nor can older people reserve the right to prescribe pure meanings.
Claire Pentecost: Ted, yes, we know that the concept of community has been commercialized and it has been critiqued out the wazoo, but something persists in terms of what people are trying to talk about when they say “community.” I agree with you that we might need to get more specific about what we are talking about, but we have been, people have been trying to do that and I think to just dismiss it and say, we don’t know what we are talking about, well, I don’t accept that. On some level we do know
what we are talking about.
Marco Deseriis: I would like to add something on this topic. There is an important distinction between “good desire” and “bad desire.” I think there is a tendency in this country, and within the Left in general, to identify good desire with the community and bad desire with the market and the desire for objects. But communities can also be quite oppressive and fascistic. There are people who constantly escape from communities whose customs are objectively repressive. And this is not only true of traditional communities or the byproduct of a conservative culture. For instance, when I was involved with social centers in Italy I experienced incredible moments of extreme affection for anyone who was part of my social center and also moments in which the group completely exploded, because we could not stand each other. We got too close, and too many levels got mixed up. I guess we were still looking for a set of shared rules, even though in our early twenties many of us refused the very idea that a community may need rules. Some communities and collectives are able to find these rules and endure, some other find rules that eventually become oppressive, and some others do not find these rules and disband. But you can’t say that by definition “community is good,” while “the market is bad.” It’s a very simplistic dichotomy we should really try to leave behind. As Benjamin taught us, in the marketplace there can be very powerful desires that are captured by the capitalist machine and congealed into commodities. Which does not mean that they can’t be liberated, set in motion again.
Jim Fleming: Capital came to be corporatist capital because of the “share”; it became quite diffused as we nearly all became players in it. If we have survived the demise of the working class, it’s because we’ve all became micro-capitalists. In the mind’s eye of Neoliberalism, the individual worker is no longer simply a “free” seller of alienated labor power, but the board chairperson, manager, foreman and janitor of “Me, Inc.” If you look at statistics about the American middle class and its relationship to money, in the short period of the Nineties the average investment of the typical American household in the classic instruments of American capitalism more or less doubled. Pension Socialism, retirement plans, small investments in “the market,” we were nearly all sucked and suckered into it. (This “buying in” proved crucial for the recent “coup” of financial crisis, of course, just like any other Ponzi-like manipulation of the money form.) So if global Neoliberalism appears not to have any overt enemy, it’s because we all became part of it in some fairly fundamental way, in ways we probably hadn’t been previously.
Audience 6: I also want to just comment that I also have problems with the word “new” which is very often used defining what should be done. We often say we should find a “new approach” or “alternative approach,” but what we mean that what we have done so far is not working any more. And at the same time technologies and capitalism are not new, so all the terms that we are using are quite old. When we analyze history we see that crises are repeating, but in the end we cannot find a solution because we should find something new. So I would suggest not using the word “new” as a way of looking for solutions.
Konrad Becker: Okay, one more word kicked out after “community” and “technology.” This leads me to another set of terms we discussed earlier: Amanda mentioned that whatever we are planning, a revolution or not, it had better be fun. And Claire said earlier that she did not like “surprise” and “intensity” — now I would like to ask her if she is actually really for the “predictable and boring”?
Claire Pentecost: When I started out with my dream of the Four Bad Bargains of the Apocalypse and the one I called Sloanism, I was just making an association with the fact that in our world our expectations of the new and the production of novelty bears a resemblance to planned obsolescence. The idea that we have to run through things and this eternal emphasis on “the new,” sometimes it’s a misrecognition. I want to question what exactly counts as “surprising” and “new” and” intense.” For me, what I find surprising and intense are, for example, the efforts that people are making in Detroit, to produce a new social space for themselves, to create a new platform for living. Maybe this will not even be recognized on the same level as an art intervention which makes a splash and then everybody complains that it was recuperated. That is why I was just questioning those terms — but of course I love surprise and intensity.