A correspondent, whose pop musical references never fail, submits the following video as a visual aid for the post below. His caption: where plaque tournante meets the scratch. I couldn’t have said it better myself
Continuing to worry various genealogies of art and writing after WWII. . .
Perhaps a good example of the backstory to Anderson’s backstory of postmodernism would be the sculpture, or archi-sculpture, of Felix Schramm, who currently has a show up at the San Francisco MoMA. It’s impossible to look at Schramm’s installation and not think of the work of Gordon Matta-Clark and, later, Rachel Whiteread, artists for whom explorations of spatiality were always hitched to an “extra-formal content,” to a polemical engagement with the forces of urban renewal (that is, displacement of the poor) and gentrification (the reproduction of the rich) which are the complement to market-liberalization and the hyper-liquidity of capital in the 70s, 80s and 90s, leaving in its wake extra-urban containers for the poor and a bumper-crop of condos and kitsch emporia for nostalgic hipsters (a.k.a. The East Village/Williamsburg/ Silverlake/The Mission District).
And yet, despite the formal homologies, there is no institutional critique in Schramm, no tension between his wrecked planes and the mesh of museographic prose to which they accommodate themselves perfectly. His is a false negativity. Negativity is applied like a lacquer to the surface of an essentially constructive drive. That is, what appears to be the work of breaking and cutting, what appears as, say, an embryonic architectural concept foundering upon the sterile space of the museum (having, perhaps crashed through its roof and into the galleries which eventually healed around it)—all of this is the simulacrum of disaster: the walls of the gallery, and the painted, jointed planes of drywall and plywood are assembled in one continuous, constructive process. It is a perfect homologue for speculative capital’s “real subsumption” of the essentially negative flows of an oppositional, militant art. It is beautiful: the essentially aestheticized picture of disaster capitalism where the quotient of pleasure to be had represents the profits extractable fro tragedy and atrocity. This is, of course, the capital that so any want or need to think of as having let 9-11 happen, the capital that did let Katrina happen, and that is letting the deathtolls mount in Iraq and Afghanistan because, spectacular YouTube democracy notwithstanding, it plays right into its hands. In this, perhaps, the falseness of Schramm’s work is truthful. Whither negativity?
And so, Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory, on modernism’s last gambit:
At the center of contemporary antinomies is that art must be and wants to be utopia, and the more utopia is blocked by the real functional order, the more this is true; yet at the same time art may not be utopia in order not to betray it by providing semblance and consolation. If the utopia of art were fulfilled, it would be art’s temporal end. Hegel was the first to realize that the end of art is implicit in its concept. That his prophecy was not fulfilled is based, paradoxically, on his historical optimism. He betrayed utopia by construing the existing as if it were the utopia of the absolute idea. Hegel’s theory that the world spirit has sublated art as a form is contradicted by another theory of art to be found in his work, which subordinates art to an antagonistic existence that prevails against all affirmative philosophy. (32, trans. Hullot-Kentor)
This is the story that Jameson clarifies in “’End of Art’ or ‘End of History’?” Instead of the reign of a stable political order, in which the world spirit found its home philosophy, what we got was a philosophically-charged modernism in opposition to the horrors of modernization. But of course, this art was premised on the existence of an outside to modernity, whether the leading edge of a revolutionary future, or the residues of a pre-capitalist past of aristocrats and rural peasantry. None of that exists anymore, except in a simulated, sublated form, if you believe Jameson, but it did continue to linger on through WWII. What is left then, for late modernism, modernism that has missed its chance, is this dictum of Adorno, perhaps the central premise of all of Jameson’s work on SF:
Art is no more able than theory to concretize utopia, not even negatively. A cryptogram of the new is the image of collapse; only by virtue of the absolute negativity of collapse does art enunciate the unspeakable: utopia. In the image of collapse all the stigmata of the repulsive and loathsome in modern art gather. Through the irreconcilable renunciation of the semblance of reconciliation, art holds fast to the promise of reconciliation in the midst of the unreconciled: This is the true consciousness of an age in which the real possibility of utopia— that given the level of productive forces the earth could here and now be paradise—converges with the possibility of total catastrophe. (32-33)
I hope that I never fail to feel the frisson of truth in reading that last sentence, truer now than ever. But where, where do we find such a dialectical image today? In Gordon Matta-Clark, there is always a utopian aftertaste, the back-propagation of the beautiful in the rearing up of the sublime, a negative aperçu. The conical cuts of Office Baroque, for instance, offer a kind of topological solution to the Gordian knot of a totally administered life in the bland sodium lighting of the spectacle. With Matta-Clark, you are always looking through to something, however inadequate one’s own proprioception is providing a set of useful bearings. Those shafts of light in the earlier cuts were able to manage a diagonal solution to the false antinomy of irony/sincerity.
If, to quote DeKooning, in those works “content is a glimpse,” at least there is content. Not so in Schramm. Nor in the similarly emptied, formalized work of Franz Ackermann. The cutting of the Gordian knot is, in fact, another way of binding it.
Instead, opposition has turned back on itself, been abstracted, walled off, become form. Perhaps, to look at this work generously, this walling off functions in order to preserve it cryogenically for resuscitation in the advent of political movement. Ungenerously, this is nothing less than its murder. In the most powerful work in the Schramm show, a kind of sculptural chimera, half piano, half interior design, lies on the floor, preserving in its hollow a record player on which, punctured an inch from its true center, a record plays in varying ellipses, cutting across the grooves of the music. For me, it is difficult in looking at this not to think of Guy Debord’s The Naked City, where the slicing of a map of Paris allows for its reassembly via variously suggestive arrows. I think of this because of resonant puns in this work. For Debord, The Naked City was “an illustration of the hypothesis of psychogeographic turntables.” These plaques tournantes describe “the spontaneous turns of direction taken by a subject moving through these surroundings in disregard of the useful connections that ordinarily govern his conduct.” In his détournement of the term for a railway turntable, it’s difficult not to hear, once it’s translated into the English, the rallying cry of early hiphop and its basic instrument, the turntable which (once it’s doubled) makes musical consumption coterminous with musical production.
But in Schramm, all of this is present only as revenance and echo (and here it’s difficult not to think of K-Punk’s stimulating thinking about hauntology): a fragment of analog equipment from another age that can sing only of its depoliticized, desocialized impotence, vinyl fetishes be damned.
In his remarkable history of postmodernism, The Origins of Postmodernity, Perry Anderson describes “the idea of the postmodern” at the time of Jameson’s arrival (Anderson’s book is also a study of Jameson) to the debate as “an appanage of the right,” a cultural and philosophical phenomenon in which crypto-reactionary and crypto-liberal ideologies masqueraded as progressive. I wonder: to what extent is this really true? Certainly this is true of most of the visible instances of self-conscious, self-described theorizing about postmodernism in the 70s (except in writing, where the situation is different), but these developments had enfolded earlier and contemporary manifestations which were far from an embrace of a victorious bourgeois society: the Beats, Fluxus, much of the work being done at Black Mountain, elements of minimalism, conceputal art, post-minimalism (or pre-postmininalism, as the case may be), many of the strains of avant-garde American writing. Is it right to call something “an appanage of the right” because it allows for an easy capture by the right? I’m not sure. Indeed, I think there is a story to tell about postmodernism avant la lettre as a critique of a modernist cultural project and associated theoretical positions from the left.
Part of my worry here is that the book may stack the cards so that Jameson’s advent upon a vitiated and sophistic discourse is all the more heroic. But, as T.J. Clark points out in his response to Anderson in the New Left Review, this narrative depends upon a contradictory treatment of Guy Debord’s work and of the SI in general. While Anderson uses the term “spectacle”, and refers to the SI as a modernist avant-garde holdover (a claim that is particularly difficult to swallow, given their critique of surrealism, etc.), i.e. the last avant-garde, he doesn’t consider the extent to which their writing, and that of Lefebvre, while not using the term postmodernism, had arrived at a good number of Jameson’s conclusions by 1970, and worked out similar, if less, um, diplomatic, critiques of the merger of structuralism and phenomenology that was beginning to characterize French thought. Or rather he doesn’t consider it until p. 117 when he writes that “Situationism, which foresaw so many aspects of the postmodern, has had no sequels.” Strangely, the only thing equal to the number of fools who fetishize the SI is the number of otherwise intelligent people who ignore them. Why this is I’ll never know. But I’m not interested here in policing some idea of intellectual property. Rather, this omission problematizes his account of the postmodern as basically conservative, and leads one to ask whether one could not give an account of a continuous left-oriented postmodernism, even if it is one that, by 1978, had made some strange bedfellows.
In places, Anderson’s argument rests upon the notion that actions against modernism and its tenets were basically reactionary, since modernism was the only cultural form of opposition to bourgeois culture (with the exception of whatever strains of viable socialist realism still existed). No doubt, this was true from 1910-1930, but by the 1950s and 1960s in the US, modernist dicta and positions had been mostly assumed by bourgeois culture, as the pages of the Partisan Review or Poetry Magazine from that period make clear. It is one thing to say that Allen Ginsberg poems are incoherent in their politics. It is another thing completely to suggest that a poem like “America” or “A Supermarket in California” is complacent with regard to American capitalism. In the residual modernism in the U.S. of the 50s, a grand revisionism was underway, one that is just now dying a slow and particularly putrescent death, in which Robert Frost and Yeats and the late Eliot and late W.H. Auden were put front and center, and the fringe elements of modernism—Zukofksy, Stein–trivialized as so many failed, quaint or ugly experiments. In art, of course, under the reconstructed socialism of Clement Greenberg, the repression of surrealism, dada, constructivism et al in his Hegelian account of the advent of flatness in painting is what makes Duchamp’s return to the scene from critical exile in the sixties one of the defining emblems of the postmodern turn.
Despite dismissing early on in the book Lyotard’s claim that postmodernism was an emergent tendency within modernism all along, one that became dominant in the 1970s, it seems that he basically takes this position toward the end of the book, when he introduces the supremely useful distinction between ultra-modernism and citra-modernism. Ultra-modernism is the form that, in its attempt to remain faithful to modernist oppositionality, must reinvent it, while citra-modernism is the decorative, sentimental form that accommodates the new age of bourgeois values and total market penetration (more later, perhaps, on the problematic association of the citra- with conservatism). But he seems to indicate that the latter precedes the former. That is, he doesn’t acknowledge the extent to which the citra- was already a tendency within modernism of the interwar period. And the ultra-, seeming to some quarters, to react against modernism, was actually, to others a form of staying faithful to it. At the same time, he doesn’t want to consider, perhaps because of old, smoldering debates about the viability of certain forms of socialism after the war, that many of the theoretical appendices of postmodernism were, regardless of the use to which they were put, originally critiques from within the left, and from the left, about the philosophical and political foundations of socialism at that time. Lyotard’s role in the left communist Socialisme ou barbarie is exemplary here, as is Baudrillard’s relationship to Lefebvre. It goes without saying that the SI is the key example here.
So far, this may sound as if by and large I disagree with Anderson’s account. But I don’t. Indeed, I agree absolutely with his sense that, in postmodernism, “culture has necessarily expanded to the point where it has become virtually coextensive with the economy itself” or, on a related note, that “what postmodernity seemed to spell was something the great theorists of modernization had ruled out: an unthinkable de-differentiation of cultural spheres” (55, 62). I agree, too, about the disappearance of class as a horizon of collectivity in the shift to the tertiary and quaternary sectors of production. And I agree, too, about the vanishing of the political as a horizon. One of his most interesting claims about Jameson (and perhaps his only critique of him) is that separate attention to the sphere of the political is entirely absent there, a phenomenon interesting to consider given the attention to the political that seems to characterize the last ten years of Anglo-American and continental philosophy. Lastly, I agree, ultimately, about the diminishing of cultural alternatives to capitalism as a movement that begins long before ’89. And I agree about postmodernism as the institutionalization and, hence, nullification of artistic critique.
One of the most interesting claims here is that Jameson—rather than the cultural figures he discusses—essentially does the work of providing a coherent aesthetic and political program, that the task of manifesto-making in the more individualistic post-war period had passed from artist to critic. This goes along with his claims about the de-differentiation of spheres, and it connects with the notion that postmodernism represents the (false, because far from utopian) Hegelian endpoint of art’s devolution, and that afterwards all that is left is theory—hence the turn to theoretical production by conceptual artists and the increasing discursivity of American poetry (language poetry, for instance). And this is the eventuality which the SI tried to turn toward a genuinely emancipatory form—“not poetry in the service of revolution but revolution in the service of poetry.” But, if art was becoming theory, and theory could begin to do the work originally allotted to artists, then perhaps Anderson is missing the extent to which the manifestos he finds missing are in the work? A look, for instance, at Ashbery’s poems from the 70s or Amiri Baraka’s from 60s or the output of somebody like Eva Hesse or Robert Smithson, indicates that this is a probable claim.
What, rather, I would like is a corollary account (which may exist already) that attends not only to non-cynical, oppositional forms of early postmodernism (postmodernism avant la lettre) and that details the process whereby these forms get hijacked or co-opted, that analyses the extent to which this failure is immanent to the forms themselves or a function of a system in which modernism, too, would fail and was failing to produce any kind of coherent opposition.
This is the essence, I think, of T.J. Clark’s response to Anderson, that postmodernism was really ultra-modernism once its oppositionality had been neutered, its techniques routinized. Speaking of Adorno’s account of modernism, he writes:
And this great, ultra-Enlightenment imagining of disabusal, of the stars coming down to earth, is of course what gives Jameson’s vision its force. But supposing (as I think Adorno supposed) that modernism was already that dissolution and disabusal—but exactly a dissolution held in dialectical tension with the idea or urge to totality, which idea or impulsion alone gave the notion of dissolution (or emptying, or ascesis, or fragment, or mere manufacture, or reduction, or deadpan, or non-identity) sense.
From this picture of modernism there would follow, I feel, a different appraisal of the last thirty years. I guess it would turn on the question of whether, or to what extent, the figures of dissolution and disabusal in art practice—the familiar figures I have just listed—became themselves a form of transcendence; and, as always within modernism, a transcendence doomed to collapse. Or rather, not so much ‘doomed to collapse’ as simply to be confronted again with the pathos lying at the heart of disabusal—disabusal (true secularization) as one more aesthetic mirage among others, always looming ahead of modernism in the commodity desert, as a form of lucidity it never quite reaches. Warhol, inevitably, is for me increasingly the figure of this. How handmade and petty-bourgeois his bright world of consumer durables now looks! How haunted still by a dream of freedom! So that his Campbell’s Soup Can appears, thirty years on, transparently an amalgam—an unresolved, but naively serious dialectical mapping—of De Stijl-type abstraction onto a founding, consoling, redemptive country-store solidity. . . . Does Warhol come to seem more and more a modernist because it turns out that what he inaugurated was another of modernism’s cycles? Or because what happened next was truly an ending, an exit, from which we inevitably look back on the pioneers and see them as touching primitives, still half in love with the art they are putting to death? I suspect the former. It could be the latter. Neither conclusion is comforting. Thirty years is not enough time to tell.
Clark’s grim reading of the postmodern is that it is negativity without any hope that such negativity has anything to which it might lead, no urge to totality, and no revolutionary hopes. It can only hope that it is a provocation for something different. Or it can hold its ground and hope that the world changes enough to let it do its work.
Certainly this is right for much of which falls under the heading. The question remains, though, whether the postmodern isn’t also the thing provoked, whether there isn’t also a constructive, world-building aspect that doesn’t fall under the heading of decomposition.
I’ve been reading the second volume of Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, aspects of which are in explicit dialogue with various SI writings and, in particular, Debord. As with the Italian material in my last post, it’s difficult to know whose ideas came first or whether or there isn’t a common intertext that does not immediately suggest itself from this vantage point.
Despite Lefebvre’s critique of structuralism (which, along with critiques of phenomenology, existentialism, he shares with Debord), there’s no doubt that the contemporaneous flourishing of formalism in the social sciences affected him as he set out his own Grundrisse (the first chapter of Vol. II is called “Clearing the Ground”); in this he might be seen as a kind of pre-post-structuralist, capable of saying, in 1961: “If the logical application of the concept of structure disguises the “destructurings” and “restructurings” which are in operation—the changes and actions of the negative—then that too must be submitted” (28). Much more than Debord, Lefebvre sets himself the task of giving a dynamic, and yet spatial, account of the psychic and social asymmetries of capitalism. His is a map that moves.
Everyday life demands a descriptive language that avoids reifying what it holds in its gaze, and which defines the everyday as neither static in time (unchanging) or bounded in space, autonomous. Under the pressure of, on the one hand, the dialectic, and on the other, structuralism—Lefebvre comes up with a rather novel definition of social totality and the everyday:
It is everyday life which measures and embodies the change which takes place ‘somewhere else,’ in the ‘higher realism’. The human world is not defined simply by the historical, by culture, by totality or society as a whole, or by ideological and political superstructures. It is defined by this intermediate and mediating level: everyday life. In it, the most concrete of dialectical movements can be observed: need and desire, pleasure and absence of pleasure, satisfaction and privation (or frustration), fulfillments and empty space, work and non-work. (45)
Against the pieties of a communist criticism which assumes immediate apprehension of totality, Lefebvre anticipates some of arguments of deconstruction and yet still manages, as Jameson will later, to salvage a provisional, friable concept of the total. His nearly monadic concept of “levels” in totality, levels which thread through and are mediated by an interpenetrating totality, solves some of the problems of assimilating dynamic, dialectical theory to the formal concerns of the social sciences. And, importantly, for later theories of artistic and political praxis, it defines the “everyday” as a uniquely undervalued site for resistance, even if the concept always threatens to fall into a kind of hypostatic sterility. The everyday, in his definition, is both a residual level of capitalism—a zone where precapitalist modes of production and relation persevere—and the product of the most advanced forms of manufactured needs, reification and ideology. The everyday is “doubly determined . . . at one and the same time as unformed, and as what forms contain.” As a kind of monadic semi-autonomy, threaded through by the totality of forms, the residual or unformed part of the everyday can be used as a space for resistance, for critique, of the social forms that dominate it. It is an autonomy—an unformed space—that touches on all places in which the individual is not autonomous, is formed. And it is thus a unique space for resistance. Indeed, it might be plausible to claim that Lefebvre defines the everyday in terms strikingly similar to Lukács description of proletarian praxis. Even if Lefebvre is careful to distinguish the everyday from social praxis in general, his privileged area of inquiry is the place where theoretical consciousness and a practical contact with substance—inaccesible for bourgeois consciuosness— come together. In a moment, perhaps, of despair with macropolitical solutions which ignore individuals’ experience, Lefebvre’s is one of the clearest articulations of the micropolitcal as a space of contestation that is not autonomous from the social totality, but in contact with it. Critique of everyday life seeks to determine where, as a level, it intersects larger, extra-ordinary social forms.
Certainly this is what the anti-art of the SI—the dérive, the construction of situations, the assimilation of surrealist techniques to purposes of agitprop, or artistic practice to social research—imagined as a course of action. Where, for instance, do the demands of the capitalist city impinge upon your life as you walk to work, and how can one behave counter to these impingements? But there is a fine dialectical line here, where the attempt to fold the everyday back into the totality can be neatly reversed in a counter-revolutionary formulation, not the becoming-lived of the aesthetic—the very definition of a revolutionary consciousness— but the becoming-aesthetic of the lived. This is, indeed, as Lefebvre notes, precisely what the technological invasion of the everyday—television, radio, mass-produced “fashion”—promises: “In the last fifteen years everyday life has undergone extensive transformations, and this has prompted us to ask whether in fact our aim has not been achieved, in remarkable and unexpected ways, by social practice.”
I am particularly interested in the ways that this problem gets imagined by writers and artists in the late 60’s and throughout the 70s. Take, for instance, Vito Acconci’s work “Service Area,” which was his contribution to the seminal conceptual art exhibition, Information, at the MoMA (1970). Combining Lefebvrian concerns with a Wittgensteinian emphasis on the strangeness of the ordinary, Acconci had all of his mail forwarded to the MoMA and then placed in a transparent receptacle in the center of the gallery. Each day, Acconci would enter the museum, collect his mail and leave. Like his other works from this period, this piece is concerned with the collapse of the private (here, clearly, privation) into the codified space of the public. If mail is the instrument whereby the circulations of capital stitch the public and private together, then perhaps this is Acconci’s attempt to render unto the public what is already public, and thereby secure for himself a freedom outside of the institutional gaze. Or we might think of this as simply a cynical maneuver, a way of contributing to the museumification and administration of the everyday, its penetration by sociologically-enhanced commodity forces. My sense is that both readings are true, and that artists like Acconci—or, for instance, Joseph Beuys— are intersected by impulses running in both directions.
In the arena of writing and the everyday, books like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life or Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day (Mayer was editor, with Acconci, of the influential mimeo journal, 0-9) provide an excellent corollary example. Both of these works are from the bust years of the late 1970s, and bring the most hyperprecise, exhaustive descriptive powers to bear on the minutiae and excitements of quotidian life—here a sphere that both writers see coded as the domestic and feminine, definitions that they seek to upset by appropriating to this arena forms associated with the extra-domestic or masculine. Both poems are, quite consciously, epics of the everyday, ones that seek to upset heroic, masculinist notions of epic as adventures in the public sphere. Written in a single day (Winter Solstice, 1978) Mayer’s book may be the single strongest attempt to fold the experimental techniques of writing—free association, catalog, ekphrasis—back into the life from which it arises. Of course, since Mayer, who had two young children and a series of concomitant mundane household business to attend to, could not spend the entire day writing (which would, also, leave her without any content), she is forced to take notes during the day, and then, at night, after the children go to bed, set down everything that happened. As much as writing is a prosthetic enlargement of the senses, of the experience of life lived, it is also one that can never be temporally identical with that life. In this, it’s difficult to decide whether or not this is becoming-lived of the aesthetic or vice-versa. Maybe it’s best to think of this as a transitional stage in the approach to such a state, and one that threatens to become assumed, almost instantly, under the sign of literature.
What can we say about Giorgio Agamben’s ontological account of spectacle in Means without Ends? I’m referring particularly to his “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on Society of the Spectacle,” although traces of his engagement appear in other parts of this book, particularly in the essays “Notes on Gesture” and “Notes on Politics.” My suspicion is that, by defining spectacle, rightly, as “the commodity’s last metamorphosis, in which exchange value has completely eclipsed use value and can now achieve the status of absolute and irresponsible sovereignty over life in its entirety, after having falsified the means of production (75),” Agamben gives himself, wrongly, a pass to ignore production and value entirely, as if, in spectacle, capitalism had become solely the production of ontological and onto-communicative conditions without need for a recourse to economics, as if domination (“sovereignty over life”) had replaced exploitation as the chief face of capitalism’s brutality.
This is not my reading of Debord, nor is it what I see from when I can bear to look, although it is the path that Baudrillard beat before Agamben. [One of the things that I plan for this blog is a reading of key Marxist and post-Marxist texts that, contrary to the post-Althusserian drift of the day, keep the economic sphere central to any analysis of capitalism.] It’s worth noting here that Agamben himself stresses the importance of Debord’s extension of the commodity fetish against Althusser’s abandonment of it.
If in Capital Vol. 1, Marx defines exchange value as the impingement of the social totality–which assigns value to the commodity–upon any transaction of exchange, the dominance of spectacle represents the historical moment where the hijacking of this value-assigning totality by capital itself allows for the creation of value completely independent of social needs, of use. But this does not mean the disappearance of the mode of production as primary. Only that agents that had traditionally been considered superstructural–politics, culture, etc.–can directly create and reinforce those means of production, rather than merely re-produce them. Exploitation and domination fold into each other. This is what Debord refers to, wittily, as “the falling rate of use value” (thesis 47 in Soc. of the Spec.). Again, decline in use value does not mean the disappearance of use, but the disappearance of its primacy, where value is no longer decided completely by social needs but by a structure of cultural command. The value–and this is real value, connected to real labor–created by appearance, the work of seeming-to-be or seeming-to-have which certain people produce and certain other people consume, requires that traditional modes of production (outsourced, as we all know, to primary and secondary producers in the developing world: look at the label on whoever it is that’s wearing the pants here) generate the value which the consumers of “seeming” utilize. Spectacle marks the moment when exploitation itself becomes a social need rather than the manner by which these social needs are satisified.
Perhaps the above is not yet clear enough. I don’t feel that I’ve completely articulated the nuances yet, or even the broad strokes, only that, as this blog continues, I will continue to describe the economic sphere and the persistence of the commodity form against the prevalent ontological, discursive or, for my taste, overly structural accounts of capitalism.
All that said, I think there is much that is useful in Agamben’s account of spectacle. First of all, his Heideggerianism has a distinct advantage here in that it wards off a technicist reading of spectacle. [see, for instance, “The Question Concerning Technology”]. Many interpreters of spectacle fall victim to its peculiar twist on the commodity fetish—seeing as a stable image and as the production of images what is, in fact, a social relation; or alternately, seeing as the result of a social relation what is, in fact, the production of social relations. Spectacle is not the manufacture of illusions, but of illusory relations. Hence, Agamben’s turn to language and to communicativity or, as the case may be, non-communicativity, for an account of spectacle:
“It is evident, after all, that the spectacle is language, the very communicativity and linguistic being of humans. This means that an integrated Marxian analysis should take into consideration the fact that capitalism . . . not only aimed at the expropriation of productive activity, but also, and above all, at the alienation of language itself, of the linguistic and communicative nature of human beings, of that logos in which Heraclitus identifies the common. The extreme form of the expropriation of the Common is the spectacle, in other words, the politics in which we live. But this also means that what we encounter in the spectacle is our very linguistic nature inverted. For this reason (precisely because what is being expropriated is the possibility of a common good), the spectacle’s violence is so destructive; but for the same reason, the spectacle still contains something like a positive possibility–and it is our task to use this possibility against it.” (81-82)
Spectacle, then, is communicative, intersubjective activity that becomes aestheticized, abstracted from the social totality, and that often presents itself as an unmediated—that is, unchanging–totality. Agamben wants to read this as the career of general being toward a nihilistic endpoint in which spectacularized language drifts free from any referent, becoming an end in and of itself. A kind of Derridean or Baudrillardian apocalypse which, as some will know, offers the opportunity for a of détournement. Agamben’s political solution is to make the passive becoming-barren of life, under the ban, the exile from law, a kind of active choice. Not an included exclusion from law, but a real exclusion from law. It’s hard, though, to tell of what the difference between the two might consist.
This is the interpretation that, as should be clear, I think we must avoid. Here and in the later work around the theme of Homo Sacer, Agamben imagines a space of generalized language, a pseudo-public where capital “has realized parodistically the Marxian project of a classless society” by providing for a global petit-bourgeois the illusion of abundance and satisfactions. Opposed to this public, is the non-public of “whatever singularities” that have no access to self-representation.
What gets lost in this account is the work that the “global petit-bourgeois” actually does. For Agamben, the participants in the spectacle are, it seems to me, simply consumers, rather than producers in the tertiary or quaternary sector of the economy. The task of the spectacle is purely negative; it does nothing. In fact, though, I think it’s more useful to think of the labor of this “petit-bourgeois” who mediate between capital and labor as directly producing the social relations which allow for the extraction of value from those “whatever singularities.” In accounts like Agamben’s it would seem that the world consists entirely of, on the one hand, those who work in offices during the day and watch American Idol at night and, on the other hand, the informal economy of slum-dwellers which Mike Davis describes in Planet of the Slums. There is no way to give an account here of the expansion of the tertiary and quaternary sectors of the economy and the continuing presence of industrial production and the extraction of raw materials.
Agamben’s account is close to Hardt and Negri’s in Empire and, especially, to Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude. I suspect there is a missing intertext, or many of them, as the case may be, that is in dialogue both with Agamben’s notion of the spectacle as an appropriated Common and Virno’s notion of spectacle as a commodification of “general intellect” but I don’t know enough about the left thought in Italy. (Can someone tell me if I’m right and, if so, what the earliest example of this reading of “general intellect” is?). Virno’s account, unlike Agamben’s, doesn’t leave production behind, and in this, is probably one of the better latter-day readings of Debord. I hope to write substantial about the Virno book soon.
For now, though, I want to propose that Agamben’s account helps us to understand the spectacular nature of web 2.0. As sites for the communication and distribution of information, blogs and social software might seem to resemble the public sphere in its earliest manifestation in the 18th-century. Certainly, this is what was once hopefully imagined for the web, and what they hung under the banner of “information wants to be free” in a phrase that has as much of the terrible neoliberal dialectical of englightenment in it as it has genuine emancipatory valences.
I won’t deny a residual aspect to blogs that serve the above purposes, and confirm the values of discourse, debate and argumentation in accord with rational principles. This happens, no doubt, but what I see more frequently in web 2.0 is a situation where the circulation of information becomes more important than the content of the information itself. In line with Debord’s “falling rate of use value,” there is also a falling rate of content, something that no doubt has to do with the increasingly dematerialized media which this content is asked to traverse. On many blogs, and certainly in MySpace or Facebook, it’s the noun that matters, nouns that fill out the blanks left by the question marks trailing the pseudo-event. No surprise, either, that these nouns are stand-ins for some kind of commodity, or commodity analogue, that can be purchased with a few clicks (where attention, too, can be the entrée to a kind of purchase). Web 2.0 allows for the direct production of social relations, not just their reproduction. It allows for the direct production of value which commodities accrete by passing through the capillarial links and pages.
A better account of this kind of social value production will need to accurately describe the curious kinds of publics that web 2.0 produces. Paolo Virno, for instance, opposes “multitude” to “people,” where the multitude is the private face of the public people, that individual or singular aspect of life that is denied representation by the collective. It is private in the sense of privation. This seems to accurately describe the personalized and often intimate, affect-charged nature of blog discourse with its opportunities, however vitiated, for self-fashioning and self-expression. Blogs are a space for aspects of the self that have no public fora in the increasingly sterile, affect-drained corporate subsectors that masquerade as public space, and offer, in place of individual expression, a series of caricatures and grotesques. (A Grammar of the Multitude, 22-23).
Michael Warner’s essay “Publics and Counterpublics” is also useful here, particularly in the manner in which he distinguishes between the public (as in the people) and a public. The public is a political fiction that exists only as a form of address, and as a legislative subject. What we have instead is a public, and a series of such publics, circuits of self-creating, self-defining discourses that constitute the ever-varying totality of the public. (Public Culture 14:1). However, a public is always tautological; in order to circulate, it must first assume a set of addressees who will only later validate and confirm these presumptions. But the reader, when coming across such a discourse, does not see himself or herself as pre-included by the discourse, and so there is a gap between the presumed addressee and the real one. In order to close this gap and allow for the reader’s identification, a certain type of discourse must pretend that it is addressed to anyone, to strangers. A public must pretend that its audience is the public, while at the same time hinting at the nature of its special set of readers.
In opposition to this form of circulation, a counterpublic encourages the disjuncture between presumed and real addressee. It still must exist in relation to a general public; it is still open to this public on one side, but it is a public that it negates, rather than posits. And, as with Virno’s multitude, Warner’s counterpublics are affectively-charged and expressive.
What does this have to do with web 2.0 and the current post 9-11 form of spectacle? My tentative hypothesis is that the discourse networks of web 2.0 are a-publics that do not presume the public, do not presume the generality of the stranger, either by, on the one hand, attempting to address it or, on the other hand, defining themselves in opposition to it. I think the sheer volume of information that consitutes the historical moment, and the inadequacy of the major organs of information circulation (the capital m “Media”), makes the imagination of a singular public impossible. In addition, the mainstreaming of subcultural or oppositional groups, often based upon false or cosmetic differentiators, engenders intense cynicism as to the possibilities for an adequately-forceful oppositionality. You sell out the moment you state an oppositonal claim, not after.
This is to say: here, the public is a-public.
Curiously, here again we note the utopian or pseudo-emancipatory nature of what spectacle provides—a public sphere without any kind of overt hegemony, any kind of repressive or negating social power. A world without a reified entity known as culture, where the aesthetic and para-communicative aspects of sociality seem to have collapsed back into life in general. The death of the aesthetic and the beginning of. . .
The web is a kind of caricature of a post-capitalist world, or a caricature of Debord’s and the SI’s own visions of an emancipatory, non-dominating, non-exploitative society:” “. But, of course, this is to look at the content and not the form. As a structure, as a series of codes, wires practices, the web is about as reified, regulated, and encapuslated as possible.
If, as Debord writes, “The spectacle, whose function it is to bury history in culture, presses the pseudo-novelty of its modernist means into the service of a strategy that defines it in the profoundest sense,” then what we have here is the spectacle of the cultureless culture, in which history is as invisible as the languages beneath the graphical shell of http. Or history is the very activity that the content seem to obscure and supplant. A spectacle of negation, not a negation of the spectacle.
What is to be done? Well, for starters, continue the work of researching and diagramming the kinds of social non-communication which this communicativity masks. And, aside from the critical project, one might remember to affirm the emancipatory wish–however distorted, static or reified–that the internet figures. As with any utopia–aqd I’m borrowing from Fredric Jameson’s work here–it’s usefulness is in pointing out the limits of other ability to think anything other than the system that we have. The internet, then, is a distortion of a real post-capitalist society we cannot imagine how to imagine on the streets.
Meanwhile, though, knowledge is not power, really, is it? It’s entertainment. The library of Alexandria: an amusement park; the fire: part of the ride.