Friday, 28 September 2012

Lord, Make Me An Instrument...

The University's counterpoint to this year's rise in student fees so far involves a dramatic increase in what were already grotesquely numerous bureaucratic exercises. The student is now to be a "partner" in the delivery of his/her education, a reconceptualization that serves once again, to undermine the little that is left of lecturers' professionalism and authority, and conveniently to generate a whole swathe of new procedures and documents to make it real. We are not far now from an explicit acknowledgment of the situation that has been implicitly in place for some time: the student as "author" of his/her education.

But the total and utter meaninglessness of almost everything done by the University now is not at all the result of the University's having signed up to a disastrous goal - that of satisfying students. Nor is it the result of its continuing to fail to realize this goal despite the most cumbersome and humiliating of efforts to do so - the "student" is now constituted in part by a low-lying but persistent sense of dissatisfaction. No, the total and utter meaninglessness now of everything results from the fact that there is no goal, not even a wrongheaded one. The University thinks up new plans, demands greater accountability, looks for more transparency, sets new standards, and devises new opportunities...all as a kind of self-sustaining system which, while serving no end, is rather rapidly replacing all of the ends that the University used to serve. Research in any meaningful sense has all but disappeared, replaced by exhausting and exhaustive Research Exercise Frameworks and funding bids; teaching in any meaningful sense has disappeared into continual efforts to accord with constantly changing teaching standards and their measurement; and learning, well...you do the math.

The University, to this extent, has about it a kind of fascination, akin to what Tiqqun describes in respect of "The YoungGirl":
...fascinating in the same way as everything that expresses its being closed in upon itself, a mechanical self-sufficiency or an indifference to the observer; like an insect, an infant, a robot, or Foucault's pendulum.
Like some, if not all, of these instances of mechanical and indifferent self-sufficiency, however, fascination with the University is experienced best from a certain middle-distance. Up close, it just numbs the soul.

The orthodox philosophical move, over the past century or more, for those of the European tradition of course, has been to attempt to loosen what was perceived to be the very limiting and ideologically problematic hold over us, exercised by "instrumental reason": human intelligence, we have learnt and taught, is not simply a tool, which we must practice using skillfully so that it may bring about the ends to which it has been assigned; human intelligence is capable of deliberating upon the ends to which it ought to be assigned! We are not mere animals, we have learnt and taught, to be trained in the realization of certain goals; we are human beings capable of determining which goals we should attempt to realize! Of course, deliberation upon ends, determination of goals, is no science, we have gone on to learn and to teach...it requires time and thought, it requires dialogue and consideration, it will never result in any certainty and must always be prepared to revise its findings in the face of challenge and of change. But how much richer such thinking, how much more worthy of human beings, than the mere adding of two and two to arrive at a pre-assigned four! Instrumental reason, we have learnt and taught, has made machines out of men.

But times have changed. Now, in the midst of the University's furious activity, into which it would draw all in its jurisdiction, activity that was always all for nought, the idea that human intelligence might be raised up to serve some end, albeit formulaic and pre-given, seems like revolution! The idea that something might be done, or, which is as good, fail to be done, feels like the most radical thing of all. And all of that philosophical high-dudgeon over instrumentalism begins to leave a bad taste in the mouth...arguing as it does against the very thing that the University has gradually eradicated and for a kind of endless, circular process of inquiry that suddenly seems very familiar and more than a little fascinating...

As the University, so its student, who now cannot fail. The grade - fail - is almost completely anachronistic, assigned only when the institution is at a loss to know what to say. And even then, it is only ever a place-marker, a brief treading of water while the incessant splashing about the place begins all over again...

T.J. Clark's call for a reanimation of the experience of defeat is so much more than a piece of gloomy-sounding rhetoric. For, defeat, failure, implies that there were ends, however insignificant, that might have been met. This is why, as Clark says, the tragic perspective is not depressing. Tragedy - greatness come to nothing - presupposes greatness; failure - ends not met - presupposes ends. Oh Lord, in these times, make me an instrument of something...

Friday, 21 September 2012

Against "Artivism": Response to Chantal Mouffe

Chantal Mouffe's recent article "Truth is Concrete" argues against the "exodus" strategies recommended by Italian Autonomists like Paolo Virno, and in favour of an aesthetico-political strategy of engagement with institutions. Her view is that, despite the frequently-aired idea that aesthetic practices and the institutions that foster them are now so utterly in thrall to capitalist hegemony that they are best abandoned, there is still available to and through art practices the possibility of resistance to the post-Fordist status quo. "Artivism" is still an option, says Mouffe: "By putting aesthetic means at the service of political activism, this 'artivism' can be seen as a counter-hegemonic move against the capitalist appropriation of aesthetics."  

But there is, I think, a problem about Mouffe's understanding of the nature of post-Fordist "hegemony." For, part of the force of post-Fordist societies is their utter transformation of the mode in which hegemony operates and the consequent challenge issued to those who would attempt to resist it. Much of twentieth-century philosophy has emerged from the recognition that, as Mouffe puts it, "things could always have been otherwise and every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities. This is why," she continues, every order "is always susceptible to being challenged by counter-hegemonic practices that will attempt to disarticulate it so as to establish a different hegemony." The task, then, has been (and still is, in Mouffe's view) to find effective ways, philosophically, politically, to "disarticulate," that is, to distance ourselves from what is nearest to us in order to gain some sense of other possibilties. 

But what happens when nothing is nearest to us? What happens when nothing has been excluded? What happens when there is no hegemony? This, in effect, is the situation that Virno describes, in "The Ambivalence of Disenchantment", when he says: 
A process of uprooting without end, engendered by the mutability of contexts marked for the most part by conventions, artifices, and abstractions, overturns this scheme [the scheme of "disarticulation" a la Mouffe] and submits it to an inexorable practical critique...Today's modes of being and feeling lie in an abandonment without reserve to our own finitude. Uprooting...constitutes the substance of our contingency and precariousness...It constitutes an ordinary condition that everyone feels because of the continual mutation of modes of production, techniques of communication, and styles of life.
Our "ordinary condition" now is one of utter precariousness, of a constant shifting of perspectives, of fleeting communications and passing commitments. To pitch against what is effectively an ahegemony, Mouffe's artistic/political "diversity of practices and interventions operating in a multiplicity of spaces," creation of "a multiplicity of agnostic spaces...where new modes of identification are made available," "articulation of different modes of intervention in a multiplicity of places," and so on, is rather like trying to mop up water with water. Counter-hegemonic practices are now the stuff of hegemony. In this context, it is worth quoting David Harvey, who regrets the so-far ineffectual opposition to neo-liberal hegemony and mentions as culpable, "all those postmodern intellectual currents that accord without knowing it, with the White House line that truth is both socially constructed and a mere effect of discourse."

Mouffe refers to Foucault's insight that, in modern production, not just the control of bodies but "the control of souls is crucial." But our souls are now made up of a constant sense that "things could always have been otherwise"; for that reason, the "artivist" achievement of highlighting that "things could always have been otherwise" has little chance of changing our souls. 

"I strongly believe," Mouffe says, "that in examining the relation between art and politics, it is necessary to adopt a pluralistic perspective." But Mouffe's strong belief is subject to criticism from The Art Kettle's claim that our ordinary condition in post-Fordist societies amounts to a "creativity continuum." The phrase is a version of the "carceral continuum" that Foucault describes as characteristic of early-capitalist societies, which have at their core the prison, a nugget of enclosure that spreads outwards to regulate other areas of life. In our late-capitalist society, it is not a nugget of enclosure, but an outside of free-spirited, playful, pluralistic, "things could always have been otherwise," thinking and acting, that has spread inwards, becoming what is left of a status quo, becoming, in effect, an ahegemony. Our society has "put to work," to use Virno's phrase, the very states of mind that have defined the creative, the aesthetic, in our time. Mouffe's "artivism" would be on the payroll of capital. 

It is possible to show this in summary fashion, by comparing the constellation of feelings that Virno identifies as comprising, now, "ordinary" experience, with the constellation of feelings that Kant identifies as comprising aesthetic experience.

Virno on ordinary experience

Opportunism: so feverish, Virno says, as to be almost entirely absract, disincarnate; particular opportunities are endlessly interchangeable and provide merely the pretexts for “a spirit that grants the dignity of a salvational telos to every fleeting occasion.”

Cynicism: which places in full view, not only the rules that structure the parameters of action, not only our prejudices, but also the unfoundedness/conventionality of those rules or prejudices, so that “abstract knowledge accumulates before experience” – this is no noble mastering of our condition but a general feeling of awareness of the rules of the game, to which we nonetheless adhere perfectly, if only momentarily.

Fear: a constantly operative anxiety/adaptability and insecurity/flexibility, born of our awareness that our most momentary adherances will be undercut by their unfoundedness and exchangeability.

A sense of belonging: directly proportional to the lack of anything to which to belong, a sense of belonging as such.

Now Kant on aesthetic experience:

Opportunism, or a certain form of subjectivism: the object of the experience is merely its occasion, towards the existence of which we are utterly indifferent;

Cynicism or disinterestedness: our human purposes are felt to be mere artifices when juxtaposed with intimations of a purpose that is other than, that is more than, human;

Fear, that the setting aside of human purposes will reveal only a mess of chaos and contingency;

A sense of belonging, to a grand design, a salvational telos, generated by intimations of order, of purpose, when there might have been nothing but that mess of chaos and contingency.

In short, our ordinary experience, the hegemony against which Mouffe would have us pitch aesthetic resistances, is aesthetic to its core; the theoretical and practical "articulation of different modes of intervention in a multplicity of places" would simply add fuel to the post-Fordist fire. 

Harvey's exhortation is for us to trump the postmodern intellectualism that is so compatible with the neo-liberal status quo, and acknowledge that "there is a reality out there and it is catching up with us fast." Because the concrete truth is that things could not always have been otherwise. Things could only have been what they are. Multiplicity, plurality, contingency, contextuality...are for the kind of "high style" intellectual activity upon which post-Fordist hegemony thrives. Much better to develop Clarke's tragic sense that things could not have been otherwise than what they are, and plumb for the kind of "middle wisdom" that responds to this sense with only the certainty of defeat as its guide. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

How Eccentric Was Anna Piaggi?


Anna Piaggi: Anna Piaggi attends the Missoni fashion show Milan Fashion Week

Anna Piaggi, the Italian icon of fashion, died last month aged 81. On Tuesday, The Guardian published her obituary, which described her style as “electrified with eccentricity.” But Anna Piaggi was not eccentric. Anna Piaggi was utterly conventional.

Piaggi’s compatriot, Paolo Virno, describes the conventional mode of living and of working (and, I would add, of thinking) in our times, as virtuosity. For Virno, the lack of an end towards which our activity is oriented (in work and in life), together with the quintessentially public nature of work and of life, the absolute requirement that there be witnesses to our activity, means that we are all now in the mode of performers, active but non-productive, communicative because non-productive, active insofar as we are communicative. In other words, since we no longer typically make things (eg. cars), since we no longer typically do things (eg. eat family meals), all we have are our communications about making things and doing things. To those still in the mode of making and doing things, these communications appear as substitutes and are therefore painful to witness; to such people, communications about making and doing can never substitute for making and doing. But, to those not still in the mode of making and doing (most people in Britain, for example), these communications are glorious, and necessary. Without them, there would be nothing. They are the stuff of our times (not merely substitutes for the lack of stuff in our times). We are all virtuosi, whose activity amounts to occasioning the witnessing of our activity.

And so Piaggi was the most conventional figure of all, one who herded the wearing of clothes, from the 1950s when clothes were still steeped in purposes, through the 60s and beyond, when clothes have come away from all purpose and are worn entirely communicatively. Piaggi “used clothes as theatre,” The Guardian tells us; she was “a great performer.” Piaggi, to use Virno’s term, was a fashion virtuosa, without concern for the ends to which the wearing of clothes has been oriented and, therefore, absolutely in requirement of dazzling a public. Piaggi did not dress to cover herself, to keep warm, to respond to prevailing concerns of her time, to enhance her figure or offend her friends. No wartime “wiggle” here, to make the most of scanty stores of cloth, and, by eschewing excess, to be in sympathy with those in the fight, and to show a full figure to those in need of something for sore eyes. No “New Look” here, to celebrate the end of rationing, and take joy in a new dawn, and return women to near-girlhood following their second great emancipation of the century. Nothing so purposeful. Nothing but the staging of end-less communications. Anna Piaggi dressed to be seen to be dressed. She dressed because she did not dress. She dressed to know she existed. She dressed, therefore she was.

“Spectacle,” in the Situationist sense, is, for Virno, the key to our virtuosic world; the commodification of our capacity for communication is all around, as post-Fordist capitalist societies extract surplus value from “soft” “feminine” “skills” that are still thought of as “priceless” and “personal.” And Piaggi was certainly a spectacle, an instance of the most conventional move of our time, that is, the removal of communications from the contexts in which they might have communicated something, in which they might have made something or done something or been part of something, in order to mummify them as communications in and of themselves. To say it is enough. Because there is now a value merely in saying it. Commodification: that was the business Piaggi was in. She was about as eccentric as a hedge-fund manager.

“Professional play” is how Piaggi described her mode of dress. And she was right. Play may be very serious and involve all kinds of rules (this is not just an anything-goes scenario), but it is without end. Play is not “for” anything other than itself. In all times before these, activity that was not for anything other than itself was, for the most part, consigned to children. But now, grown-ups do it too. In fact, they do nothing else. Anna Piaggi looked like a child who has raided her mother’s wardrobe and daubed on her mother’s make-up. Because Anna Piaggi was a child, just like us all. The question is, when, how, will we ever grow up?

Friday, 7 September 2012

...believing might not be so dangerous after all...

I said it would be dangerous to believe as Zizek would have us believe. But perhaps it would not. Perhaps, we ought to take the risk...

Zizek urges us to do as Kant urged us to do at the end of the 18th century: to act as if. In his third critique, Kant's argument is that, while we cannot ever know that there is a great purpose to human existence, we must act as if there is for progress to ensue, and make the most of those occasions (experiences of the beautiful and the sublime) on which it feels as if there is a great purpose to human existence. Furthermore, if we act as if there is a great purpose to human existence, progress will ensue! That is the beauty of the experiment. Belief transforms reality by reconstituting it.

It is a risky business, of course. Progress, as Kant conceived of it (the advance of scientistic thinking and acting), certainly did ensue from the belief that it would ensue, but it was not, in the end, as Kant conceived of it, arguably having given rise to precisely the problems - of social, political, economic and environmental collapse - that have left us without a future...

Now that I think of it, The Art Kettle ends with a Zizekian call to belief. How ridiculous it is, in this age of endlessly available and replaceable everything, to, as the children's programmes used to call it, make and do. How ridiculous to start an organic farm! To have a child! To write a word! But, inefficacy can be efficacious - that is where Clarke can learn from Zizek, I think; doing the pointless thing may even catch on. But only so long as you act as if it has caught on, not as if it will. That is where Zizek can learn from Clarke, I think.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Believing Dangerously


The final chapter of Zizek's The Year of Dreaming Dangerously appears to argue that next year and future years must be years of believing dangerously. 

While conceding something to T.J. Clarke's argument that left-wing thinking and acting has "no future" - by which Clarke means, not only that environmental and economic conditions are now such that it is nothing but hubris to imagine that any future lies before us, but also that awareness of our human limitations ought now to prevent us from ever again devising schemes or taking decisions on the basis of theoretical anticipations of what will be - Zizek asks for more. In response to Clarke's call for the rejection of "high style" political theory and philosophical discussion in favour of the kind of "middle wisdom" that operates in particular ways and always with a "tragic" sense that nothing good can be relied upon to follow, Zizek objects: "Is that all one should say (and do)? 

The question, it seems, is a rhetorical one, the implied answer being: "Of course not!" But what else can one say (and do)? Zizek is not about to go back on Clarke's (and his own) basic insight, which is, that the finite, historical nature of human thinking and acting means that the effort to establish rules or principles or foundations for thinking and acting into the future are bound to be so steeped in present conditions that they will require to be re-established in precisely the future they were devised to anticipate and domesticate. But there is something other than thinking and acting, some human capacity that, while also finite and historical, allows us to surpass our finitude and loom larger than history: it is believing

The problem with Clarke, according to Zizek, is that his understanding of the "future" is truncated, limited to the-future-that-comes-from-what-is-now (our future, we might say). But there is another sense of "future," Zizek argues: the-future-that-is-to-come, unpredictably, miraculously (a future, we might say). Of course, Clarke is right in the sense that we have no future, Zizek then says; our future is both almost certainly going to involve mass extinction of life, and deeply veiled against our capacities to anticipate it. But what Clarke misses, Zizek continues, is that there still is a future before us, a future that does not merely follow from what is now but that comes from nowhere, as a bolt from the heavens, marking a shift in the course of things of a kind that, by definition, we cannot now imagine. Zizek admits that contemplating a future requires faith, but a future is not merely an article of faith. For, it also requires of us that we begin, actively, to interpret events around us as signs of a future, much as Kant, to whom Zizek refers, interpreted the enthusiasm of those who looked on at the French Revolution as a sign of our human capacity to be uplifted even against our interests (as a sign of enlightenment, in short). By seeing signs of a future all around us, so Zizek says, we will go to constitute a future, and so overcome the tragic perspective to which Clarke would consign us, which would have us relinquish all thoughts of future. We do not have our future, it is true, but we have a future, if we believe in it and perform our belief.

But this really is believing dangerously, I think. In the first instance, it denies all of the ways in which our future, far from following from what now is in logical, predictable ways, actually, to a large extent, comes from nowhere! History may be ordinary and endemic, as Clarke argues, but it is nonetheless, in its unfathomable complexity, almost totally mysterious. That aspect of future that Zizek has hived off to give substance to his notion of a future, is, therefore, already accounted for in Clarke's notion of future. That is what is surprising and frightening, precisely because it is so ordinary and endemic: our future is a stranger to us; our future is a future. But there are two other reasons for being wary of Zizek's call to belief. The first is that it can only give rise to the kind of with-us-or-against-us mode characteristic of many belief systems, and all too likely to spring up in our future of scarce resources even without Zizek's assistance! The second is that it seems to be another excuse to put our heads into the sand and not admit the many many very convincing interpretations now available of events all around us as signs of aspects of our future (as virtually non-existent) (look no further than the Royal Society for science, on climate change). Zizek warns against the dangers of our growing to love the drama and apocalypticism of our nonexistent future. But we seem so little in danger of that, at present, that it is dangerous, I think, to warn against it.