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. 

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