To be published in The Idea of the Avant-Garde, ed. Marc James Léger, late 2013.
All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.
– Karl Marx, Capital vol. III, part 7, chapter 48.
All media work us over completely.
– Marshall McLuhan
Once thought by McLuhan to be the only one who could face the present (and the future already contained therein), the artist is now radically fragmented, ceaselessly abutting against one perceived endgame after another, so beaten down by competing rhetorics – all equally disempowering – that the question of art’s revolutionary potential simply ceases to arise. At one end, the subsumption of artistic practices under the deleterious purview of the creative class amounts to their political neutralization; strategies once destined to interrupt unbridled consumption now function as (unpaid) research and development for the corporate world. At the other extreme, which is really the other side of the same coin, the new orthodoxies of social practice demand ethical immediacy, saddling artists with the onuses of practical solutions, shouldering responsibilities that the state has long ago divested itself of. (Not to mention that this other instrumentalization all too often operates according to the same flexible, decentralized modalities which characterize the globally financialized phase of capitalism we now find ourselves in, resulting in the proliferation of palliative frameworks doubling as alibis for art institutions eager to appear socially relevant.) In this context, agonistic, alienating strategies of disruption (proper to any self-respecting avant garde) are rejected as anti-social (if they haven’t already been détourned by predatory advertising and branding) while the vistas opened up by the internet promise democracy but frequently end up feeding what Jodi Dean terms “communicative capitalism,” where contributions not only substitute for direct action but worse, constitute so much value-laden content directly informing real-time profiling, monetizing and datamining operations, ensuring an even more comprehensive, microscopically-attuned capture of general intellect and affect. The neoliberalization of everything has become steadily normalized via the modalities of the möbius strip, the slip to the other side only retrospectively knowable. The artist is caught in a system immanence (Hullot-Kentor), preempted at every turn, unable to see/hear his/her own embeddedness. As Eric Cazdyn points out in The Already Dead, our culture is characterized by a new chronic mode, replacing the terminal – in which foreseeable limits can be contested, overturned, abolished – with a medicalized, “capitalist realist” stasis that is in keeping with Kafka’s notion of indefinite postponement (eminently reflected in computer technologies which perpetually defer completion, its products always changeable, remixable, versionable). It’s a world of unending, equivocal short-terms, with the only revolutions one can count on being those of the rapidly refreshing news cycles that can circulate such traumas as the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal out of actionable range (something the right wing has long ago understood).
What productive roles can art still fulfill, given the seemingly unlimited capacities of rapacious capital to metabolize the resistant into more precise, pervasive modes of abduction? A radical separation is proposed here, wherein the artist becomes (at least) double: on the one hand, patiently exposing the corrupt forms and frameworks through which late capitalism operates through long-term elaborations of indigestible models (which deliberately thwart the categorical imperatives of art institutions and their curator-managers); on the other, defeating the atomizing, competitive exigencies of the art market and the divide-to-conquer individualism mandated by hyper-consumption by stealthily, anonymously, collectively operating under the radar, applying some of the resultant modi operandi in physical and virtual fields of action, according to quotidian, tactical, rapid-response, opportunistic logics divested altogether from the category of art. The efficacy of such strategies is considerably bolstered through the foregrounding of various secondary processes (Freud) by which each individual differentially ratifies, completes, co-creates the structures of domination which impede any conceptualization of political action. The ensuing discussion of four creative works – vectors of speculative, potential praxis – revolves around the following, while keeping in mind that no single strategy can ever be sufficient in and of itself and that one always runs the risk of overestimating the obsolescence of any particular approach (an automatic reflex endemic to the ahistorical flattening of resistant options capitalism is adept at promoting): by which contemporary modes is an individual disposed to normalized, preemptive predation and by which consequent methods might an active positioning against clarified targets take root?