Brian Holmes on Wed, 7 Jul 2004 07:15:44 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Emancipation

[Why does my work so often involve the Balkans? Roots? Atavism? Pan-Slavism?
Retro-Futurism? Here, a text written for the catalogue of the "Yugoslav
Biennial of Young Artists," which opens in Vrsac today. Best, BH]


     "L'amour est la seule passion qui se paye d'une monnaie qu'elle fabrique
     -- Stendhal *

     The "world market." Never have two words encompassed such promise. Power.
Pleasure. Ubiquity. Freedom. And it's no illusion. The world market can get you
that - if you obey its injunction. To distinguish yourself from the others. To
stand apart. To rise above. To become the sovereign individual.

     What is the paradox of the market individual?

     To conform - through uniqueness and originality - to the perverse law of
value which gives rarity its price.

     Within the world market, amidst the abundance of power, pleasure, ubiquity
and freedom, each rare and precious individual has a price - on their head.

     Let us consider what such statements might mean in the world of art.


     Among the paperback archives of vanished sciences is a 1971 work by
Bertell Ollman, entitled Alienation. It is not, as you might suppose, a book
that turns us away from a collective condition (workers' exploitation) toward
an individual plight (the loss of one's authenticity, soul, or whatever).
Because Ollman, in his interpretation of Marx, conceives of alienation as the
severing of a social relation:

     "The distortion in what Marx takes to be human nature is generally
referred to in a language which suggests that an essential tie has been cut in
the middle. Man is spoken of as being separated from his work (he plays no part
in deciding what to do or how to do it) - a break between the individual and
his life activity. Man is said to be separated from his own products (he has no
control over what he makes or what becomes of it afterwards) - a break between
the individual and the material world. He is also said to be separated from his
fellow men (competition and class hostility have rendered most forms of
cooperation impossible) - a break between man and man. In each instance, a
relation that distinguishes the human species has disappeared and its
constituent elements have been reorganized to appear as something else." (1)

     If I look to the artists and cultural producers whom I respect and
appreciate, it appears that Ollman has summed up everything most important to
them. The decision as to what the artistic work will be, and how it will be
carried out - and when, and where, and why - is not merely their individual
choice, but it is never dictated from the outside. The desire for cooperation -
and thus, for sharing the decision - has always been made into a substantial
reality, either through the formation of groups, or through different kinds of
temporary or long-term associations. The capacity to control, or at least, to
remain responsible to the artistic products in their material circulation
through society - and thus, the capacity to maintain the ethical basis of the
project - is always a priority, resulting in elaborate mechanisms of
presentation and distribution, principled conceptions (or rejections) of the
rights to copy and authorship, and above all, a continuing concern for the
extent and quality of use. None of these things should "appear as something
else." The problem of alienation, in other words, has been taken seriously.
Indeed the art, in these cases, is no longer an elaborately finished object
arising from a unique inspiration; rather it is an ongoing process of relation
which attends exactly to the questions of production, cooperation,
responsibility. As though, even in the labyrinth of the most singular and
intimate expression, what lay at stake were exactly what Marx and Ollman saw at
risk in the relations of capitalist society: the sense of infinitely shared
possibility "that distinguishes the human species."

     Why is it so difficult to inscribe this possibility in contemporary
institutions? Paolo Virno most persuasively develops this theme, in his
discussions of the fundamentally linguistic form of work which he calls
"virtuosity." He explains that three central functions which have traditionally
been separate in the self-understanding of the Western societies, from
Aristotle to Hannah Arendt, are now impossible to distinguish. These functions
are labor, conceived as the productive expenditure of bodily energy;
intellectual activity, which is silent and solitary; and political action,
whose vector is public speech. But since the three have melded together with
the advent of intellectual, affective and communicational forms of work - the
so-called "immaterial labor" of the "general intellect" - Virno says that we
virtuoso performers of the semiotic economy have come to live under a condition
of infinite publicity without a public sphere. And the impossibility to make
public meaning out of our performances - that is, the impossibility to shape a
politics leading to concrete changes in society - is a humiliation of that
which is at once the highest and most common of our faculties, namely the
capacity of speech itself. The very capacity to articulate the infinite promise
of our "species being" (Marx).(2)

     The experience of transnational art shows over the last fifteen years
bears witness to this feeling of humiliation. Despite the continuing attraction
of the events, no one is satisfied with the relations they have yielded - to
say the least. Mika Hannula: "the art of faking an orgasm." Boris Buden: "I
don't want to be a Balkan in a subsidized biennial." Are these declarations a
sign that the façade is finally cracking? The institutional market for the arts
expanded dramatically after the late sixties, when governments suddenly felt
compelled to buy off the new forms of expressive politics invented in the
streets; and it ballooned yet again after 1989, when European structural funds
and globalized finance entered a vastly expanded scene. But the cost of access
to the fantastically enlarged production and distribution machinery is still
the radical shrinkage of your symbolic ambitions to the level of cheap decor,
or to the adolescent gestures of transgression, abstract denunci ation,
spectacular cynicism. All of which will serve as promotional material for
foreign corporations and local politicians. The "institutional market" - where
the general intellect stiffens into administration, or is spun off into
saleable products, each with its personal signature - seems to occupy all the
cultural space. And so in the world of art, despite admirable efforts, we have
not yet surmounted what Marx and Ollman call "alienation."

     Still, Virno's reflections add something to the picture. In fact they
invert its terms, its figure/ground. For he is no longer talking about a
stiuation in which the inherently emancipatory powers of art are blocked by
archaic institutional structures, or damaged by the ferocity of the market.
Instead what he describes is a productive machinery saturated with art, as
though driven by the motor of invention. This is the postmodern economy which
generates surplus values with images and signs, which fabricates artificial
rarities (and therefore, class disctinctions) from an initial situation of
abundance (indeed, of infinite possibility). But how did this situation arise?
What is the secret link that makes virtuosity, or artfulness itself, coincide
so perfectly with publicity? That is, with the general form of communication,
and indeed of subjectivation, in a market society?


     The contemporary writer who has most effectively raised these questions is
the Brazilian schizoanalyst Suely Rolnik. Her understanding of social relations
begins from a phenomenology in which creative activity has a specific place.
Our sensibility is divided, she explains, into perception and sensation: on the
one hand, an empirical grasp of the world as form, leading to the establishment
of fixed representations; on the other, an intensive encounter with the world
as living force, which can be mobilized again in expressive activity. Empirical
perception allows us to consolidate relatively stable maps of our situation in
the world, but these constituted maps also act as an obstacle to the sensation
of the constant irruption of otherness in our sensibility - and therefore to
the creation of new modes of relation, which can only be effectively expressed
through active resistance to the conservative forces shaped by the old schemas.
>From this outlook, we can conceive an agonist ic involvement in the world, but
one which does not only result in sterile confrontation with an objectified
enemy; for political resistance itself is understood within the
transformational dynamic of reknitting and even reinventing the relation with
the other. Yet this expressive politics, which became widespread in the sixties
and seventies, has been submitted over the last two decades to extremely
sophisticated devices which split the force of creation from that of
resistance. These devices (the specific forms of production in the postmodern
economy) cause the creative process to turn nervously around its own axis,
motivated by a capitalistically profitable, but existentially frustrating quest
for the unattainable safe-havens of "luxury subjectivity," whose glossy image
is continually projected by the media. In this reading, the prestigious
exhibitions in which we compete to participate appear as simply another capture
device for the force of invention (resulting in what Virno calls "servile

     Thus an economy based on the incessant production of images and signs is
able to conjure up and expropriate a "wellspring of free invention power" - in
a context where the word freedom has become a synonym of separation. In this
situation, where each continually refines his or her originality in the
endless, competitive quest to attain a higher personal price, it is not
difficult to see how the "constituent elements" of a distinctively human
relation have, in Ollman's terms, been reorganized "to appear as something
else": the exercise of the productive force reappearing as a hunger for
technological power; the ease of cooperative sociability reappearing as an
egotistical thirst for pleasure; the sense of responsibility to the material
complexity of society reappearing as a restless claim to ubiquity in the
world-space. Suely Rolnik uses the figure of "perversion" to describe the way
these distorted or twisted promises appear on the world market; and the word
has the advantag e of insisting on a dimension of subjective agency, even
within a very large-scale productive apparatus like the communications media.
But the urgency is surely to map out the specific social machines which carry
out this reorganization of the human promise, and more, to describe their
breakdown, to participate in their derailing, through activities which bring
ourselves and our own position within the social arrangements into motion.

     Opportunities for this kind of subversive mapping now exist, amidst
tremendous change coupled with a mounting sense of frustration and disgust at
the enduring status quo, even in the "luxury" realm of the art world. But who
really makes this distinction of worlds anymore? The very extension of the
market is erasing the differences, superimposing the maps, allowing for a
clearer view of the basic processes at work. For example, the violent break-up
of the Yugoslavian federation after a period of intense and often very positive
cultural experimentation in the 1980s, and the authoritarian turn within its
successor states, no longer appears so exceptional, so inexplicable. At a
larger scale we can see that the tremendous ambivalence of the 1990s - by which
I mean the violent deterritorialization of the capitalist globalization
process, paralleled by the extraordinary freedom of communicational
experimentation, the emergence all over the world of new social movements in
the wake of the Zapatistas, the first attempts at coordinated global struggles
(4) - has now given rise to exactly what the philosophical generation of the
1970s taught us to recognize and to flee: the "dialectical" return of the same
through the clash of seeming opposites. In this case, the return of
neo-authoritarian American imperialism, in the face of a worldwide backlash
against transnational neoliberalism; and the emergence of a regime of organized
violence in which the "inner" and "outer" fronts continually intersect,
resulting in a state of permanently episodic planetary civil war.(5) Of course,
it may be difficult to accept that the modest practices of art have anything to
do with such tremendous confrontations. But if we give up the specialized
notion of art to recognize the wider role of "invention power" in the
contemporary economy, then clearly what it produces has everything to do with
the cultural conflicts in the world today.


     Since the advent of democracy - and since Gericault's shockingly realistic
studies of severed hands (6) - the question of going "beyond art" has been that
of knitting a specialized, highly experimental and always threatened symbolic
production back into the social body. Here is the secret link between politics,
the avant-garde and healing, hidden in even the most alienated artistic
representations (like the fantastic and depraved literature of William
Burroughs). But never has there been a period so propitious for the deployment
of this secret link as the present time, which has moved definitively beyond
the avant-garde, to the extent that symbolic production has been taken up by
broad sectors of the population. For this exact reason it has become much more
crucial to understand the ways in which expression is made to turn around
itself, in separation from its consequences in the world.

     It is within this context that the art professionals wonder what to do
with their museums, educational facilities and biennials. The question will not
be answered so easily. Among the younger artists, at the "low end" of the
transnational circulation, the familiar image of schlock virtuosity -
necessarily quick and cheap - will continually re-emerge as a kind of swallowed
or half-muttered protest against "high-end" production values and the imposing
displays of prestige that accompany them. Along the edges of this divide, the
retreat into fine-arts nostalgia - or conceptual overkill - will remain
classic, repetitive escapes. But in reality all that is obsolete today. The
urgency is express the paths of new cartographies, which transversally link
artists, social movements, civil-society initiatives, knowledge-production
centers and media technologies, always across the major center-periphery
divides (whether these are encountered at urban, national, or transnational
levels).  And it would clearly be useful if many more people - across the
spectrums from "high" to "low," from "center" to "periphery" - would openly
proclaim the current impasse, and begin to take the risks of transformation.

     The mere existence of an event like the Yugoslav Biennial represents, for
many, a rare and important chance to participate in the flux of exchange that
is the very essence of social life in the early twentieth-first century. But
that chance is not reason enough to make humanity itself into a rarity. Or to
put an alienated price on your own head. The creation of new social machines
begins with the power of exodus, in a kind of passion that "pays for itself in
a currency of its own fabrication." But to reassert an expressive politics, and
in this way, to invent a new form of public existence, more adequate to the
complex demands of the present, but also more able to liberate the abundance of
the human promise, seems to me the real challenge of our time. And this is a
contemporary meaning for the word "emancipation."

Brian Holmes


*  "Love is the only passion that pays for itself in a currency of its own fabrication."

1. Bertell Ollman, Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 133-34.

2. Virno also speaks, more precisely, of "the general aptitudes of the mind: the faculty of language, the disposition to learn, the capacity for abstraction and relation, access to self-reflection." Cf. Paolo Virno, "Virtuosité et révolution," in Miracle, virtuosite et deja-vu : trois essais sur l'idée du monde (Paris: L'Eclat, 1996); on line at <>. The virtuoso's humiliation within infinite publicity was discussed in his lecture at the MacBa in Barcelona, Dec. 1, 2003.

3. See, among many others, Suely Rolnik, "Creation Quits its Pimp, To Rejoin Resistance," in Zehar 51, 2003; online at <>.

4. For initial work on the internal relations between capitalist globalization and networked resistance movements, see Brian Holmes, "Flowmaps: The Imaginaries of Global Integration," on line at <>.

5. Cf. Philippe Zarifian, "Pourquoi ce nouveau regime de guerre?", Multitudes 11 (Winter 2003), pp. 11-23; online at <> (Portuguese version: =1123).

6. Gericault, Study of Truncated Limbs, ca. 1818-19, Musée Fabre, Montpellier; image online at <>. Also see Chris Marker's film on the worldwide revolutions of 1968, Grin without a Cat (1977), part I, "Fragile Hands," part II, "Severed Hands."

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