on Tue, 31 Jan 2006 10:31:07 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Diminishing Freedoms

David Garcia refers directly to me, in his text about an emerging dispute
between activist and artistic practices:

> The theorist and activist Brian Holmes described the origins of this
> dichotomy succinctly as going (at least) as far back as the cultural
> politics of the 1960s. He describes a split "between the traditional
> working-class concern for social justice and the New Left concern for
> individual emancipation and full recognition and expression of
> particular identities" According to this account corporate
> foundations and think tanks of the 80s and 90s have succeeded in
> inculcating market-oriented variations on earlier counter-cultural
> values rendering the interventions of artists (including tactical
> media makers) profoundly if unwittingly, de-politicising. Holmes goes
> on to describe (or assert, I am not quite sure which) a critique in
> which "the narcisstic exploration of self, sexuality and identity
> become the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture. Artistic freedom and
> artistic license have led, in effect, to the neo-liberalization of
> culture. The puritanical and authoritarian tone of this analysis is
> just a little unnerving. At the very least this tendency could lead
> to a crass and oppressive philistinism and might signal far worse to
> come.

Garcia misquotes and misinterprets me pretty deeply, in what's otherwise a good
article. See my original text, and particularly the questions I ask about culture
and politics, at But it doesn't
matter, it's just a mistake and the whole subject is worth going back to anyway.

The sentence that Garcia can't swallow (the one about the narcissistic exploration
of self, identity and sexuality) was written in fact by another David: David
Harvey, in his book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. In my review of that book,
I quoted a long passage where Harvey recounts the bankruptcy of New York in 1975
and how the city and its culture were subsequently reshaped in the context of
financially driven globalization. I was interested in two things. First, a fresh
analysis, within a specific urban framework, of the way that cultural and
intellectual practices were broadly neutralized by turning them into commodities
in an economy of images and signs (a process which at the same time transforms a
growing mass of artists and intellectuals into the economically interested
producers of those same commodities). And second, I was interested in the limits
of exactly that same analysis.

Things have only gotten worse since 1975, and new problems have arisen. While
reading Irving Kristol's book, Neoconservatism, The Autobiography of an Idea, I
was struck by the Kristol's fierce rejection of a 60s counterculture that he
equated with a Nietzschean transvaluation of all values. I thought: Can I do
without that counterculture, without that Nietzschean aspiration to destroy old
values and recreate new ones? The answer was, I couldn't. For someone like myself,
the only viable option is to pursue a radically experimental work on the self and
society, expressed by signs and materials in their rupture with history. In other
words, I need something like vanguard art (only I think you can call it
post-vanguard art, because these practices have gone far beyond their old limits).
I wanted to conclude my review on Harvey's strong analysis of the subservience of
art to finance in the neoliberal economy, and at the same time, I wanted to
question the Marxist reflex that would reach back to a supposedly clearer and
truer world of working class culture and militantism that the new middle class
media culture is said to simply obscure and distort.

The problem, as Garcia shows throughout his own text, is that the contemporary
cultural economy really does have a strong coopting and neutralizing capacity,
which operates mainly through commercialization in the United States and mainly
through selective social democratic patronage in Europe. The combined renewal of
artistic and activist practices in the 90s really did require direct action,
reclaiming the streets, as Garcia knows for having theorized such things while
also participating in them.

Now that the effectiveness of direct action has been blunted by increasing police
pressure on the streets, as well as a general rise in the stakes of political
conflict, we do (or at least I do) see the cultural institutions and even the
commercial ones coming in to skim off the cream of tactical media representations,
which aren't particularly threatening or destabilizing in the absence or decline
of what they were supposed to represent. That's a real problem. I am sure plenty
of activists are suspicious of me, for publishing and spouting off my mouth and
participating in museum and festival debates. I'm even suspicious of me, to the
point where I've deliberately gone back to translating, to make sure that I'm not
tempted to write texts or do talks just for the payoff at the end. It's easy to
get confused in a great big media machine that is also made (or at lest functions)
to produce confusion. But what's mainly lacking, from my viewpoint, are not only
audacious direct action stunts, and not only (though this is of course more
important) forms of political engagement that can reach huge numbers of
participants and give them an effective way to help change society. What's also
missing are artworks that cut through the trendy flaky fashions, and go beyond the
old modernist definitions of art for art's sake, to touch the core of the human
quandry and help you transform your self and your relation to the others, at a
moment when things go on getting worse and worse and worse.

Garcia quotes Terry Eagleton to talk about how the women's movements totally
changed politics, by making what appear as cultural issues inseparable from the
economic ones. He could have drawn his examples (and probably would have, if he'd
been here) from the 6th World Social Forum in Caracas, where you could see and
hear and feel, in almost every talk and study session and activist planning round,
that the old ways of doing politics have changed. Particularly, but not only, by
the fact that women and indigenous people are participating everywhere, and often
taking the most prominent roles. I did not see much cutting edge art at the social
forum, certainly not in the concentrated forms that derive from the western
tradition. But a strong point of the forum for me was the way that it put forth
the irreducible presence of a plurality of cosmovisions. Yes, that's they say. And
you could hear it, you could feel it. At one point, Maya and Qechua women
completed a ceremony on stage in the context of a panel which was refusing the
patenting of women's knowledge. In the Q and A that followed, one of the women
said more or less this: "Our god is not up above in the sky. Our god is in the
earth. It is in us. It is us." I had a kind of insight at that point, or maybe
something I had learned from deconstruction finally made tangible sense to me. I
realized that the whole Christian recovery and reinterpretation of Platonic
idealism was inseparable from abstract, Cartesian, metaphysical, alienating
representation. The spectacle society. The military surveillance grid. And I
realized that what we were involved with was not that kind of representation.

But there I go again talking again, spouting off. Who wants to make me feel guilty
about it? While those women were performing their ritual, there was a TV cameraman
crowding on the stage. It was so annoying, this guy crowding in on our intimacy.
And then I remembered that this was being broadcast by the Bolivarian TV stations.
The revolutionary TV stations. Like Catia TV, where I saw a fantastic
montage-analysis of the way that the commercial TV channels had sought throughout
the late nineties and early years of this decade to impose a reactionary reading
on crucial events in the streets that have led, each time, to the continuation of
the revolutionary project here in Venezuela. What you could see in action, on
broadcast TV, was a critical and transformative kind of mass representation. At
one point, on broadcast TV, they were showing an interview of an Italian guy from
Telestreet, talking about the urgent situation in Italy where Berlusconi controls
all the broadcast media.

I like art. I like activism. While hanging out in Caracas, I would sift through my
mail in cybercafes, like all the gringos and all the latinos. I get so many ads
for high-class art and pseudo activist events put on by the European social
democratic institutions. One mail said: Art's good for nothing, that's its whole
necessity. The hackneyed French academic modernist version of elite vanguard art.
Another mail said: If I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution.
The happy-go-lucky disco Dutch populist version of activist cooptation.

I admit it, at times I feel impatient and even angry about all that schlock.
Philistinism? Well, sometimes I also just feel very very bored.

best, Brian

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