Brian Holmes on Sun, 27 Jul 2008 22:16:13 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover

Concerning the concept of artistic rupture, Eric Kluitenberg wrote:

> As I have come to understand this... rupture is part of process of
> negation, a negative dialectics as some have called it (Adorno / Lyotard),
> in the case of the visual arts a 'negative dialectics of the image'. Now
> the point of negation is not the replacement of one mode of the visual by
> another, alternative one. Much rather the object of negation is to 'break'
> the image, to show its disfunctionality, to expose that every image hides
> more than it reveals.
> The real point of the negation and this negative dialectics as it was
> emblematically embodied by the bold quest of the avant-gardes, was not to
> find a somehow "better" alternative for that which was negated
> (perspective, unity of space, unity of time, surface, support, material,
> medium, etc etc...) but much rather to reveal the infinity of
> possibilities, the infinite space of alternatives.
> Now what has changed and where I would follow you in most of your analysis
> is that the context in which art, criticism, and critical cultural
> production operate, has diversified to the point where multiplicity has
> replaced revolt.

This way of thinking, developed from Adorno to Lyotard among many 
others, is one of the more powerful and compelling stories that can be 
told about the vanguard "overcoming of art," and my thanks to Eric for 
bringing in this precise theoretical level of conversation. When I said, 
"let's take it as axiomatic that all that has changed," I was indeed 
thinking of the end of any transcendence of artistic representation, and 
therefore of any reason or art to go on referring to art alone, to its 
sequential evolutions and/or ruptures. Of course, the idea that there is 
one single story of the avant-gardes in the 20th century is itself 
totally dubious, but I think that many of the stories which have been 
elaborated lead to the point art serves as some sort of ever-changing 
mediation between an active multiplicity and an existing context of 
social reality. How that kind of mediation works is, I think, the 
subject for a micropolitical aesthetics - but I'd like to touch on that 
in a later reply to Snafu's excellent post on productivism. As Eric says 

 > How this then works for activists, artists, critics in practice
> is the next step.

Concerning the "existing context of social reality" which forms the 
backdrop to any next step, that is definitely where geopolitical 
thinking becomes an issue. How to name the context? Is there any 
overarching structure? If so, how to avoid supporting it with one's own 
conceptual activity?

> The second comment relates to the use of the concept of Empire. I wonder
> if the concept of Empire is really productive here to address your
> question of finding "a different way to live, a fresh chance at
> coexistence", which I read as a call for pluralism and multiplicity.
> Empire, however, suggest the rise of a hegemonic and more or less unitary
> form of social and economic/political organisation (along with its
> military extensions). Of course in Negri and Hardt's vision there are many
> internal struggles and conflicting actors within the body of Empire, but
> still they seem guided by a similar organisational logic and set of
> (hegemonic) objectives.

Well, what I am talking about is first of all best approached as 
classical imperialism, not Empire in Hardt and Negri's sense of a 
centerless, networked imperium -- because what we have seen in the past 
five years, with the Iraq war, is clearly an attempt to project a 
specifically American sovereignty onto a resource-rich country. Beyond 
the war, I think the case for American hegemony is very strong and tends 
to be understated, if only because people on the left would 
understandably like to see other alternatives. However, lucidity is also 
important. The acts of the Bush administration have forced me, as a 
responsible citizen, to look at the consequences of US military bases 
all over the world, military domination of space, financial domination 
through the continuing status of the dollar as international reserve 
currency, techoscientific domination through the fruits of military R&D 
spending, cultural domination through global English and the benchmark 
status of American universities, etc. etc. All of this is, to be sure, 
in decline, and that is probably why it has gotten so ugly in recent 
years. But decline can go on for a long time... and in the meantime, 
unfortunately, this whole construct of military-industrial imperialism 
continues to furnish the basic definitions of what is good in life, 
including the canonical measures of economic growth and prosperity 
inherited from the Fordist/Cold War era, which still hold sway among all 
the official bodies and orient, for the worst, the development of the EU 
in particular (not to mention China). The really obscene victory of US 
hegemony is making everyone desire and love this bloated form of 

Now, I definitely do not have a one-dimensional view of all this, 
because the geopoliical study that I have carried on within the 
Continental Drift project definitely suggests that regional 
bloc-formation and the increasing sovereignty of countries that already 
have a continental scale (China, India, Russia) is the wave of the 
future. I see two likely scenarios over the next 20 years. Either 
continued American decline will allow other major actors to literally 
"buy in" to the American hegemony, eventually achieving a true 
intra-imperial distribution of power and consequent tempering of the US 
capacity to go lashing out with its military when the other major 
players do not agree -- and then we will really reach the state that 
Hardt and Negri described in Empire. Or, the existence of any worldwide 
hegemony will gradually fade, and much greater power will accrue to the 
continental ensembles, giving rise to some kind of truly multi-polar 
world. In the best of cases this could lead to the "fractalization" you 
suggest, with interesting roles for multiple kinds of plurality in the 
system (not that there isn't plurality already, but this would be 
quantitatively and qualitatively different, more heterogeneous). Or, in 
the worst of cases, we could easily get rivalries between blocs, 
resource wars, etc.

The obvious thing that keeps these scenarios at a distance is the 
gigantic disproportion between the US military and all the rest. But it 
may be that popular resistance of all kinds will finally prove that to 
be an "ineffective disproportion" -- finally answering Madeleine 
Albright's famous question by showing that having such a great army 
really is useless, and thus opening up the possibility, at least, of 
more positive scenarios. This is the geopolitical reason why I am 
antimilitarist. The other reason is unreflected and immediate: I don' 
think men with guns is the way to solve any problem.

> Much rather I would opt for an approach focused on a simultaneous
> localisation and multiplication of alternatives to such hegemonic forces
> and leave the concept of Empire behind.

It can be a very good philosophical approach and also the right one, I 
think, to base alternative strategies on (including aesthetic 
strategies). However the trick is keeping reality enough in mind that 
you can actually hope to change it, i.e. leave the military-industrial 
pimp behind and find some better lover.

> ---------
> Finally, on the reduction of American bases and how this plays out locally,
> in the case of your report in S-Korea, highly fascinating!
> In such a localised address to a shift in 'hegemonic domination', I see
> the most productive approach to a new form of social and cultural
> critique. It will be very difficult to build that critique convincingly,
> given the lingual, cultural, material, economic and social rifts that
> separate the various actors that would need to be included in this, and
> also given the reliance on a global pigeon-English that many of us are
> struggling with..., but still this could be truly productive.

Yes, to the extent that we have a world society, we do need a cultural 
critique that can work through global divides, with all the quite 
fascinating and, I think, rewarding difficulties that you mention. In my 
opinion, this kind of dialogical exchange is one of the ways to leave 
behind the imperial tendency to oppressive hegemony, but without falling 
back into essentialism and identity-thinking.

> A problem that worries me on a more day to day basis and that follows
> directly from your account of the reduction and shifts of foreign US
> military basis is the question of the demilitarisation of society, and the
> technology and research sector in particular. It seems to me that there is
> a continuing legacy of the cold war era in which the military / industrial
> complex attempts to hold its ground, not just in the US, but also in the
> Russian Federation and many of the post-Soviet and other 'Western' powers,
> in terms of contracts, jobs, positions, production-infrastructures,
> international market-shares, entrenched financial positions. I.e. this is
> now a completely post-ideological space of political action.

You are so right. The vampires are keeping the cold warbody "alive" so 
that they can maintain the dead-end mode of production that has been put 
in place since, or rather by, the Second World War.

> Especially the domain of technological research and development has become
> so deeply militarised (fuelled even further by the 'war on terror'
> discourse) that it becomes difficult to imagine how to get rid of this
> condition. A reliable inside source told me years ago that even a
> relatively 'civil'-looking institution such as the MIT Media-Lab was at
> the time supported for more than 65 percent by military funding, carrying
> out projects that are conducted in utter secrecy, about which we can
> safely assume that they exist, but about which we cannot get any reliable
> information as to what they are and what they aim for. Stuff that you will
> never see on their public web pages. No doubt this percentage has only
> grown since, and it is presumably even worse in many other technological
> R&D centres.
> How do "we" as cultural producers, critics, artists, deal with such
> realities if we are so prominently working in and with the products of
> this technological domain? How to bring this back to the civil domain?

I think this remains the key question. In my reading, for instance, A 
Thousand Plateaus is entirely about this question, it's about subverting 
and derailing the warmachine of the state, mostly from within, through 
the undermining of what they call "royal science." It is true that one 
always works largely on the state's domain (that's the very definition 
of hegemony, it sets the terrain for everyone). So the question you 
raise is really the central problem, culturally as well as politically.

> Some 'help' might be expected from the apparent economic demise of the US,
> making it increasingly difficult to provide for the upkeep for the world's
> largest army (hence the reduction and re-alignment of foreign US military
> bases). In effect, the upkeep is currently mostly financed by China.

Actually, Japanese capital remains tremendously important as well... 
Along with Middle Eastern and European money, the genius of empires has 
always been to get others paying tribute. Basically because they want 
the protection of -- or are frankly afraid of -- the empire's military. 
However, this seems to be headed for a change. A collapse of the dollar, 
a real run on the dollar, would signify a radical change. We will see... 
I am not betting on it as I think that everyone is afraid of such a 
violent turnabout. I think the strategy of the other world powers is to 
hollow the US out from the inside, and then just wait and see what can 
be done about the hard core of the military, wait and see whether it 
will really decline along with the middle class and the old bridges and 
levees and so on. The strategy of the US, as Brzezinski said flat out in 
The Grand Chessboard, is to hold on to hegemony as long as possible.

> This
> is, however, certainly not a problem of the US alone, and it plays out
> very differently in different contexts. The shared problem faced is how to
> turn this trend around (without a complete collapse), how to civilise the
> technological domain?

Thanks, Eric, it is great to see that we can finally ask a big question 
again. All that tactical shyness was kinda buggin' me...

> This is one area where the search for alternatives seems highly urgent,
> and it will require more than a process of mere 'negation' - A process of
> negation of dominant symbolic modes of hegemonic domination only serves to
> show that an infinity of other worlds is possible, I would say.

Indeed, the continued return to avant-garde negation is pointless. I 
think it is intimately bound up with the tautological self-reference of 
art to itself alone, which is strangely persistent, mainly because it 
was institutionalized as the definition of modern art (another zombie 
category as Ulrich Beck puts it). My off-the-cuff manifesto was meant to 
say that self-reference and radical negation ought to be things of the 
past for art - stages which have truly been overcome - so I heartily 
agree with the above!

> Well anyway, just some thought on a damp Sunday afternoon (it's hot and
> wet in Amsterdam).

Hmm, can we hope for more such reflective weather in the future? It's 
pretty hot in Paris but it only rains at night!

> bests,
> Eric

my best to all as well, Brian

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