Brian Holmes on Fri, 16 Feb 2018 17:52:26 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

Re: <nettime> How do we govern ourselves? (was: Mechanical Turkish)

Dear Blake (and everyone else) -

Greetings. If I may, let me take up this interesting discussion again, with excuses for the lengthy pause. By the way, anyone can intervene in this discussion, surely these issues are of concern to some.

Though it sounds depressing on the face of it, it's actually great to hear about this sense of recognition that your students (presumably in art and art history?) feel for the phrase, "I'm trash." Something profound comes out into the open there. Your interpretation is that they understand that what they're getting out of education and presumably, out of any future career, is culture, not power. And you add that they understand "power lies in either money or the capacity for violence." I'd like to discuss that interpretation - the interpretation of culture, and also of power - but it requires some preliminary clarifications.

Unless I read you wrong, you yourself do not believe that power lies solely in the possession of money or the exercise of violence. You think it also lies in something called politics. So far, however, I am not able to grasp what politics means to you. Similarly, I don't know what you really mean by the state. In particular, I can't figure out whether for you the state is an ideal that lies in the future, to be attained through a revolutionary, system-changing politics, or whether it's about reshaping (and if so, through what agencies?) the existing set of more-or-less normative institutions governed by existing political parties and techniques in so-called democratic societies. What's exactly is your your thinking on this? I well understand that the answer may not be an either/or fitting perfectly into the terms of my question above, and I also don't want to nail you to the wall and say your thinking is wrong for reason x or y. No, not at all. I'm just really curious how you see this. An exchange like the one we are having can't go much further without a definition of what politics is and how it leads to the attainment of what kind of power.

You seem to oppose culture to power, in the way that illusion is opposed to substance. It's an unusual position for an art historian to take, but that only makes it more intriguing. Do you think that subjective delusion is the main result of the visual art, literature, music, etc that is distributed in cultural institutions and studied and commented on in universities? Do you further think that such delusion (or whatever else you want to identify as the force or effect of academic/institutional art and culture) is akin to and on a seamless continuum with contemporary commercial culture, such as pop music, movies, TV shows, etc? Here again, we have to define the meaning of "culture" to know what we're talking about.

OK, now I'll say what I think, or at least begin doing so.

To answer the above questions, I would have to narrow our object down to the forms of art and culture that have been the most characteristic of the neoliberal era, and to do that I would have to go into a discussion of the ways that institutions (particularly universities and museums) have changed in that era, in relation to parallel changes in manufacturing and electronic distribution media, both broadcast and networked. I'd have to do that because I think art and culture have played different roles in the past, and in marginal spaces of the present, and therefore they could also play different roles in the future. Anyway, I did carry out those kinds of analyses in my essays of the 2000s, so here I am just going to presumptively agree with you and say rather brutally, yes, the paragraph above is basically what I think. Culture both academic and commercial participates in a compensatory hyper-individualization that leaves its subjects, not only with very limited access to money or the capacity to exercise violence, but more importantly and worse, with no way to generate any organizational force in society. Which is how I define political power.

Now the trash part.

If one produces art and culture - that is, formalized aesthetic objects and/or discourse about them - for distribution on circuits of consumption where the products become rapidly obsolete and then must be replaced with others, one produces trash. If, at the same time, art and culture are understood to be major forces in the shaping of subjectivity, then one produces oneself as trash. Therefore, "I'm trash." Meanwhile capital, both monetary and social (in Bourdieu's famous categories), is accumulated by those who control and reshape the circuits of distribution for their own ends - namely, to accumulate more capital, meaning money but also the capacity to exercise violence, including the symbolic violence of psycho-social coercion, manipulation of unconscious fears and desires, etc.

It seems to me that the statement "I'm trash" is interesting because one can act on it in at least two ways. First, one can refuse to produce more art and culture for distribution within the current institutional and media circuits. Second, one can refuse the ambition to swap one's abject trash-producer position for the seemingly higher one of gatekeeper or "trash politician" (ie editor, curator, network manager etc). But if you do decide on those twin refusals, then what? What do you do? Where do you go?

I am curious how people answer this question - yourself, Blake, and anyone else who cares to answer. I don't find the short answer, "politics," to be very convincing unless it entails actual political organizing. Alternative ideas of politics, alternative political philosophies, alternative conceptions of political economy, etc, are widely available and, alas, widely distributed in the neoliberal institutional and media markets. I personally decided to largely withdraw from the markets which I used to occupy with my cultural production, and from which I used to extract both money and the attention of peers (that's the double refusal mentioned above). I withdrew, because, well, I didn't want to be trash.

However, I have occupied myself with art and culture all my life and one of the conclusions I've come to is that art and culture are decisive influences on the formation of the subject - ie the self, the personality, the individual, the moral character, or whatever name you want to give it. Art and culture participate directly in the government of the self, and thereby form a foundational element in larger formal constructions of government, as thinkers from Schiller to Foucault have emphasized. To that extent, they are, or at least, they can be important. However - and this is crucial - they do not replace the edifice that rests on them, and therefore are not the decisive levers of political power, as a typically neoliberal discourse like culture studies has claimed.

For decades I have written about the role that art and culture play in the development of individual autonomy, and I have held fairly stable views about how that autonomy can be exercised so as to generate political agency. I can go into that a little more in some subsequent post, but in very brief terms, from my position as someone who is neither a political organizer nor a bureaucrat (both of which are estimable positions, just not mine) I focus on a necessary but discontinuous relationship between three things: 1, the institutionally structured attempt to achieve relative individual autonomy, 2, the effort to use one's relative capacities of autonomous evaluation and decision-making to participate in civil-society formations, and 3, the bid, on the part of such civil-society organizations, to exercise collective poweron the really existing state. Of course, doing all this means that at some point one does have to try, in your hilariously ironic phrase, to "see like a state." However you'll probably agree that the last thing one ought to do is identify with the really existing state that confronts us today.

Although I am mostly involved with 1, I have always shaped that involvement with a direct relation to 2, and in view of 3. In other words, I don't consider my activities in art and culture to be trash, but nor do I mistakenly confuse them with politics properly speaking. Precisely that confusion is what sells, for a while, as a novelty item, later to be thrown away for another one, etc. What interests me are the social mediations that cause a really existing state to see in particular ways. Later I would also like to discuss some of those mediations, on both the right and the left.

The above declarations are all just outlines. There are as many questions to be asked about them as I have asked about the definition of politics and of the state. A real discussion takes a lot of time. But each piece in it also has to be relatively short, otherwise it's just another essay - and at this point, another essay runs the risk of being more trash...

all the best, Brian

On Fri, Feb 2, 2018 at 7:32 AM, Blake Stimson <> wrote:
Thanks for the generous response Brian, and very glad that we now agree that we agree on the parts listed. Let me try to attend to the part still in dispute. In the end I think we do largely agree even about this---that is, we are both focused on what you call “binding norms”---and only differ in the balance of culture and politics needed to get there.

One pastiche that has resonated with my 20yo working class students’ critique of woke politics (and grey beards) is the SNL bit “Thank You, Scott” []. (I don’t know if the Louis CK #MeToo revelations have redirected or just augmented their feelings.) Generally, they have the same feeling about most versions of political art and intuitively understand (and have contempt for) virtue signalling. Of course, this does not mean that they or any of the rest of us don’t express and seek confirmation of outrage and other feelings or that we all don’t seek to understand the machinations of power. But they do seem to generally understand that power lies in power and not in attitude or understanding. This means that they intuitively understand that power lies in either money or the capacity for violence and not in culture. They intuitively understand that culture is what people get in lieu of power.

What they are generally confused about is how to acquire power. Indeed, in their self-reflexive understanding or intuition of that confusion they sometimes think that all they will ever have access to is culture. A running theme in a class last term was the _expression_ “I’m trash,” a phenomenon that the group of 40 students all identified with and wanted to discuss. As they presented it, the phrase performs a variety of functions but overall is a generational marker associated with two characteristics: more and more varied cultural consumption than other generations and less access to power than other generations. Like any such generational marker, its realism for them is a badge of honor and a measure of strength and accomplishment. 

I take Bruno Latour’s account of the “Lovelockian object” or the thing in his “parliament of things” or the actor in his actor-network theory to be a useful enough account of the experience of my students. As you will know Brian, Latour describes his actor/thing/object’s experience of world this way:

there is nothing specific to social order; that there is no social dimension of any sort, no ‘social context’, no distinct domain of reality to which the label ‘social’ or ‘society’ could be attributed. …  [Indeed, it] could use as its slogan what Mrs Thatcher famously exclaimed (but for very different reasons!): ‘There is no such a thing as a society.’

The sloganeering pride in this passage (both Thatcher’s and Latour’s) is like that of my students’ _expression_ “I’m trash.” That is, it is full of a sense that the old guarantees that were once the promise of society (“liberté, égalité, fraternité,” “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” retirement and unemployment insurance, etc) no longer hold leaving one to navigate the networked flows of material life on your own, and increasingly outside of all law except that which protects property. My students are proud that they are effective actors in the networked flows of culture but they also realize that in so being they are reduced to mere things, mere trash. They also realize that increasingly the only way to have power in our evermore Thatcherite/Latourian world is to amass wealth so that you have more power than (and thus don’t get crushed by) the next actor/object/thing. 

Like I said above, clearly we both seek binding norms that will lessen suffering, produce more freedom and provide a long plan for the environment and everything else. The question is how to get there. We agree that “art is the domain of experience in which people beset by hopelessness can regain the conviction that effective political action is possible.” You argue that having the right “affective presence,” “conceptual framing,” “cultural imaginary,” “recogni[tion of] the value of people's labor,” “dynamics of cultural change,” etc makes meaningful political change. My argument is that culture doesn’t matter except insofar as it sucks us out of institutions that actually have power in the world (leaving them to the Kochs and their ilk) or draws us back in.

The reason I responded so favorably to your grey beard mea culpa was not because I wanted to “tell people why they were wrong in the past.” We are all those people; we all got sucked down the rabbit hole with the cultural turn. The reason I responded so favorably, you will recall Brian, was because I thought you were right when you said this:

The core question of a democratic society is not "how do I become free?" Rather it is "how do we govern ourselves?" Crucially that means: with which institutions, under which rules, backed by which constraints [and, I would add, which power]? If you do not answer these questions - as the entire anarcho-libertarian spectrum including myself did not, throughout the neoliberal period - well, then it turns out that others, like the Koch brothers or Cambridge Analytica, will attempt to answer it for you.

Art’s role, if it wants to be meaningfully effective, is to help us move beyond that misunderstanding of the core question. Making the shift will be tough, for sure--you are right that it has dominated our thinking throughout the neoliberal period, the onset of which you date to 1968, and it still does--but even our own period will come to an end. When that happens our period ruse of culture, actor-networks and the like will certainly fall aside to reveal the power behind. The crucial question, of course, will be whether, when the dust clears, it is in the Kochs' hands or ours.

Yours, Blake

On Thu, Feb 1, 2018 at 2:24 PM, Brian Holmes <> wrote:
Hello Blake -

I think you've made a nettime first by listing the points where we agree! That's much appreciated. The list will likely stop right where it is, but still, I'd like to expand my take on this point of disagreement:

Where we differ Brian, if I understand you correctly, is in where agency lies. I tried to make this point in our original exchange and put it this way in the synopsis posted to the list (just prior to the part you quoted): “shaking our fists at institutions has not proven to be very effective politically.”

Well, critique and protest are a moment or aspect of politics, but when they do not produce results one is led to engage with other moments. Which of them can generate agency? It may be useful to idealize the state, in order to get a better grasp of its functions and possibilities, and a lot of your effort seems to lie there, Blake. However, one also has to work with real state institutions. What I've observed over the last twenty years is the persistance of entrenched forms of power (industrial, financial, military) and the extreme difficulty of bringing these powers to account in the arena of the state, where norms are legislated and resources are allocated. I think knowledge is one of the keys to collective agency, but not the only one.

Whether it's ecological, military, racial or labor issues, nothing changes until there is an applied understanding of the situation stretching from the grassroots into the state, by way of professional and educational milieus and then media (both mass media and narrowcast). The important word here is applied understanding, which you can also call hands-on knowledge or praxis. It means, for instance, that someone films a policeman killing an unarmed person, then someone else (at first an individual, then a media outlet) circulates that video, then someone else (first citizens, then lawyers) defends the right to use it as evidence, then someone else (now in the state) prosecutes the person who pulled the trigger, and further, yet someone else (who is typically a member of a political party) runs for attorney or mayor or governor. The state only comes in at the end of the sequence; but all along it, people are at grips with the issues both theoretically and operationally. Just as importantly, the people involved relay their acts and their statements to each other, often very deliberately, and the meaning of what they are doing is spread through the educational and cultural circuits: that's solidarity in action.

What I've described above is the general formula of an effective relationship of civil society to the state. More specifically, it is also the central sequence of the "woke" politics connected to Black Lives Matter. So even if there are other, less productive aspects to present-day racial politics, I still don't get why you use the term "woke" so negatively.

I'm a professional intellectual and artist and I want to be part of these kinds of political sequences. What I now focus on in my own activities are ecological questions that have become central to industrial societies and that involve everyone as producers, consumers, or both. Long ago I realized that people in the left-progressive-liberal spectrum (from the DSA to the Dems, in the US context) were increasingly ignorant of industrial production, which they simultaneously critique and depend on. Here I do see an excess of critique over applied understanding, which I think is one of your concerns. So anyway, with Marx on my side I became a lot more curious about the how, who, when, where and why of industrial production, and when I returned to the States I realized this could be seamlessly extended to agriculture. To get at least one step beyond the relative insignificance of a private person who writes essays and makes maps, I have helped found art groups in the Midwest such as the Compass and Deep Time Chicago, which among other things investigate, as publicly as possible, the how, who, when, where, and why of industrial production. I'd suggest that coal, oil and uranium are the most widely shared vectors of social violence (I am employing them right now). Corn and soybeans are not so directly connected to war as energy products, but they are just as connected to climate change and they mark out still more common ground where both individual behavior and public policy really matter. One can rightly accuse particular corporate and financial actors of making things worse in these domains (a number of them they really do) but any substantial transformation of the status quo has to be systemic and requires collective changes in behavior compelled by binding norms. There's a tremendous field of struggle here, and in my roles as an artist and intellectual I find that both the affective presence and the conceptual framing of the material practices involved are crucial to making those struggles effectively political.

Many criticize the term Anthropocene for minimizing the role of non-human actors or for extending the responsibility of climate change to all peoples and not just specific classes, However I use the term in all my current work, because human societies are at the center of ecological dynamics and everyone who metabolizes and burns is a part of global ecological change, though to vastly unequal degrees, where the inequality always matters. Now, the activities of the groups I work with are starting to scale up and we're starting to see what kinds of alliances are possible in a situation of open conflict over Anthropocene issues - conflicts rendered perfectly explicit by the Trump administration. How to participate in these conflicts without contributing to the polarization between producers and consumers that Trumpism feeds on? That's a major question. To answer it involves expanding the cultural imaginary with the help of science, art and education, because the ability to perceive the contours of an activity and to distinguish what it's good for and not good for are essential prerequisites to any kind of normative political deliberation between parties. In particular, I think there is a lot more to be done in terms of recognizing the value of people's labor in domains which nonetheless have some very bad consequences. How to reach a valuable accord with apparent political enemies? How to exit from damaging accords with apparent political friends? These questions define politics, short of violent revolution anyway (and there are many reasons for thinking that violent revolution is not on the horizon).

I do not really know what you refer to when you speak of "comradely feelings of shared power," and frankly, all your formulations of that type sound nostalgic for an imagined polity, rather than connected to any real one. Still the things I'm doing aim to generate - or simply participate in - active solidarities that cut across social divides without producing any false consensus.

I was only able to get interested in Bruno Latour when his work began to take on explicitly political dimensions, starting about ten years ago and accelerating ever since. Latour gave a great lecture recently in Chicago, at UIC. He said among other things that science is what allows us to perceive climate change, politics is what can act on it, and art is the domain of experience in which people beset by hopelessness can regain the conviction that effective political action is possible. Intriguingly, I found out by talking with him that among the artists he admires and works with are my former collaborators, the arch-radical mapmakers Bureau d'Etudes, who themselves have evolved quite a bit over the last decade. This encounter gave me an insight into the dynamics of cultural change.

I do not disavow any of my previous engagements with art and radical protest, even if I do consider most of the specific concepts, forms and goals of those practices to be obsolete. Critique does not necessarily dead-end into angry catharsis: it can also produce actionable knowledge. Art doesn't necessarily dead-end into utopia: it can also open up chances for experimentation with reality. Getting woke is a collective process, with twists and turns. Maybe the effective thing is not telling people why they were wrong in the past, but following and/or leading along pathways that can set things right in the future.

thanks for this very clarifying debate, Brian

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact:
#  @nettime_bot tweets mail w/ sender unless #ANON is in Subject: