Questions posed by Chto Delat? (What Is To Be Done), for a debate in Paris on the actuality of the avant-garde:
1. How can we understand autonomy in reference to art in today’s context?
2. Is it possible to talk of the avant-garde without vanguardism; a conceptualization of political subjectivity which has been understandably discredited by historical experience and the failed event of 1917? In what ways could the avant-garde open possibilities of alternative futures or pose structures of “life to come”?
3. Are we talking the avant-garde again because of the possibility of a new political event post-Seattle? What new social subjects have emerged through this event who could inspire contemporary avant-garde gestures?
We are confronted today with the emergence of a global society, a society of constant mobility and interchange, marked by a violent paradox: just when this world begins to come together, it begins to fall apart. This is a risk society that exalts and rewards creativity; with the result that it is saturated in art. It is exemplified on the subjective level by the so-called creative class, it runs on invention power, innovation has become its productive norm. For those very reasons, it denies the existence of artistic vanguards, just as it denies and represses anything like a political avant-garde. The globalizing process itself is supposed to be the only vanguard. Let’s try to look beyond that double denial.
What characterizes the autonomy of a vanguard formation? At the very least: rupture with the established definitions of art and politics, priority of experimentation, renewal of perception and expression, constructive aspiration and the desire of another life. The most expressive elements of the new social movements that emerged around the turn of the millennium have partially fulfilled this agenda, through a process of transculturalism and transsubjectivity, utterly different in that respect from the unitary projects of the historical vanguards. But this is a moment of latency and regathering for social movements; so maybe now is the time to try to determine the rupture on which their constructive aspiration is based.
Global society is a risk society: it embraces all forms of instability and calculates them as potential profit or loss. These kinds of calculations are proposed directly to the imperial extractive corporations by risk-management consultants, working in tandem with insurance companies and mercenaries. But they are also evident in more polite civil society, and most clearly in the financial sector, which despite its tumultuous oscillations has become the guiding force of global development. If the figure of the artist has emerged as this society’s ideal subjectivity, it is not only because aesthetic production is required to cover up all the proliferating vectors of capitalist depredation with a fascinating gloss of spectacle. It is also, even above all, because the artist is seen to embrace instability on the psychic level, and then to escape that instant of subjective risk by shedding off its image as a finished product, i.e. a commodity. The expressive valence of the artistic commodity then becomes a source of psychic instability for others, continually relaunching the productive cycle among the creative classes (which is a new name for the transformed middle classes of the earlier Keynesian period). Through this continual risk and reification of the self, the artist is able to realize a profit on the oscillating curves of his or her own subjectivity, reconceived as “human capital.” Here we have the fountainhead of invention power. And precisely here is where we need to make the break.
Now, I want to observe at this point that the strategy of the tragically incomplete or fragmented object, the image of broken totality conceived as a mirror of the unreconciled subjectivity – in short, the Adornian aesthetic – is not really contradictory with the mainstream and indeed the norm of artistic production in the risk society. Because we are no longer living in the Keynesian world of the 1950s, when the populations of the most developed nations were being immobilized for mindless production and passive consumption. At that time, one could denounce the grand modernist artwork as the pacifying image of a narcissistic whole: the last, degraded ersatz of bourgeois harmony. Today, the populations of the most developed nations, along with the elites of the least developed ones, are being mobilized for the intensification of global imperial conquest in the relatively short time that remains before ecological and social catastrophe. In this situation, the aestheticized commodity produced by invention power fulfills the function of an unsettling, stimulating force: like a shot of speed or better, another snort of cocaine for the creative classes. The question is, how to go beyond their febrile repetitions?
The typical historicist mistake, when trying to assess the conditions of a vanguard art and politics, is to take the bourgeoisie, and above all, classical bourgeois culture, as the site of rupture. The dominant class in the world, politically and culturally, is no longer the European bourgeoisie with its Enlightenment aesthetics, nurtured in the manicured gardens of the old trading cities. Instead it is the Americanized imperial technocracy of a nascent World Government, which results from the fulfillment of modernism and industrial modernization. Since the end of the Second World War and the final collapse of Western European hegemony, the radically simplified techniques of scientific reductionism and abstract art, on which modern subjectivation is based, have made it possible to extend the new American imperium at formerly inconceivable speeds. By spreading their computerized toolkit around the globe, and in the process, doubling the number of people in the capitalist labor force, the elites of World Government may not have accomplished a greater bout of deterritorialization than the one wreaked upon the world by the European colonial bourgeoisie. But they did it, not in four centuries but in less than twenty years, essentially since 1989, with the consequence of tremendous social and political upheaval – presently giving rise to a planetary civil war, whose misnomer is “terror” (and “the war on terror”).
Now, if I evoke Ulrich Beck’s notion of the risk society, it is not only to refer to the forms of risk management practiced by the new global elites. It is above all to refer to Beck’s notion of the “second modernity,” wherein the success of the modernization project comes to alter the very environment in which it takes place, producing side-effects of essentially incalculable risk. I’m speaking of economic collapse, political conflict, ecological disaster and the mass alienation produced by the globalization of possessive individualism. The specter of these risks is what provoked the ruptures of Seattle, Genoa, Porto Alegre, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Cancun, Hong Kong and all the rest. Here is where the possibility of something like new vanguards begins. The site of rupture is precisely the site where the new technological toolkits are applied to the flesh of planet Earth. The transformation that this rupture implies should now be radicalized both artistically and politically, through deliberate experimentation, which is another name for the process – and not just the instant – of becoming-other.
Art is no longer about the work, just as politics is no longer about the party. Both these domains are entirely under control, they are zombie categories. We need instead to look at situations, at complex assemblages, from which speaking subjects and groups may emerge. Significant experimentation takes place at the sites where technoscientific power is applied; this experimentation is carried out in order to develop new forms of perception and expression, adequate to the transformation of the global society. The sites of experimentation are double, contradictory, and in that sense they are perhaps analogous to the contradiction between the commodity and the thing, developed by the vanguard philosophers of the twentieth century. But the present configuration is entirely different.
On the one hand, perception and expression are bound up with energy, technoscience and code, that is, with the techniques whereby the globalizing elites are reshaping the planet. There is an urgency to awaken from the fascinated embrace of one’s own psychic instability, and perceive the material and organizational processes whereby the techno-elites are “terraforming” planet Earth, that is, subjecting it to total makeover. But this perception can only be obtained through the scrim of technology, that is, through the contemporary universalizing techniques of transportation, communication, visualization, and physical transformation of materials. No constructive aspiration can be developed in ignorance of these techniques, because ignorance – and by that I mean the increasingly profound unconsciousness of infrastructural development – makes it simply impossible to resist the changes. But as everyone is surely aware, exposure to these techniques bears the incalculable risk of self-transformation or indeed self-loss, profound alienation, manifest in the trap of recodified, formatted expression.
This is why the assumption of technological risk at the very site of its application to the flesh requires, on the other hand, a contradictory experience of time, which one might call the time of the other. The time of the other cannot be reified into a determined historical identity. Such historicizing identities now arise, throughout the world, as normative constructs imposed in reaction to the process of deterritorialization, or the disembedding of entire populations from the matrix of their sustaining institutions. As the world comes together through the power of deterritorializing abstraction, it risks falling apart into normative identity blocs, strengthened by every possible technique of political manipulation – but for that reason, inherently blind to the larger process, the double movement. The expression of a new kind of agency, and indeed, the very capacity of perception that allows it to come into human being, also has to work through these identity-veils.
The time of the other can only be experienced, or better, experimented, between people who in the process become foreign to themselves. The question of translation thus moves to the center of the artistic and political event. The event of temporal translation replaces the vanguard artwork; its co-articulation replaces the vanguard party. Such events have been prefigured in the dialogical mode of carnivalesque resistance; but they have yet to be developed in deep affective and effective ways. Through and beyond the scrim of technological perception, through and beyond the reactive identities, what remains to be expressed is the constructive aspiration to build sustaining institutions, able to contain and transform the destructive forces now at loose in the world. The desire of another life.