Leisurely reflections on art, knowledge, education
Chris Marker’s Le joli mai (1962) is an essay-film that documents the modernization of French society amidst the hushed and repressive period of the Algerian war of independence. Midway through this idiosyncratic catalogue of social change there is a staged interview with two far-sighted engineers who describe the technological future that is unfolding beneath their eyes. Machines have already been invented, they explain, which will render work unnecessary; labor will be a thing of the past. Existing hierarchies will lose their material necessity: a civilization of free time, of leisure for all, will emerge. But why then does everyone behave as if nothing had happened, the interviewer wants to know? Nonplussed, one of the engineers responds: “It is possible that the future world will be divided in two terribly contrasting clans, the initiates and the non-initiates. Obviously it’s a problem… not a technical problem, but a problem of consciousness. Technology now allows human beings to be free; why don’t they want to be free? I can’t answer you. In fact, I don’t have any idea.”1
The utopias of the sixties arose from this theme of technologically granted leisure time, opening up the space of civilizational play that had been described by the Dutch author Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens. Perhaps the most extraordinary image of these dreams is conveyed by the drifting cities of New Babylon, elaborated in the form of scale models by the architect Constant: an infinite proliferation of experimental constructions snaking across the European landscape, forever unfinished, offered to playful appropriation by their inhabitants who could also simply leave them behind, to lose themselves in the surrounding nature – while beneath the ground, in subterranean galleries that no one even bothered to describe, all the production necessary for existence was carried out by robots.1 In the same period Guy Debord, a friend of Constant and a reader of Huizinga, wrote of “the battle of leisure is taking place before our eyes” and called on artists to “take a stand in favor of what will bring about the future reign of freedom and play.” As he explained: “By obtaining through collective pressure a slight rise in the price of its labor above the minimum necessary for the production of that labor, the proletariat not only extends its power of struggle, it also extends the terrain of the struggle. New forms of this struggle then arise alongside directly economic and political conflicts.”2 The technique of the dérive, the ludic “science” of psychogeography, the forms of unitary urbanism, and the construction of situations were to be the tools for this extension of the struggle to the new terrains of culture. It was a matter of overcoming passivity, of sparking a new protagonism within the fields of civilizational play. But even these artistic tools contained the possibility of misuse, as a regressive, commercialized culture industry was there to demonstrate. The critical complement of Situationist aesthetics would be an analysis of the commodification of consciousness in the spectacle society.
Today, when the “battle of leisure” sounds like a ludicruous piece of rhetoric from the past, the technological dream of Marker’s two engineers has largely come true, at least for the middle classes in the globalized centers of accumulation. The shocking thing is how few people allow themselves to realize it. The postmodern information economy pulses before our eyes, with its words, sounds, images and ambiances, a semiotic surround built up from pure imagination – and in that respect, free for the taking. Over the last decade, various upheavals on the cultural-political terrain have shown that the tools of this economy can be reappropriated, transformed and diverted to other uses. Experimentation with the Internet has been inseparable from an upsurge of radical democracy, this time on a transnational scale. Street protests, dramatically growing in size and energy around the turn of the century, have seen a fresh flowering of the art of constructed situations.3 The aesthetic institutions themselves – whose normative functions will be discussed below – seem to be assailed once again by an intense debate over the value of art, and the paths of its expansion outside the traditional frames. But as conservative demands for new forms of population control gained legitimacy under the shadow of September 11, a question arose for the million insurrectionary minds of today. Will a repressive hush fall back over the emergent world society, as the postmodern tool sets are gradually outfitted with surveillance mechanisms and encumbered with intellectual property laws, while dissident behaviors are pacified and normalized within corporate frames? Or will a resurgent artistic activism learn from its historical failures, and launch new and more effective techniques for the free and open transmission of countercultural knowledge? How to enlarge the circle of initiates? How to increase the possibilities of active participation? How – and where – to extend the terrains of struggle?
Living in the Aesthetic State
Let’s take up these questions from the very beginning. Art’s potential to catalyze social and political change lies in the variable forms and successive displacements of an invitation to play. Far from having been invented by the Situationists, the conception of art as the quintessential object of free subjective play is a constitutive element of democratic theories of education, with origins stretching back to the Enlightenment. The classic example is Friedrich Schiller’s Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, published in 1794 under the enticing and terrifying spell of the French Revolution.4
The letters were initially addressed to an aristocratic patron, but ultimately appeared as an epistolary treatise for a bourgeois public. The central argument concerns a “play instinct” (Spieltrieb) acting as a mediator between a sensual drive leading outward to a compelling diversity of experience in time, and a formal drive leading inward to a coherent identity of self in the eternal realm of ideas. In this way, Schiller conceives a double status of aesthetic experience: at once passionate and placid, exciting and serene, capable of harmonizing the energy of action and the calm of thought. The treatise has multiple goals: it seeks an equilibrium between the empirical knowledge of nature and the intellectual intuition of reason (Kant’s phenomenon-noumenon distinction); but it is above all concerned with a more urgent balance between the political force to effect social change and an ideal of justice to guide that potentially savage force. At stake is art’s capacity to lend a particular form and rhythm to the relation between intellectual contemplation and active engagement with the world.5
Schiller’s educational program was expressly intended to temper the kinds of violent passions that had produced the Terror in France, and to guide the inevitable development of future revolutions toward the harmony of what he calls “the aesthetic state.” This required, not the forceful imposition of a norm, wreaking on humanity the violence that an artisan applies to a block of wood or stone; nor even the dissimulated violence that a fine artist applies to material, in order to bring forth an ideal image. Rather it entailed a more subtly persuasive approach from “the political and educating artist” who must be capable of “making man at once his material and his end.” The subtle strategy of play was supposed to move the democratic citizen from the unruly condition of the “man of time” to the Olympian calm of the “man of idea.” As we read in the fourth letter:
“Now two ways present themselves to thought, in which the man of time can agree with the man of idea, and there are also two ways in which the state can maintain itself in individuals. One of these ways is when the pure ideal man subdues the empirical man, and the state suppresses the individual, or again when the individual becomes the state, and the man of time is ennobled to the man of idea.”
The ennoblement of sensibility by a regulatory idea: here is the educational program for aesthetic play in the bourgeois democracies. Its institutional development extends from early Enlightenment museums such as the Fridericianum in the German principality of Hesse, or the encyclopaedic Louvre in revolutionary France, all the way to the temples of abstraction that emerge in the nation-states of the twentieth century and the cultural theme-parks of imperial capital that confront us today. What is important to understand, when one reflects on vanguard, counter-cultural and subversive artistic proposals, is the depth and sophistication of the politics of subjectivation that is enshrined within this evolving program of aesthetic education.
The goal of the dominant politics is always to offer a voluntary, but supremely attractive path to the reinstatement of social authority within the individual. And the counter-example of this civilizing process will always be some form of terror (from Robespierre to the Red Brigades, or the Black Blocs, or Bin Laden). To speak of the spectacular fetishes of contemporary aesthetic institutions is certainly part of the truth: but at another level, the museum is also deeply involved in fabricating the elite individual as producer and manager, master of him or herself, of others, of machines, of the natural world. The revolutionary individual is not to be crushed, but should ultimately become the new regime. The procedures of deskilling and deconditioning, the anti-disciplinary revolts deployed by the early vanguards against the remains of a bourgeois ideal of ennoblement, then by mid-twentieth century artists against the quality standards and technocratic abstraction of the corporate capitalist societies, are only understandable as a struggle within this dominant politics of culture, conceived in Schiller’s terms as the psychic vector of a social status quo: “free play” as the intimate and voluntarily cultivated instance of the state. This is what we are up against, if we seek, like the Situationists, to invent “an essentially new type of games.”
Seizing the Grids
Consider Alexander Trocchi’s plan for a “spontaneous university” in his fabulous text on the “Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds” published in Internationale Situationniste 8 (January 1963). Trocchi recognizes creativity as the major force of the modern economy, grasps the strategic importance of leisure time, adopts the Situationist displacement of the terrain of struggle, and proposes an “invisible insurrection”: “The cultural revolt must seize the grids of expression and the powerhouses of the mind.” The spontaneous schoolhouse of revolution is planned to begin as a “cultural jam session” in a vacant building not far from the City of London – “within striking distance of the metropolis,” as Trocchi says elsewhere.6 To survive and grow into an “experimental town” of artists, thinkers and inventors, it will establish an agency for the management of patents and the commercialization of artistic products, as well as a “living museum” and a restaurant for visitors. It will launch branch facilities near capitals across the world, where resident-creators will be able to spark off a “renewed and infectious sense of life.” Trocchi seeks artistic autonomy, an escape from the existing forms of cultural mediation: “Our first move must be to eliminate the brokers.”
The text is brilliantly written, calling on its readers to take “control of ourselves” as the first step toward an artistic organization of human becoming. But what about the destinies of its actual proposal? Today we can easily imagine the drift from an iconoclastic adventure like Black Mountain College to far more lucrative ventures like Bob Wilson’s Watermill Center (a summer school/production facility for high-end spectacular products) or Bruce Mau’s Institute Without Boundaries (an idealistic design school currently touring a populist exhibition on “Massive Change”).7 Still more obvious would be the shift from Warhol’s experimental Factory to Benetton’s neoliberal Fabrica.8 But for the extremes of aesthetic instrumentalization, consider the career of Victoria Ward, who studied literature and modern art at Cambridge, directed the research department at the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange and was Chief Knowledge Officer at NatWest Markets before going on to found the Sparknow Knowledge Management consultancy in 1997, for work with corporate clients and the British government.
Ward uses postmodern spatial design, complexity theory, cognitive mapping and contemporary art as learning tools for increasing executive performance in cutting-edge information economies. In one article, devoted to a participative installation piece – a garden shed/scriptorium, designed to unearth the productive dreams of high-level knowledge workers – she quotes Beuys, Brian Eno, Mark Dion, Bruno Latour, the Domus academy, the anthropologist Victor Turner, George Hein on the “constructivist museum,” Frances Yates on memory and Gaston Bachelard on the poetics of space. The goal is to create a physical, symbolic and human matrix for the complex and uncertain manufacturing of corporate knowledge. The conclusion of the text raises the idea that an “invisible infrastructure” might be necessary for the intangibles of managerial creativity; and in a comment added in 2002, Ward says that the consultancy operation itself must become a “playground”!9 As though Trocchi’s proposal had finally made it – but in inverse form – to the City of London.
The regulatory idea of the contemporary “aesthetic state” is clearly no longer any kind of reasoned egalitarianism. Instead, it is provided by the algorithms of global finance, with its ultra-rationalized and yet ultimately disastrous agenda for social development. For the past thirty years, this politics of the semiotic economy has structured the rhythm of subjective investments, the relation between self-understanding and action, between intellectual contemplation and active engagement. Now the urgency of deconditioning makes itself felt once again in vastly expanded cultural circles, even as the patronage of imperial capital exerts increasingly stronger channeling and framing effects. How to introduce a subversive “free play” into circuits of exchange that have been built up on the dogma of dematerialization, liquidity, liberalism? How to twist the grids of expression outside the control of the managerial elites? How to eliminate the brokers?
Models of Displacement
The most significant cultural experiments of the last decade have involved the relations between virtuality and actuality, information and embodiment, networked communications and the urban labyrinth. By their nature, such experiments do not happen in universities or museums; they partake in the shift of social production from enclosed, disciplinary structures to the open space of the metropolitan territory. What some consider as the failure of contemporary movements to provoke institutional transformation can be better understood as a strategic displacement of the invitation to play. The results of this shift are processual social events, modulated by symbolic exchange and concretized by punctual encounters, which in the most dramatic cases can literally take the form of insurrections.10 But if the strategic site of cultural change – or the new “battle of leisure” – has in fact moved outside institutional walls, then the museum seems to lose its exemplary position as a “model,” able to symbolize real processes of change that are unfolding within it.11 Does the traditional site of aesthetic experience, the museum, then become irrelevant?
Activists have often drawn such conclusions, out of an understandable suspicion toward channeled and dominated play. But they might be missing something, namely, the potential of models to overflow their spaces of containment. In a book entitled Cartographies schizoanalytiques, published in 1989, Félix Guattari sketched out a complexity matrix – what he called a “meta-model” – for understanding the processes of heterogenesis, or how subjectivities singularize, how groups split off from the dominant norm. Guattari’s meta-model distinguishes four interacting poles, or “functors.” These are: existential territories; energetic and semiotic flows; abstract machinic phylums; and incorporeal universes of reference (also known as “constellations of universes”). The four functors are arranged in a square, where the lower axis of flows and territories represents something like an actualization (“actual powers of disorder”) and the upper, a virtual realm (“virtual potentials of complexification”12). One could take this as a division between the sensible world and the intellect, as in Schiller’s approach; but that would fall rather short of the dynamics that Guattari is looking for.
What we are asked to understand, on the right side of the square, is the way that the subjective inhabitation of a familiar territory is at once rendered more consistent and at the same time continually destabilized, shifted, by the rhythmic insistence of specific constellations of affects (images, musical refrains, patterns, intensities). And on the left, how really existing technologies and operative semiotic systems are at once informed and at the same time deterritorialized, transformed, by the evolution of abstract discourses and symbolic codes (scientific, juridical, philosophical, etc.). The specific force of aesthetic experience – including, not artworks as such, but their intangible presence within sensation – is to effect the subjective shifts, making possible other machinic couplings, other maps of existence, other process of social protagonism and change.
Guattari conceived his schizoanalytic cartography as a meta-model, a way of reading the diverse maps of human existence in time. But this kind of reading is not merely contemplative, academic: it constitutes an invitation, an opening for intervention, whereby the observer inevitably becomes part of the map, precipitating its transformation. The art circuit today – including not just museums, but the enlarged and diversified networks of experimentation, debate and display – can function as a public site of initiation to this kind of reading, making it a new form of common knowledge, too broad and unpredictable to remain under corporate control. In this way, art can help reactivate the suspended promise that sixties’ thinkers saw in the expansion of free time. If it can avoid capture and “ennoblement” (or conversely, brutal repression) by the pervasive powers of the corporate capitalist state.
The artworks before your eyes appear irreducibly singular, tangential, distant; and everything else that gives consistency and dynamism to dissenting subjectivities – the discourses, the technologies, the territories of intervention – is necessarily elsewhere, displaced into another space. Yet even within the seeming calm and neutrality of the museum, these constellations of distant universes are inviting you to play an essentially different kind of game.
1 Cf. Mark Wigely, Constant’s New Babylon: The Hyper-Architecture of Desire (Rotterdam: Witte de With Center, 1998) and Simon Sadler, The Situationist City (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999).
2 Guy Debord, “Report on the Construction of Situations” (1957), www.bopsecrets.org/SI/report.htm.
3 See Brian Holmes, “Do-It-Yourself Geopolitics.”
4 Text available at www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/schiller-education.html.
5 See the text by Suely Rolnik, “Politics of Flexible Subjectivity” for an exploration of the changing rhythms of sensibility over the last forty or fifty years.
6 From Trocchi’s second text on the university project: “sigma: A Tactical Blueprint,” at www.notbored.org/sigma.html.
7 www.robertwilson.com, www.institutewithoutboundaries.com, www.massivechange.com.
8 La Fabrica’s website speaks for itself, at http://www.fabrica.it. On Warhol’s relation to the semiotic economy, see Brian Holmes, “Warhol in the Rising Sun.”
9 See “Designing Knowledge Spaces that work for Learning” at www.knowledgeboard.com/item/259/pg_dtl_art_news/pg_hdr_art/pg_ftr_art. For the work that Sparknow really does, see http://www.sparknow.net/clients.
10 For these ideas, Brian Holmes, “Transparency and Exodus,” in Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Essays in Reverse Imagineering (New York: Autonomedia, 2008).
11 For an example of this double function of the museum in the sixties, see the documentation of the exhibition-event organized by the Danish artist Palle Harding, The Model for a Qualitative Society (1968) as well as the text “Play and Nothingness” by Lars Bang Larsen, in The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds: Twenty Proposals for Imagining the Future, exhibition catalogue, Sala Rekalde, Bilbao, Spain, 2005 [the text you are reading is included in the catalogue].
12 Félix Guattari, Cartographies schizoanalytiques (Paris: Galilée, 1989), pp. 133-34.