The significance of art for the #Occupy movement

Here’s the panel organized by Chris Mansour of the Platypus Affiliated Society on “The Significance of Art in the #Occupy Movement,” on which I spoke with Maria Byck and Noah Fischer at the Left Forum.  Karen Archey, Pam’s old friend and roommate from Chicago, was originally supposed to be on the panel as well — and I would have paid good money to see her go at it with Noah (after their much-publicized feud in the media) — but she ended up getting a paying gig in London while the Left Forum was going on.

Some of the audience questions were great, especially on the communicability of art in the service of politics, the ideological function of art (i.e., as performance piece, as agitprop, as a beautiful object), the viability of art in an administered vs. a stateless society, and the problematic formulation of a “return to realism.”  Thanks to everyone who came out, either as audience members or as panelists.

Below is the text of my opening remarks.

Luigi Russolo – “Rivolta” (1911)

Of Guilds and Musea: An Inquiry into the Historical and Political Dimensions of Art in #OWS

Early in the first chapter of his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx observes that

just as [men] seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.  Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.

It is thus perhaps to be expected that during our present moment of political upheaval, we should look to the struggles of a bygone age for guidance.  What distinguishes this crisis from the other great outpourings of popular unrest witnessed over the last few centuries, however, is the rather jumbled and confused manner in which the past is being reappropriated.  The detritus of dead epochs is dug up for all to see, whereupon it is hastily sifted through in search of anything that might admit of creative reuse.  Recycled revolutionary catchphrases appear hoisted above the scattered throngs of protestors.  Placards demanding “All power to the General Assemblies!” are held up beside banners reading “The Oakland Commune.”  Some signs advise us to “Be realistic — demand the impossible,” while others inform us that “Another world is possible.”  Slogans of more recent coinage can also be seen: “People before profit!” and “We are the 99%!” Sewn together from disparate sources in the history of the Left, #Occupy almost seems to represent a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of the radical imagination.  Here might lie the unconscious motivation behind the highly publicized “zombie march” that took place in those early days of #OWS, even if the marchers understood themselves as portraying the brainless dupes of corporate greed.  At this point, however, the ahistorical residue of postmodern consciousness takes its revenge on history: the past becomes pastiche. Continue reading

Platypus International Convention, Chicago 2012 (March 30th-April 1st @SAIC)

2012 Platypus International Convention banner

Plenary 1: The 1990s Left today (Friday, March 30th, 2012)

Description: After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union soon after, a new political era opened, in which Marxism was discredited and anarchism became predominant on the radical Left. The most pressing challenges of post-Cold War neo-liberal globalization came amid an era of prosperity at the supposed “end of history.” Postmodernist disenchantment with “grand narratives” of emancipation meant a turn against “ideology.” Social “justice” rather than freedom became the watchword for a better world. “Resistance” and “horizontal” or “rhizomatic” politics provided a model for “changing the world without taking power” (as John Holloway, inspired by the Zapatistas, put it). Information technology — the rise of the internet — matched the new cosmopolitanism. The global order of “empire” confronted by the “multitude” demanded access to the “commonwealth” (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri). The “death of communism” challenged the Left’s imagination of an emancipated future. “Black bloc” protest and “communization” theory replaced traditional socialism, as the 20th century came to an uncertain close.

Plenary 2: The 2000s Left today (Saturday, March 31st, 2012)

Description: As a result of the 9/11 attacks, the War on Terror rekindled anti-imperialist protest, even while it seemed to deliver a grave blow to the newly emergent World Social Forum, “alterglobalization” movement. Neo-conservatism in the U.S. presented the specter of growing divisions in the global order, to which the world’s most vulnerable might fall victim. Religious fundamentalism appeared to surge. Disenchantment with capitalist development accompanied the social imagination of ecological crisis and economic downturn: the desire for a “green economy” and apparent need for decreased consumption. At the same time, new intensification of global migration of workers presented challenges for political integration. The U.S. and allied wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond, were met by an anti-war movement and a new generation of radicalization. But the wars were eclipsed by financial crisis and Obama’s election, bringing anti-austerity protests (setting the stage later for #Occupy), as the first decade of the 21st century ended with the economic crisis lingering and even deepening, scotching hopes for a reversal of neoliberalism and return to “Keynesian” social investment policies. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism both stood in disrepute, but without presenting a clear alternative for the future. Continue reading

Derick Varn of The Loyal Opposition to Modernity interviews Jacob Cayia of Platypus. Excellent job to both. Derick is admirably spare and understated in his questions; it’s something I could stand to learn a great deal from. I always feel the need to preface every question with a long narrative. Derick gets straight to the point while still being able to frame the course of the discussion, letting the interviewee have his say. Very good.

An interview with Domenico Losurdo on his book, Liberalism: A Counter-History, for The Platypus Review, conducted by Pam Nogales and Ross Wolfe (3-17-2012)

Video from the interview that Pam and I conducted with the Italian Hegelian-Marxist philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo for the Platypus Review:

The interview took place in the Best Western hotel at which Losurdo was staying for the Left Forum, in the public dining room. Some people occasionally wandered in and out, which accounts for some of the ambient noise.

The strategy for the interview was that I would approach the questions from a position of extreme familiarity with Losurdo’s work, while Pam Nogales would use her expertise in the history of the American Civil War, the great Haitian Revolution, and the Revolutions of 1848 to address specific historical and interpretive claims that Losurdo made. Personally, I think it was fairly effective. We are, again, extremely grateful for Professor Losurdo’s graciousness in granting us such a long and detailed interview.

He was extremely flattered, by the way, that I had read all of his work that has been translated into English. He even expressed surprise when I mentioned off-camera his essay “What is Fundamentalism?”

He said: “You know this essay? But it has not been translated!”

To which I replied: “Yes it has. It appeared a few years back in Historical Materialism.”

Pam remarked to me that I knew his own work (at least in English) better than he did! But of course his work has been translated into many languages, so he can’t be expected to keep track of all of it.

Domenico Losurdo to give a talk at the CUNY Graduate Center

Who wants to go see Domenico Losurdo discuss the problematic legacy of political and economic liberalism for radical politics? Anyone living here in New York and interested in the history of the Left should attend. I just finished writing up a draft of a review of his book, Liberalism: A Counter-History.

In writing it, I have read pretty much all of Losurdo’s work that has been translated into English. While I disagree with his interpretation in certain important respects, his critique of liberalism must be taken very seriously.

“What would (or should) a Leftist, revolutionary art and critical practice look like today?” (Guest post by Paul Brennan)

El Lissitzky - Sketch for PROUN 6B

by Paul Brennan

Like revolution, socialism, communism, and Marxism, like any conception that would have it that there is an alternative to capitalist ontology, today the avant-garde is as extinct as the proverbial dodo. The age of militant artistic publicity seems a long, long century ago. Back then there was still a future, one that could be determined by the productive, social imagination. The historical avant-gardes, pitting themselves against the demarcation that separated the creative from the social and political, were natural allies of revolution. Not always the right kind of revolution, of course, as the example of Italian Futurism, with its militarism and misogyny, and later fascism, shows. And not always, or even often, without a large quantity of crankery and self-indulgence to go with the inspiration. Still, surveying the early twentieth century scene, it is striking how different was the conception and practice of art compared to today. True, there were painters and writers and composers for whom art remained a trade, a form of petty commodity production, but there were others, many others, at work on projects which they pursued with an idealism that would make them a laughing stock today. These could be those like Breton or Maiakovskii, for whom the creative was inseparable from the idea of a new society, or those like Joyce or Pound, politically equivocal or even downright reactionary, but who made it so intensely new that to imagine proper readers for their works was to imagine an entirely different order. Today, figures like Joyce and Pound seem to belong to an entirely different world.

Last year Penguin Books published 100 Artists’ Manifestoes: From the Futurists to the Stuckists. It is an enthralling read, at least initially; after the excerpts from Situationist writings — and surely Situationism is the moment when the avant-garde achieves its most fully realized conception of the need to erase the boundary between life and art — the sad truth begins to sink in that the avant-garde has become a joke. The movements that define the boundaries of the text tell a story. Marinetti’s Futurists represent the Ur-form of the avant-garde — the moment when it was possible to declare that “time and space died yesterday” on the front page of Figaro and not only become a subject of mockery. By the time of the Stuckists any mockery one can imagine the artist’s tracts receiving seems completely justified. It is avant-gardism — or at least an avant-garde gesture — against the avant-garde, a silly, merely reactive whinge against conceptualism and a call for a return to figuration in painting.

One reviewer of 100 Artists’ Manifestoes suggested that Alex Danchev could have improved his book by including a selection of the documents published by a group that appeared in 1999, the International Necronautical Society, which threw down its marker by publishing its first manifesto, in an homage to Marinetti, on the front page of the London Times ( The INS deserves attention; not at all because it has rekindled the true flame of the avant-garde, impossible anyway, but because it at least evinces some ambition and does represent a focused, immersed response to the historical avant-gardes and their place in modern cultural and political history.

The INS is a “parodic” or “ironic” avant-garde, indeed it styles itself a “semi-fictitious avant-garde network,” but it is not the self-consciousness of this organization that distinguishes it from the historical avant-gardes. Self-consciousness was a built-in, preconditional quality of those movements. The classic account of this may be Peter Bürger’s, in Theory of the Avant-Garde (1972). In this now somewhat derided text (it flatters no one and is hostile to any claim that there can be a valid “tradition” of the avant-garde) Bürger charts the history of modern art as a story of autonomy achieved (in the moment of the bourgeois revolutions of the late eighteenth century) and then relinquished, when artistic self-consciousness, by the time of the late nineteenth century found itself dissatisfied with the available alternatives of artistic practice as either petty commodity production or aestheticism. The avant-gardes, for Bürger, wished to surrender their autonomy in return for an art rejuvenated by social relevance — hence the radical politicizations of art of the early twentieth century.

The self-consciousness, the reflexivity, of the INS is different. It is a organization that at once holds itself aloof from the narrowness of (particularly) contemporary British art and literature, but seems equally incapable of taking seriously the utopian projects of the historical avant-gardes. For this reason it presents itself as a kind of parody of a totalitarian state or party, merged with the attributes of movements like Surrealism and Situationism. Members can be expelled for the slightest infraction, if not shot. There are committees and sub-committees, communiques, and “agents.” The military aspect of the avant-garde is maintained, but with acknowledgment that it is more appropriate today, in our society of spectacular capitalism, to think of such activity as a kind of espionage. All of this with tongue firmly in cheek.

More striking is the death-obsession of the INS. Its members conceive of themselves as “necronauts,” travels or voyagers into death. This seems to me symptomatic of the place that the avant-garde has arrived at. It is no longer possible to think of an expansive, adventurous artistic activity, one outside of the Culture Industry, other than as life placed in a relation of perpetual adjacency to death. Its “General Secretary,” the now well-known novelist Tom McCarthy ( gives special importance to the Freud of the Death Drive, to Heidegger, Bataille, and to Blanchot. The philosophical stance of the group (Simon Critchley is the INS “Philosopher in Chief”) is decidedly anti-humanist, with a particular hostility to Hegel and Marx. The emphasis falls on the post-structuralist “textual” author, on literature and art as networks, and on technology.

If the near-corpse of the Left is to be revived, then art will have to be revived with it. In the past leftists argued over what a healthy form for a radical art might be. In the age of great realistic fiction, Engels criticized novelists too quick to believe that they had to sacrifice verisimilitude for the sake of propaganda. Trotskii, in Literature and Revolution (1924) endorsed the idea of the avant-garde, but had many cogent criticisms to make of the artistic and cultural schools of this day. Lukács provided a defense of the realist novel against modernism in The Historical Novel (1937). In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno conducted a seminal discussion over the questions raised in the former’s “Artwork” essay (1936). Benjamin argued for an art appropriate to the “environment” which was “being prepared for us by technology” and advocated a practice that would seek to hurry along the extinction of the “aura” and that would be, at the very least, “completely useless” to fascism and its “aestheticization of politics.” Radical art would be a marriage of technology and tendency. Adorno responded by insisting on the value of artistic autonomy, emphasizing artistic technique over technology, as a last-line resistance to the onslaught of commodification. Examples could be multiplied, for Marxism has a rich legacy of aesthetic debate and discussion. (One place to look is the Fredric Jameson-edited anthology, Aesthetics and Politics, which contains writings by and exchanges between Lukács, Bloch, Benjamin, Adorno, and Sartre.)

Today art and literature mostly seem to be a business. One could be forgiven for characterizing them as merely a niche industry supplying a rather snooty form of entertainment commodity. The situation visàvis the critical understanding of art is little better. Who cares, you may say, there are other priorities. But the idea of art is inseparable from the idea of the imagination and the imagination is in turn inseparable from the idea of another world, and so I ask, what would (or should) a Leftist, revolutionary art and critical practice look like today?