Resilient Autonomies and Homo Sacer

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One

 

“We represent the new,” chorused the serried melee in the square.  The time-beaten obelisk at the heart no longer represented any social cohesion or governmental rigidity; instead, it seemed to the Mayor as he regarded the public gathering with resignation, it stood as an ironic reminder of a distant memory.

   The Mayor’s aide seemed to be hiding in his superior’s shadow, fearful to fully comprehend the unfolding events.  “Anarchic is possibly the wrong word,” he mumbled to himself as he scribbled his report in a dog-eared journal.  The heavy wooden doors below began to strain against an incipient, inevitable insurgency.

   Dieter struggled to remain upright in the claustrophobic commotion, which was steadily growing as more townspeople, unable to deny the infectious public righteousness, added their voices to the furious jeremiad.  His father, now unable to maintain his grip on Dieter’s little hand, watched helplessly as his only son disappeared underfoot.

 

In the above passage the reader is encouraged to identify the despotic element, or the force that is applying excessive pressure to the status quo: is it the mayor or the angered mob?  It can, of course, be both to varying degrees, but it is perhaps the deeper truth that which has led to the related situation is the genuine locus of despotism.  The apparatus which has perpetuated the unspoken oppression of the people has also frustrated that peoples’ own government.  For the apparatus is not, per se, the government.  No, the government belongs to the state which is, for lack of a more suitable term, the concrete state of “is-ness.”  The apparatus is merely the inter-relation between the state and the subject.  In this instance, the inter-relation has ruptured – the despotic apparatus is caught between civility and anarchy.  If we can identify the despotic element, then it is a thermodynamic certainty that there is also a resilient force to be uncovered.  In this passage, as the despotic force is ambiguous, so too is the resilient force.  There are forces both internal and external, utterly abstract yet at the same time as powerful as steel, which have compelled the fictional populace above, and which eternally compel our “real world” populace to act either in accordance with the apparatus or in defiance of it.  What has led to the civil unrest is largely irrelevant, for the narrative is clearly on the cusp of a revolution: the mayor will be overthrown and a new figurehead of a new democratic system will replace the old, non-functioning apparatus.  The new system will inevitably find resistance as did the old, and resistance molecularly: all forces have resistance, and the greater the former, the greater the latter.  And what of the obelisk at the centre of the square, and what can we make of its significance to the passage?   This is a question of both Deleuzoguattarian territorialisation and Foucauldian archaeology of power, in that monuments and statues have since antiquity stood at the heart of the civic public space and, for myriad heterogeneous reasons, served to generate psychic, habit-forming familiarity from which the state has consistently benefited.  Municipal landmarks are of the refrain, marking out radial parameters of subjective docility, whereby the quotidian maintains an almost totemic feeling of safety within the subject.  It is panopticism with an inverted gaze insofar as the subject is imbibed with implicit citizenship in the presence of the civic article, and acts in accordance with a specific set of principles in order to maintain that citizenship: to do otherwise would break the subject from the norm and externalise it from the polis.  If a government operates in proximity to the familiar, then the likelihood of its subjects responding obediently to the governmental rule is greatly increased.  The obelisk in particular dates back to ancient Egypt, where it would be inscribed with hieroglyphs declaring the close relationship between the king and the sun god, thereby installing the notion within the state’s citizenship that the sovereign was, if not equal to, then certainly shared a juridical peerage with the gods, and whose rule was therefore absolute.  This would be strengthened by the gold or gold alloy pyramidal tip of the obelisk which would capture the morning sun and lend drama to the life-giving power of the gods and – by extension and owing to the proximity of the obelisk to the centre of power – the sovereign.  In our, decidedly more secular, times this arcane facet of a long-since disregarded belief system seems backwards – twee, even.  Yet the basic foundations of government and sovereignty still remain, and in some crucial aspects the destructive tendencies of this top-down power structure are more insidious than ever before.  What is One Canada Square (or Canary Wharf Tower as it is more colloquially known) if not a perfect replica of the obelisk, even in its apical metallic roof?  Kings and sun-gods have been usurped by finance, data management and biometric mapping representing the new sovereign-gods of control – capital, surveillance, information and pharmacology, all orbiting and feeding from both a literal technology and the technology of the apparatus.  The building’s architect Cesar Pelli has thus commented on his pyramid design:

 

“The pyramidal form makes a three-dimensional building of what would otherwise be just folded planes. It also strengthens the Axis Mundi, the vertical line that goes through skyscrapers and connects Heaven with Earth. This connection has been recognised in many cultures for several centuries now.”[1]

 

The Axis Mundi claims not merely geographical centrality so much as the centrality of absolute sovereignty, and the term Axis Mundi is here used by Pelli with pronounced hubris, for the very notion of architecture being in any way connected to the heavens in this way (particularly an architectural embodiment of neoliberalism localised within so affluent and capital-focused area as Canary Wharf) is (at best) laughable, and (at worst) repugnant.  Therefore it serves us better to dismiss such claims as arrogance.  Better we should consider the modern-day obelisk in the same secular light as the Omphalos in Greek lore, the “navel” of the world as located by Zeus by sending two eagles from polar opposites of the earth so that, when they met one another in the middle, the absolute centre of the world could be ascertained.  Obviously, this is absurd both geographically and logically, yet when we remove the mythology completely we are left, as in the present-day scholarly understanding, with a functional synonym for the home.  When we first meet Buck Mulligan in Joyce’s Ulysses he is proclaiming “our’s is the omphalos!” with only the vestigial trace of religious analogy: the semiotic root of his statement is of belonging, patriotism and domesticity.  This is how we should view the obelisk, and by extension the municipal function of the monument.  Here the town square has been replaced by a major capitol city, and the means of control are a thousand-fold more sophisticated: the citizenship is, on the whole, docile and subservient, even in the face of the knowledge that they are so.  Indeed, it is this docility which precedes belonging that provides for many a secure sense of identity.  The apparatus is responsive to what Lacan would refer to as a lack (in the strictly Lacanian sense of the integral component of the desiring machine which brings desire into being, yet also increasingly in post-industrial dynamics of power relating also the Deleuzoguattarian notion of lack being an essential machinic connector in and of itself).  In a 1977 interview, Michel Foucault said:

 

What I’m trying to single out with this term is, first and foremost, a thoroughly heterogeneous set consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus it- self is the network that can be established between these elements…by the term “apparatus” I mean a kind of a formation, so to speak, that at a given historical moment has as its major function the response to an urgency. The apparatus therefore has a dominant strategic function . . .[2]

 

By which I mean” is an essentially mutinous statement, in that it overthrows the preceding statements originary linguistic function.  It rejects the apparatus of language only to affirm the validity of the apparatus of language, and so here Foucault unwittingly enters into a dialectic economy which can only ever circle back on itself and thus proves that a) a precisely balanced economy lacks the vital energy necessary for the momentum of bodies (thought, linguistics, law, culture and so forth) throughout an apparatus and b) the state’s liminal contiguity with language is based on the exception, and that state’s juridical order is presupposed not by the norm, but by the relative alterity of its subjects (the exception which proves the rule is analogous to the state of exception).  This is but one of many ouroboric instances of a thing that is missing which proves the existence of the thing.

The state of exception to which Foucault refers is instrumental to an understanding of Homo Sacer and its relationship to what I propose as Resilient Autonomy.

 

Two

 

Giorgio Agamben cites oikonomia, that relationship of power within the home, as the genus of our modern word “economics.”  “oikos” being Greek for (loosely) “of the home” and “nomos” denoting a system for the distribution of law.  Interestingly, the absolute ruler of the household was in ancient Greece known as oikodespotes, which gives us an indication of the absolute nature of the domestic power structure, which to some extent survives to this day (and not solely in the West).  In accordance with the metropolis, the body mirrors the metabolic vicissitudes of the state apparatus and, if the home is of the state, then so too is the body of both state and home.  The body acts either in response to the edicts of the city-state – i.e. when it either conforms to or defies societal norms – or the mundane exigencies of the home: the paying of bills is essentially the domestic embodiment of the sovereign tribute.  Similarly, as with the body-state-home trichotomy, the body-domestic is subject to its own power dynamics, and constantly finds itself in and out of balance in the economy of the home.  Arguably, the domestic relationship is little more than biological response to the subject’s relationship to the state-machinic norm and just as susceptible to intricate power relations.  The stasis of civil war finds its ontological basis in the home, therefore when the dynamics of power are enervated to the extreme we find similarly extreme examples of crisis and separation: violence, ostracism, delinquency and divorce – the logical and ontological denouement of stasis.  Thus, the economy of power within the home is a microcosm of the economy of power within the state.  Of course, economics can also diffuse power into a less articulated paradigm of energy, and in this way we may find – in the cultures of classical modernity – an economy of drama, an economy of comedy, and economy of art, and so forth (literally ad infinitum).  For every apparatus there is an inherent and necessary economy (for Agamben, however, such economies are eternally self-destructive when they are despotised or, more specifically, given over to sovereignty).  Of course, apparatuses may be, and frequently are, fused together, whereby elements of the apparatus of comedy find their way into the larger apparatus of drama; whichever apparatus has the greater economy is by default the greater apparatus, and in this way drama (if its economy is lesser) can be incorporated into the greater apparatus of comedy.  Unite the above passage with Kafka’s In the Penal Colony: both narratives present the relationship between the state and the apparatus, yet Kafka’s parable (for it is without a doubt a parable, albeit one which has been paganised) illustrates the apparatus literally.  Indeed, the opening sentence comes directly from the officer in charge of the story’s juridical practice: “It’s a remarkable piece of apparatus.”  Kafka uses the officer to detail every contrivance of the device in question.  For instance,

 

“Both the Bed and the Designer have an electric battery each; the Bed needs one for itself, the Designer for the Harrow. As soon as the man is strapped down, the Bed is set in motion. It quivers in minute, very rapid vibrations, both from side to side and up and down. You will have seen similar apparatus in hospitals; but in our Bed the movements are all precisely calculated; you see, they have to correspond very exactly to the movements of the Harrow. And the Harrow is the instrument for the actual execution of the sentence”[3]

 

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The officer, eventually in a fit of passion for his invention, submits himself to the procedure, whereupon the convicted man’s sentence is agonisingly inscribed upon his own back, This denouement is of specific interest here, as it is at this point that Kafka turns the story over to comedy, in a cartoonish manner embodying the trope of the commanding officer taking the malfunctioning gun from his subordinate and looking down the barrel, only for the gun to fire in the commanding officer’s face.  Only then very briefly does the apparatus of comedy become the greater apparatus. My attempt at fiction portrays the apparatus in abstraction, yet both serve to illustrate the machinery of state as it tests the resilience of the apparatus (the apparatus and the machinery, it should be noted, are entirely interchangeable synonyms denoting either the literal machine or the metaphysical apparatus).

 

The resilience of any body to the greater organism can be measured only by our definition of “resilience,” residing as that word does within the realm of relativism.  Resilience is from the Latin resiliens, present participle of resilire (to rebound, recoil). It serves us better here to interpret the word more in terms of a state of non-buckling, or indomitability – that which can be stretched and yet still resists.  We must not take the word for all in all as doing so places it in one of only two binary semiotic ends: entirely resilient or not at all resilient.  A resilience to the strata, or despotic homogeneity in relation to the social, geographic or temporal situation of the autonomy (or body) – this is how we must perceive the word, as a paradigm of fusion and diffusion.  As the elasticity of the resilient body is stretched, so the substantive principles are multiplied and spread.  As the same elasticity is snapped back, so the constituent bodies and essences are merged into one.  Purely forward and reverse osmosis.

 

Is the greater organism always a despotic force?  No, but the ease with which the economy of power leads to despotism is such that it makes little difference.  The ultimate aim of the politician is to maintain the balance of power in their favour indefinitely, the execution of which necessitates despotism.

 

Agamben also, in Homo Sacer and via Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, gives us the theoretical dichotomy of Bios and Zoe – the former being the political and privileged body (the biological-becoming-the-bios politicos) while the latter a heathenous animal state (we may conjugate “Zoe” to the nominalized “zoological”).  Bios is also biographical or the realm of inscriptions where the subject is inscribed into the juridical, political machinery of the state through representation.  Bios Politicos is precisely the human mode of existence that differentiates and elevates the human from its animalistic background and privileges it by conferring language.  The animalistic voice (that of bare life) registers pleasure and pain, and yet only the human being has language – or a complex semantic system of values and degrees – with which to properly articulate these and other more complex body-dynamics.  According to Aristotle, language is the enablement of the individual to define what is just or unjust within the political sphere, the eruption and intervention of the zoological into the bios (the bios politicos), which is the accepted proper human political order. The two are become intermixed and indiscernible in today’s modernity, in which Agamben criticises the democratic nation state as presenting itself to the victimised Third World populations that it assists as essentially democratic, whilst at the same time hiding the fact that they are patently the opposite.  Ostensible democracies (the democracies in which we in the west are fortunate enough to live in) are actually not democracies as we might like to think of them: they are totalitarian states, masquerading as democracies. This can be evidenced by an examination of the eruption of the biological and the zoological into domestic politics: the subject is theoretically treated as an individual rather than as a subject of power in the proper model of democracy.  The totalitarian state, on the other hand, situates the individual as an object of power.  Democratic nation states can de-invest the individual of political power at any time and, as the states of exception multiply, so too does the chance of any individual to become homo sacer.  Homo Sacer is the subject who has been removed from the political sphere, having enjoyed the status of bios previous to this removal, unlike zoe, which from the outset is bare life without ever having the privilege of bios: zoe in the purest sense is born and remains zoe unto death without there ever being a chance of the political life.  This is obviously the animal kingdom, although certain social stratifications of human life can be considered in this category: those born with severe handicaps or are terminally ill from birth are those for whom bios is an impossibility, whereas homo sacer is reserved for individuals who have had bios removed from them either through sociological reasons (criminality, politics or war) or biological reasons (coma patients are perhaps the best example of this).  Therefore, the very foundation of homo sacer is an evolutionary idea. Anyone can theoretically kill this “sacred” figure with relative impunity (a doctor may switch off a life-support system, for instance, if there are sufficient medical grounds for doing so) meaning that not only can they not be tried in a court of law they are also not stained with taboo or sacrilege.

 

The picture-perfect contemporary allegory for the Homo Sacer can be found within the pages of the British comic book 2000AD, where one can instantly discern this idea in The Cursed Earth.  A highly radioactive, barren wasteland which lies beyond the walls of Mega City One, The Cursed Earth is the area of banishment for the individual de-invested of bios.  Thus expelled from the city, the condemned is left to the mercy of the effects of radioactivity or killing by any of the mutated life forms who dwell there.   Exactly how far it extends and its exact mileage or kilometers in square units is unknown…The Cursed Earth could be a region specific to North America or it could be any irradiated wasteland in this post-apocalyptic world.  The Cursed Earth also resembles the deregulated landscapes which have found favour within other popular culture.  Films and television shows such as The Walking Dead have an obvious appeal, and specifically towards the beginning of the mise en scene: it is made apparent that there has been an apocalyptic event of some sort (in The Walking Dead this manifests itself in the form of zombie-forms, although no reason for their coming into being is ever given), by which the demands of the state have been silenced and – for a short period before anarchy and brutal survivalist chaos kick in – their absence provides the viewer with an exquisite sense of peace.  The apparatus has been suspended, and in this short suspension, as the political is rendered meaningless and the protagonist is reduced to bare life, there manifests the melancholy truth that, even in so brief a time, the reduced subject – the very essence of a bare life in the post-apocalyptic landscape in which no government can either grant a right-to-life nor demand the right-to-death is paradoxically more free than the political subject.

 

 

The “sacred” individual linguistically implies someone for whom the killing thereof would offend some manner of divine order.  Yet in much the same way as we have viewed both Pelli’s pretensions of Axis Mundi and the Omphalos in a neo-paganised, secular light, so too should we replace the divine order with a moral semiotic coding.  But homo sacer is in essence a paradox. This paradox is derivative of the individual in the concentration camp, which in reality is no longer a theoretical state of exception. Western subjects are unwittingly living in a virtual, incipient concentration camp, since any one of us can have our rights revoked at any time, and therefore can be killed with impunity.  Anything can be done to the citizen in today’s democratic/totalitarian society. Democratic modern states are actually not democratic anymore at all: in essence, their substance has undergone a transubstantiation process.  Sacred does not mean to be protected on religious or theological grounds: it simply denotes a belonging to the class of things which is outside of society. In both cases, it serves as an overflow valve for society, to allow for the system’s mobility. Things must be cast out and moved around to relieve pressure. There must be a place for loss to keep the system ticking over, like the missing square on a picture puzzle game.

 

This is where I deploy a semi-radical departure from Agamben by proposing that, rather than reading sacer as “sacred,” we should instead be interpreting the word as “forsaken.”  This opens up whole new possibilities for the understanding of homo sacer as both concept and juridical norm.  The Homo Forsaken is not subject to being killed, but rather of being made invisible in the eyes of the state and in this way it is a short theoretical leap between the state as it operates today and the famous Banality of Evil.  In the former model the role of turning a blind eye to injustice has been displaced from the subject or citizenship and placed within the governmental body.  This idea also bridges the gap between Agamben’s theory of a concentration camp-state and the modern-day state of exception and gives the concept historical weight by applying it to Hannah Arendt’s observations on Nazi Germany and the resultant trial of Adolf Eichmann.[4]

 

Three

 

As with the sovereign, the resilient autonomy occupies a state of exception, albeit in a non-juridical capacity, which is not to suggest that the resilient autonomy has no power to speak of.  If the sovereign is privileged with being both inside and outside of the law then the resilient autonomy is both inside and outside of the apparatus: it is the unlocalizable exception which resides inside society, yet which is governed by vicissitudes beyond society.  So the state is a constellation of bodies which correspond to one another, so the resilient autonomy feeds into that constellation only from without, and then only by necessity, or the necessity as provided by the state of exception.

 

“The exception is an inclusive exclusion.  Whereas the example is an exclusive inclusion (the example is excluded from the set to which it refers, in as much as it belongs to it), the exception is included in the normal case through its exclusion. It is this inclusive exclusion that defines the originary structure of the arché.  The dialectic of the foundation that defines Western ontology since Aristotle cannot be understood if one does not understand that it functions as an exception in the sense that we have seen.  The strategy is always the same: something is divided, excluded, and ejected at the bottom, and, through this exclusion, is included as the foundation.”

 

The inherent paradox of the state of exception is precisely this: if the sovereign is both inside and outside of the juridical order, then is this sovereign not also, by this standard, a classification of The Other?  Granted, the Other is established from the perspective of the larger apparatus and – to a somewhat lesser degree than the Homo Sacer – is denied certain constituent rights due to the Other’s lack of indexical characteristics.  When not lamenting the banal self-indulgences of the average travel writer, Claude Levi-Strauss identified a species of global alterity in a multitude of native tribes around the globe:

 

“The customs of a community, taken as a whole, always have a particular style and are reducible to systems. I am of the opinion that the number of such systems is not unlimited and that – in their games, dreams or wild imaginings – human societies, like individuals, never create absolutely, but merely choose certain combinations from an ideal repertoire that it should be possible to define. By making an inventory of all recorded customs, of all those imagined in myths or suggested in children’s games or adult games, or in the dreams of healthy or sick individuals or in psycho-pathological behaviour, one could arrive at a sort of table, like that of the chemical elements, in which all actual or hypothetical customs would be grouped in families, so that one could see at a glance which customs a particular society had in fact adopted.”[5]

 

The Other, in such cases, are viewed by the imperialist west as having lesser humanity or right-to-life, even though their value systems carry much the same moral and social encodings as ours.

 

“One of the elements that make the state of exception so difficult to define is certainly its close relationship to civil war, insurrection, and resistance.  Because civil war is the opposite of normal conditions, it lies in a zone of undecidability with respect to the state of exception, which is state power’s immediate response to the most extreme internal conflicts. Thus, over the course of the twentieth century, we have been able to witness a paradoxical phenomenon that has been effectively defined as a “legal civil war.” Let us take the case of the Nazi State. No sooner did Hitler take power (or, as we should perhaps more accurately say, no sooner was power given to him) than, on February 28, he proclaimed the Decree for the Protection of the People and the State, which suspended the articles of the Weimar Constitution concerning personal liberties.”[6]

 

Agamben’s use of Nazism as an exemplar here gives rise to further notions of territorialism.  There is a notorious photograph exhibited in the Holocaust Museum in Auschwitz, taken by David Seymour and depicting the orphan girl Tereska Adwentowska shortly after having been liberated from the death camps.  Tereska had been asked to draw “home” on the blackboard of her provisional school, and the result is what some have speculated to be rings of barbed wire, chaotically scribbled in a state of what would today be diagnosed as PTSD.  It is clear, in terms of “home,” that these lines are in fact lines of territorialisation, circling back into one another.  These are the lines of alterity, the Othered and the displaced.  Deracinated from the family unit and made to endure the unimaginable, the concept of territory yet remains.

 

A girl who grew up in a concentration camp draws a picture of home while living in a residence for disturbed children, 1948

 

Four

 

From the late 1980s until 2004, if one were to walk down Nottingham’s Lister Gate on any given day, one would in all likelihood hear the gentle cacophony of a child’s metallophone being played as randomly and as joyfully as though by an actual child.  Frank Robinson was, for fifteen years, a local legend in our city.  Dismissed by some as a simple-minded individual, and admired by others as a tenacious savant, Robinson only ever infrequently provided a full melody on his instrument.  Three Blind Mice was a staple, and during the Winter months the odd Christmas carol might be heard.  On the whole, though, the simple artless joy of creating sound for strangers was enough to motivate Robinson.  “I don’t pretend that I’m Mozart, I’m just having a bit of fun and keeping people entertained,” Robinson said in 2003 during one of the extremely rare occasions on which he provided any direct insight into his motivations.  It is too easy to think of Robinson as nothing more than an inept busker, or to infer lunacy, but he left his home every morning in exactly the same manner as one leaves for work, and devoted his time with as much professionalism, giving the lie to any consideration that he was not a man fully of his faculties.  No, it is in terms of a tenacious alterity with which we should approach such a subject, belonging to the same strata as Moondog or Daniel Johnston: artists who have the term “outsider” bestowed on them due to an essential non-marketability of their work, and artists who are often affected my mental health issues or, at the very least, are perceived as suffering from mental health issues which almost inevitably attaches a certain novelty value to their work.  Like the homo sacer in relation to jurisprudence, the artist who is received in this way is both inside and outside of the cultural economy.  The outsider is, in the neoliberal context, the artist or body who is privileged no protection from derision, dismissal or exploitation precisely because it is too problematic for official agencies to profit from their efforts, and it is in this way too that the Resilient Autonomy (or the outsider) is the homo sacer of culture. The artist may be killed, though not sacrificed – in simpler terms, the cultural industries may be instrumental in the artist’s obscurity, and yet for them to be officially recognised (via agency) and for that artist to find derision (a symbolic sacrifice) would therefore be the fault of the capitalist machine, and this machine must be kept in an immaculate light.  The semiotic chain is often too disrupted to be translated and understood, as in the case of Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band whose 1970 magnum opus Trout Mask Replica was at once dismissed by all bar the most discerning ear as incoherent noise.  For such artists it is vital to approach their work as Rorschach as opposed to a strict regime of signs and desires.

 

As one heads north on Lister Gate and takes a right onto Low Pavement one eventually arrives at the Nottingham Contemporary, which is the established hub of culture and centre for artistic innovation in the East Midlands.  The essential issue is that any municipal gallery is a chorus of multiple voices.  From the director to the front-of-house assistants, to marketing assistants, development officers, curator and programme managers before one even takes into account the various artists who display at the gallery.  One also has to take into account sponsorships, the Arts Council, publicity and legal interests.

This, in a nutshell, is the contemporary art world.  It permanently positions the subject in a state of exclusive inclusion, regardless of their status within that world.  Artists, viewers and curators alike are all bound up in an externalised interiority which presupposes a lack of authentic identity, spiritual ignorance and a dependency upon third-party stimulators to engage independent thought.  Though this thought is never truly independent, merely responsive to the suggestive nature of the art-subject dynamic.  There can never be any direct interaction between the work of the artist and the viewer, and it is this distant removal which defines the official apparatus when there are degrees of separation in which any larger bodies can intercept the semiotic exchange.  For the student (and not specifically the art student), a resilience towards (or defiance of) the institution is essential and perhaps because this will likely be among the first and most formative head-on encounters with the greater apparatus in any real sense.  The student is moulded by argument and academic conflict, and an economy of intellectual sharpness can arise from these ratiocinatory energies which the student is then in responsibility of either harnessing or putting to waste.  One is reminded of the profligate economy as described by Bataille in The Accursed Share:

 

The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.[7]

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Frank Robinson had but one stratification: that of Frank Robinson, and the only economy which mattered was an ingenuous, direct economy which gave more than it expected in return.  In truth, the very paradigm of a Resilient Autonomy: absolute singularity entirely unaffected by agency or exploitation.  His simple refrains were as birdsong which territorialised the cityscape in much the same way as (yet serving as counterpoint to) the obelisk.  It is not for nothing that Olivier Messiaen chose to mimic the sound of birdsong in his celebrated Oiseaux Exotiques, and it is similarly not for nothing that Deleuze and Guattari chose to refer to this in the chapter Of the Refrain from A Thousand Plateaus:

 

“…we must simultaneously take into account two aspects of the territory: it not only ensures and regulates the coexistence of members of the same species by keeping them apart, but makes possible the coexistence of a maximum number of different species in the same milieu by specializing them. Members of the same species enter into rhythmic characters at the same time as different species enter into melodic landscapes; for the landscapes are peopled by characters and the characters belong to landscapes. An example is Messiaen’s Chrono-chromie, with its eighteen bird songs forming autonomous rhythmic characters and simultaneously realizing an extraordinary landscape in complex counterpoint, with invented or implicit chords.”[8]

 

Nowhere in the established scholarship on Messiaen is a comparison made between Chronochromie and Hitchcock’s camera, which is at once astonishing and a strong indicator of a nomadic ear as, once one puts to one side the intentional evocation of birdsong, one can discern the cityscape among the seven strophes.  Granted, the camera is of a bird’s eye perspective, dancing as Hitchcock was repeatedly inclined between various ensemble exchanges, but the resemblance to the bustling metropolitan landscape is clear: the orchestra finds – through Messiaen’s gaze – conversations, altercations, revelry and commerce (and, in the midst of the first strophe, the chime of a bell can be heard) rebound off one another yet – in simulation of the utopian ideal – never resolve themselves with violence.  The music phrases are the audible intermingling of the bare life with the political life, or the bios as observed by the zoe.  It is perplexing, then, that Messiaen chose instead to codify his music in terms of colour palettes.   Certainly, colour plays a role in territorialisation, yet to use this as a referent in the stead of organic life is baffling.  This is what Messiaen had to say regarding his relationship with colours and synaesthesia “Intellectually, like synaethesiacs, I too see colours – if only in my mind – colours corresponding to sound. Like rainbows shifting from one hue to the next. It’s very fleeting and impossible to fix in any absolute way.  It’s true I see colours, it’s true they’re there. They’re musician’s colours, not to be confused with painter’s colours…I believe in natural resonance, as I believe in all natural phenomena. Natural resonance is in exact agreement with the phenomena of complimentary colours. I have a red carpet that I often look at. Where this carpet meets the lighter coloured parquet next to it, I intermittently see marvelous greens that a painter couldn’t mix – natural colours created in the eye”

 

Five

 

Remaining in Nottingham, if one takes a left at the opposite juncture from where we pursued Nottingham Contemporry, at the termination of Lister Gate, one finds oneself gazing up towards Nottingham Castle with all its decorous mascotry in the form of Robin Hood.  Robin Hood enjoys a unique niche in English folklore, because his entire legend hinges on a rudimentary socialism, a pre-Marxist of sorts. If Derrida was correct in saying that Marx is the spectre who will haunt Western society until the end of time, then Robin Hood could be perceived as his temporal opposite.  The mythological archetype occupies the demarcation of territory between historical accuracy being correct and yet not mattering and historical inaccuracy (and this too not mattering).  After this demarcation has been breached the mythological figure gains a transcendent and symbolic non-sovereign power which then channels out into striations of multiplicity whereby the body is co-opted, appropriated and usurped by the greater (capitalist) apparatus.  Robin Hood, whose existence (at least as the proto-Socialist as presented to us by the entertainment industry) is – at best – doubtful, is in his fictional embodiment both Resilient Autonomy and homo sacer.  Expelled from the political sphere and therefore left with no agency, he would – were it not for the very fact of Resilient Autonomy – be left for dead in the greenwood.  It is only when he finds agency, in the form of Little John, Friar Tuck, Alan-a-Dale etc., that the person of Robin Hood ceases to be a Resilient Autonomy and the organism of the Merry Men instead becomes a larger Resilient Autonomy.  Once popular culture took a firm hold of the myth of Robin Hood, his perceived role as the medieval totem of class warfare and state resistance became at the same time intensified and less credible, leading to the myth being reborn (in the sense that, with each incarnation of the figure and relative historicity surrounding it, all elements of authenticity – its very medieval quality – were stripped away to be replaced by an ideology which mirrored that of contemporary times; or rather, the ideology as repeated by the Big Other).  Valerie B. Johnson is quick to point out the considerable distinction between medieval and medievalism:

 

“…as an outlaw within a nominally medieval setting, the Robin Hood figure cannot be equated with a legitimate sovereign within a purely medieval context. From a modern popular culture perspective, in which medieval settings are often used and interpreted as a fantasy space instead of a historical place, the merging of contemporary (modern) political structures with historical settings in romance or fantasy novels is not only permissible, but desirable.”[9]

 

Hence the very reason – quite aside from capital opportunism – why the myth of Robin Hood must always be updated, regenerated and revisited.  Never a static, historically-locked figure but a transubstantiated golem formed of contemporaneous ideological matter, a one-size-fits-all indicia of justice serving to highlight real-world injustice ideologically pliable enough to connect with any given political zeitgeist.  This polished ideal of Robin Hood is crucial to the misunderstanding between medieval and medievalism as banditry, and banditry in fourteenth century England was precisely that, would have been a cut-throat affair entirely devoid of the sort of quixotic romanticism which accompanied the legend from the sixteenth century onwards, when the theatre became a truly capital venture.  This was the age of grand narrative morality, when Shakespeare filled The Globe to capacity, and alongside this the tale of Robin Hood became packaged up with such heroic flourishes as giving to the poor, and the pretext of Robin’s title and lands seized by the Sherriff and Prince John (neither of which existed prior to this time).  These liberal narrative additions serve not only to soften the endlessly-reproducible image of Robin Hood as an avatar for social justice (and thereby perpetuate the financial potential of that image), but also to coax western civilisation into the sense of security that comes with the belief that the figures they hold as just and representative of the moral biopolitical order as they perceive it are the same figures which the state holds in the same regard.  In this way, the state can operate in any given manner to any degree of opposition to the democratic notion of justice while, at the same time, endorsing an ideological figurehead of the same justice which it opposes.  As long as the populace trusts that their ideals are shared by the state in this way the state can function as ambiguously or as clandestine as it chooses indefinitely.

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Political history has, however, proven that the mythology of heroism and valour can be applied to literally anything.  Let us not forget that when US forces ransacked the palaces of Saddam Hussein they found therein extravagant portraits of the dictator battling oversized serpents in the honour of large-chested damsels-in-distress.  Shirtless, and with an impossibly muscular torso, this was how Hussein idealised himself in the fight against capitalist democracy.  As Jonathan Jones in The Guardian put it:

 

“In the end it is not enough to look at these paintings – as the brilliantly posed American soldiers seem to enjoin us to – as simply restating the iconography of the tyrant through the ages. The glorious rockets spurting heavenward seem a wish fulfilment in which sex and violence are not so much confused as blatantly, obviously, crassly identified in a meltdown of the brain. It’s hilarious, yes, but it’s without art, without disguise – a lumpen absence of the aesthetic, a shining hideousness.  And what are those monsters in the erotic paintings? For a start, it’s difficult to see that they are necessarily depicted as enemies. The viewer identifies with them. A dragon descends on a defenceless naked woman, the movement and force of the picture makes the dragon the male sexual actor, as in images of Leda and the Swan. In the picture of a male warrior fighting a snake while a blonde big-breasted woman on an altar touches the end of its tail, it’s not so much a rescue going on as a general psychic breakdown – the warrior isn’t necessarily going to “liberate” anyone with that sword.”[10]

 

Mythology is there to be manipulated by the most addled of ideologues.  The zealous dictator is, in truth, no different to the authors of medieval balladry in that any atrocity can be erased from the narrative.  The Democratic Nation States play exactly the same game when they impose the metanarrative of The Big Other.

 

Another well-known strategy of the state to depose of the Resilient Autonomy is – as has previously been touched upon – through either dismissal or exclusion on the grounds of insanity.  In fiction the paradigm of this strategy is Don Quixote, who battles with windmills in the fevered delusion that they are in fact giants and appraises monks as such:

 

‘Either I am deceived, or this is like to prove the most famous adventure that ever was seen; for those black bulks that appear yonder must be, and without doubt are enchanters, who are carrying away some princess, whom they have stolen, in that coach; and I am obliged to redress this wrong to the utmost of my power.’

 

This impression of madness is meta-textual in that the fiction signposts the inherent absurdity of the smaller organism going into battle with the greater organism.  Of course, in this as in many other narrative cases, the smaller organism does that very thing and eventually triumphs.  So, much like Robin Hood, Don Quixote is not fighting the forces of literal despotism so much as encountering the symbolic oppressions as supplied by the state for these very purposes.  If the state is opposed to the same agents of repression as the protagonist (and by extension ourselves as vicarious subjective observers), then surely the state is on our side?

 

Six

 

A Resilient Autonomy bypasses any agency of fear or control, the economy of which must stand for an overall redefinition.  A Resilient Autonomy employs reason – more often than not an autonomous reasoning – to counter the machinery of the state apparatus.

Like the Deleuzoguattarian Body without Organs, a Resilient Autonomy resists facile economy, instead entering into a multitude of bespoke inter-relational dynamics.  Thus, overarching government is rendered meaningless.  Agencies of control must be paganised.  How do we define “paganised”?  First, we must strip the word of all dogma, and must place paganism strictly within the plane of immanence.  It is not enough that we simply bypass religion.  We must go back and dismantle the architecture as it exists throughout the history of humanity, and the key word here is “dismantle.”  To destroy would be to eliminate the structural elements of religion, and these we must retain for posterity, for they hold mythology, sociology, psychology and history.  Paganise the fragments and reconstruct the history of religion from a standpoint of objective storytelling.  So much of western language is rooted in contentious belief systems that if the langue and the parole were to be fully paganised the differance (Derrida) would be far greater than a precarious semiotic fluidity could compensate for, resulting in a liberated, open system of language.  “God,” in a context of pure immanence, could then become synonymous with the oikonomia or – in extremis – the despot.  Agencies of repression have worn the mask of God so often and so consistently that we cannot trust history as it stands, so we must lose faith in faith itself.  Allegory is relegated to parable, and parable reduced to fairy tale, loaded with symbolism and signs of alterity yet signs based on secular ideology – and this secular ideology must as its main tenet maintain that the distribution of power of the church apparatus is despotism itself.  Is it to ask too much of nature to compensate for concrete definitions?  If so, then we should take it upon ourselves to hyper-secularise the iconography which history has until now laden with religiosity.  An apple is an apple, given all in all, ungoverned and indivisible by redundant divinity.

 

Artists (in the broadest sense) are Resilient Autonomies when they belong to no epochal franchise.  Generational factors of environment do not influence these artists, nor do the exigencies of trend or style.  In truth, stylisation would be the antithesis of resilient autonomy.  Nomadology would be the truest artistic form, subject to lines of flight, and the biunivocal relations between bodies which occasion these lines of flight.

A multiplicitous heterogeneity which is both the one and the many, the Body without Organs is micro and macro, whereas the Resilient Autonomy is always all things in totality and while the Body without Organs requires the fusion of all things as a machinic apparatus, the Resilient Autonomy is first and foremost of itself.  The Body without Organs does not stand in opposition to repression or despotism, but adapts itself to the becoming of a resilience, yet the Resilient Autonomy presents a basic challenge to the power over life whereby it manipulates, taunts and – when done exceptionally well – deracinates the biopolitical order.  History, and recent history especially, is abundant with examples of Resilient Autonomy.  When Rosa Parks made a stand against racial segregation by refusing to give up her seat for a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 she became a resilient autonomy and was arrested, charged with, and convicted of civil disobedience; in 1966 Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself to protest religious persecution by the South Vietnamese government in Saigon.  This was undoubtedly an act of resilient autonomy, as the subject acted alone and with no official agency, unlike Rosa Parks who had agency in the form of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); collectives such as The Black Panthers and Baader Meinhof can also be considered, for better or for worse, Resilient Autonomies.  The ideal symbol for a resilient autonomy, however, is the Unknown Protester of Tiananmen Square during the 1989 Chinese crackdown on the student protests of the inequality of the new communist-economic reforms.  The unidentified man is Resilient Autonomy par excellence, owing greatly to his very anonymity: affiliated with nothing, defiant in the face of the full power of the state, the Unknown Protester (and his endlessly-repeated image) is a paragon of the indomitability of the subject as an autonomous force which pushes back against the pressures of the despotic.

 

Tianasquare

 

Seven

 

At 10.45am on the morning of November the 9th, 1888 landlord John McCarthy sent his assistant Thomas Bowyer to 13 Miller’s Court in Whitechapel to collect overdue rent.  After knocking twice on the door, Bowyer peered through the curtain which was accessible via a broken window pane.  Inside he saw the slaughtered remains of Mary Kelly – Jack the Ripper’s fifth and final “official” victim.

 

“The body was lying naked in the middle of the bed, the shoulders flat, but the axis of the body inclined to the left side of the bed. The head was turned on the left cheek. The left arm was close to the body with the forearm flexed at a right angle & lying across the abdomen. the right arm was slightly abducted from the body & rested on the mattress, the elbow bent & the forearm supine with the fingers clenched.  The legs were wide apart, the left thigh at right angles to the trunk & the right forming an obtuse angle with the pubes. The whole of the surface of the abdomen & thighs was removed & the abdominal Cavity emptied of its viscera.  The breasts were cut off, the arms mutilated by several jagged wounds & the face hacked beyond recognition of the features. The tissues of the neck were severed all round down to the bone.  The viscera were found in various parts viz: the uterus & Kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the Rt foot, the Liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side & the spleen by the left side of the body.  The flaps removed from the abdomen and thighs were on a table. The bed clothing at the right corner was saturated with blood, & on the floor beneath was a pool of blood covering about 2 feet square…The face was gashed in all directions the nose cheeks, eyebrows and ears being partly removed. The lips were blanched & cut by several incisions running obliquely down to the chin. There were also numerous cuts extending irregularly across all the features.

finding-the-body-300x272@2x

 

This cold, objective appraisal of Mary Kelly’s body cannot disguise the horrific carnage committed by the killer.  At the time, Londoners were quick to place the blame for the murders on the Jewish community, recently settled in London from Russia.  Here we have power dynamics within power dynamics, if we consider that the victims of Jack the Ripper were among the tens of thousands of grievously oppressed poor in Victorian Britain, yet those oppressed poor were able to terrorise the local Jewish community which had, itself, barely escaped the Pogroms of 1881.  It is argued that the serial killer is a uniquely capitalist phenomenon, yet what is irrefutable is that the victims were to begin with Homo Sacer (in both the “sacred” and “forsaken” readings of the term).  What can also be argued is that Jack The Ripper was not in fact the originary perpetrator of the crimes.  No, that dubious honour belongs to the state.  Of course, the killer was the instrument with which the capitalist disposed of its dispossessed, but it took the existence of the state – and inevitably the state of exception – for these crimes to come about in the first place.

 

 

In its very nature biology is a totalitarian ideology. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, because of the way that it measures life (extreme examples being eugenics and genetics, although life support systems and healthcare screenings are tantamount to the same thing) it reduces people to their animal qualities.  Secondly, because it introduces the concept of the norm, and therefore the abnormal, those reintroducing or re-formalising the inside/outside dichotomy, in the way it measures life, reduces people to objects.  Agamben himself has refused to perform lectures at various institutions around the globe on the grounds that fingerprinting and bio-identification reduces the citizen to mere code.

 

“Electronic filing of finger and retina prints, subcutaneous tattooing, as well as other practices

of the same type, are elements that contribute towards defining this threshold. The security

reasons that are invoked to justify these measures should not impress us: they have nothing

to do with it. History teaches us how practices first reserved for foreigners find themselves

applied later to the rest of the citizenry. What is at stake here is nothing less than the new “normal” bio-political relationship between citizens and the state. This relation no longer has anything to do with free and active participation in the public sphere, but concerns the enrollment and the filing away of the most private and incommunicable aspect of subjectivity: I mean the body’s biological life.”[11]

 

 

[1] Herbert Wright & Johnny Tucker – Cesar’s Palace: One Canada Square.  21st November 2016.  http://www.designcurial.com/news/csars-palace-one-canada-square-5662559/

[2] Michel Foucalt & Giorgio Agamben – What is an Apparatus?  (California : Stanford University Press, 2009), p.2.

[3] Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories (New York :  The Schocken Kafka Library, 1971), p.233

[4] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (London : Penguin, 1963)

[5] Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (London : Penguin, 1973), p.303.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 2005), P.2.

[7] Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share (New York : Zone Books, 1988), p.21.

[8] Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p.320.

[9] Valerie B. Johnson, Agamben’s Homo Sacer and the Modern Robin Hood (in Robin Hood in Greenwood Stood, Edited by Steven Knight (Turnhout : Brepols, 2011), p.209.

[10] Jonathan Jones, Look at the size of those missiles, 15th April 2003, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/apr/15/artsfeatures.iraq

[11] Giorgio Agamben, No To Bio-Political Tattooing (Paris : Le Monde, 2004), P.2.

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Through the (Immediate) Past, Darkly

We are compelled to bookend the event, to portion months and years up into manageable, quantifiable volumes of matter and memory.  If time is the ultimate capitalist commodity, then our quantification of time is its currency, and it is in this way that the annual review-of-the-year rundowns which one can read in any given broadsheet or tabloid, or viewed on December 31st through a gaze of varying levels of ridicule are -to all intents and purposes – its audit.  Is it of any value to do this from a philosophical angle?  And, indeed, wherein lies the point?  Is it in order to file away each successive year into a unitary index for the historian or sociologist to access at their convenience?  If so, are we not further commodifying our notions of time?  In order to give this interrogation some perspective, perhaps we should benefit from referring to Manuel DeLanda (1952 – )’s excellent introduction to A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History:

 

“(I)f the different “stages” of human history were indeed brought about by phase transitions, then they are not “stages” at all – that is, progressive developmental steps, each better than the previous one, and indeed leaving the previous one behind.  On the contrary, much as water’s solid, liquid, and gas phases may coexist, so each new human phase simply added itself to the other ones, coexisting and interacting with them without leaving them in the past.”[1]

time-and-free-will-an-essay-on-the-immediate-data-of-consciousness

This being considered, is not our Gregorian inclination towards sectioning off units of duration rendered utterly meaningless?  Certainly, it may serve to “time-map” individual and collective events, it can also be useful as measurement of progress and decline.  It can, however, be of very little use to the contemporary thinker as Élan vital.  It is futile to review a year in terms of its singularity.  What we think of as “time” is little more than the shifting of energy, the passing of matter from one state to another.  There was, and never could be a 2018, as duration, that which we think of as “time” would necessitate each antecedent year forcing themselves as one into that year which is being experienced.  This is Bergsonism at its purest (albeit, too, at its most simplified), and if we were to take that model of the  present being nothing other than the past happening all at once – insofar as one may interpret such a complex idea out of its parole – then we may find a perfect analogy for our times: the Twenty-First Century can be defined by its concentrated repetition of the past, both culturally and politically, and perhaps provides us with the first significant parallels between Henri Bergson (1859 – 1941) – for decades dismissed as an antiquity of the old guard in philosophy – and Marxist poststructural thinkers such as Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) and, more recently, Mark Fisher (1968 – 2017).  For, if we were to take the concept of Bergson’s Duration out of the confines of analytic philosophy and place it in the broader spectrum of Critical Theory (and we surely can, as was amply proven by Gilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995)’s re-interpretations of Bergsonism), then what we are presented with is a like-for-like match of what Fisher called The Slow Cancellation of the Future[2], the “temporal malaise” which is so much a hallmark of contemporary culture that one is hard-pressed to discern between that which has been created last week and the artefacts of the 1970s and 1980s.

slow cancellation 1

 

Contemporary thinking, I would suggest, has all but eradicated the notion of a sole Philosopher King stood atop his plateau (to borrow the Deleuzian analogy).  This has been the case for several decades.  In his 1957 foreword to the second edition of Critique of Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre (1901 – 1991) notes

 

“…professional philosophers generally ignored the book; for – starting with its title – it entailed relinquishing the traditional image of the philosopher as master and ruler of existence, witness and judge of life from the outside, enthroned above the masses, above the moments lost in triviality, ‘distinguished’ by an attitude and a distance.” [3]

 

Philosophy has, over the years, necessarily been a process of cross-pollination of thought.  In Elemental Discourses, John Sallis (1938 – ) writes

 

(i)n Derrida’s texts there are many voices. Some occur as citations from Husserl, Heidegger, or other authors. Yet, in the strict sense whatever is set forth in citations is not the voice of another but rather a passage from a written text. Even if what is cited should happen to be words once heard in the voice of another, they will, in being cited, have been transposed into the written text; in this transposition the voice of the other will have been silenced. And yet, we sometimes attest that in reading the words of an author we can hear his voice behind the words, that we can hear it silently resounding.”[4]

 

Thus we may observe the clinamen of Lucretius evolve throughout the ages and become Deleuze and Guattaris’ desire, accounting for the clinamen’s inclination towards capital.  Indeed, the most pertinent and evolutionary use of philosophy is to commandeer from its massive historical inventory of themes and ideas – and, it can be argued, this is how philosophy finds its true meaning (Deleuze and Guattari themselves said “the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work.  Kleist and a mad war machine, Kafka and a most extraordinary bureaucratic machine ….”[5]).  One need not absorb every text by Foucault, or attend two-hour lectures on Lacan to gain a healthy reserve of critical resources with which to formulate one’s own theories. Plato’s cave and Wittgenstein’s stonemasons serve very well as building blocks for an architecture of language and socialisation, reality and simulacra.  These ideas the modern philosopher must osmose and re-interpret, modify and apply pressure to, and for that very reason philosophical models function in much the same way as art: intense critical thought and complex abstractions simplified to the nth degree as signs, giving flesh to otherwise untranslatable concepts: art builds real architecture in Utopia and peoples it accordingly, yet it draws its strength from its ability to topple said architecture and rebuild.  Artistic movements provides the zeitgeist for this architecture, and these zeitgeists are the very agents of its destruction and reformation.  Much to Plato’s imagined chagrin, art is in many ways inseparable from critical thinking. At any given moment, the human mind is subject to incalculable heterogonous abstractions which superficially bear no relation to one another other than their chronological linearity – or the oft-cited stream of consciousness, that convenient one-size-fits-all coat with which lazy commentators have dressed such diverse literary figures as Beckett, Burroughs, Thompson, Joyce and Proust. Terms such as stream of consciousness exist to categorise that which has no formal category (other than, in this instance, that of literature).  But, if we again consult Bergson, thought processes are time in its purest state.

 

“Let us assume that all the sheep in the flock are identical; they differ at least by the position which they occupy in space, otherwise they would not form a flock. But now let us even set aside the fifty sheep themselves and retain only the idea of them. Either we include them all in the same image, and it follows as a necessary consequence that we place them side by side in an ideal space, or else we repeat fifty times in succession the image of a single one, and in that case it does seem, indeed, that the series lies in duration rather than in space. But we shall soon find out that it cannot be so. For if we picture to ourselves each of the sheep in the flock in succession and separately, we shall never have to do with more than a single sheep. In order that the number should go on increasing in proportion as we advance, we must retain the successive images and set them alongside each of the new units which we picture to ourselves: now, it is in space that such a juxtaposition takes place and not in pure duration.”[6]

 

The Twenty-First Century has, since 2001, been bereft of landmark political or social moments.  The key word here is “landmark,” indicating a fixed point in time after which the ideological apparatus in place before the event can no longer function, such is the impact it has on society, economics and culture.  The word “landmark” also implies space, rather than time, yet is no misuse: chronology and geography are intermingled in memory, creating those very ghosts which populate Derrida’s hauntology, and in keeping with the concept of hauntology, the most critical phenomena of the year occurred just as it was ending.  Two separate and distinct events, which happened no more than a week from one another at the end of December and superficially bear little-to-no relation, but which in fact have great reciprocal significance.  Firstly, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series gave us another instalment in the form of the feature-length Bandersnatch, which was closely followed by the announcement that HMV had gone into second liquidation, His Master’s Voice now nothing but a pitiable whimper in the neoliberal wind.  As outmoded a capitalist model as it is out of touch with the times, HMV has, for decades, pre-packaged culture and sold it on as part of some great promise that what that culture represents is the very essence of what one needs to understand our times.

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Within the first few minutes of Bandersnatch it becomes apparent that popular culture will never tire of revisiting the 1980s, as though that decade was both the genesis and zenith of our postmodern metanarrative.  And yet again, the past is shown to us through countless factual and technical filters – for instance, it is safe to say that nobody ever bought a Tangerine Dream album in WHSmith in the mid-1980s.  WHSmith, like HMV represents the Harrods model of “everything under one roof,” which for a store that deals in entertainment and culture, is a laughably hyperbolic claim.  Yet our memories of these shops, for those of us who had childhoods in the 1980s, portray them as precisely that, for our own undeveloped awareness of the sheer richness and variety of culture is reflected by HMV’s own limited scope of same.  Thus, it adequately met our stunted expectations.  As culture and technology evolved at an ever-increasing rate in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, it soon became the case that this capitalist model of the third place serving as cultural nexus could never fulfil our ever-more-sophisticated understandings of culture.  This could partially explain our craving for nostalgia, as the artefacts of the 1980s remind us of the last time we were culturally satiated – the economy of craving and fulfilment was in balance (perhaps it is only in childhood that this balance is ever truly equal).  “Nostalgia,” though, as Simon Reynolds (1963 – ) points out, is translated etymologically as “homesickness.”[7]   Contemporary sociologists favour the notion of a fourth place in order to tackle the workplace/home environment crossover, but it is more accurate to re-identify The Third Place as increasingly virtual.  This is hardly surprising, since 9/11 shattered what was quite possibly the West’s final moment when an event was experienced collectively in The Third Place, and was the last “where were you when…?” moment in living memory.  As the Twenty-First Century has unfolded, global events have occurred in what feels like a steady trickle, owing not to a lack of event, but in the way in which events are now relayed to us.  In the sixteen years since the towers collapsed, the ingestion of current affairs has gradually slipped away from the static television screen and become something experienced singularly (one-on-one) through portable, streamlined devices.  Before the internet, the news was fed to us daily at precise quarters of a clock, with the 6 and 9 PM instalments reserved for in-depth investigations into the ramifications of the day’s events.  This may well still be the case, but it is now by no means how we initially learn of these events, which are continuously fed to us via the offices of internet newsfeeds which have no beginning or end, and wholesale information dumps such as Twitter.  News is no longer dropped on us four times a day around a centralised information hub (i.e. television or radio), but is now with us all day, and can be accessed from any location via mobile phones, tablet and laptops.  Wi-Fi has freed us from the necessity of the specific location, and thus the “where were you?” moment can no longer really exist, since such an occasion is marked by more quotidian, tangential social interactions (since social media, we are paradoxically no longer social beings) – history has always been made in conjunction with analogue discourse to provide context and understanding; the pause for reflection has been superseded by the knee-jerk re-tweet.  Is it any wonder, then, that cultural eruptions comparable to that of 1976 have been scarce-to-non-existent during the last decade-and-a-half, and that the cultural satellites of the punk movement can now be bought in Primark on t-shirt racks which also contain images of Miles Davis and Marvel superheroes?

In this sense we can quite easily relate the lack of modern social information exchanges and their replacement by personalised feeds of information to a Twenty-First Century flatness, or to put it simply, an age when globally-relevant events are still unfolding on a daily basis but are no longer felt as shockwaves.  Without shockwaves there can be no fissures, which is where Twentieth-Century culture once thrived: jazz, pop, punk, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual Art and the Postmodern break in general all happened as a consequence of events which were felt as they occurred, and carried real consequences, unlike the political pantomimes of today.  The ages in which these events happened had their own zeitgeist modelled from the social mood, and are remembered – perhaps rightly or wrongly – for their cultural and social values.  In an age which has had no real shockwaves or fissures a void has inevitably been created which has no atmosphere, zeitgeist or – crucially – human analogue.  Since domestic concerns are primarily centred around economy, the average Western citizen concerns him or herself with financial survival and the waning scope for prosperity.  Let us, for a moment, contemplate upon a strata of people working not for prosperity or an elevated standard of living, but only in order to cling onto the standard of living they already have.  The opiate of the masses has been superseded by a cold bucket of water, terror at a knock upon the door.  The clinamen of capital (its desire) is absolute subjectification.  In 2018, Brexit once more proved itself to be that very subjectification, spreading fear and hatred across the UK and using similar (albeit more sophisticated) tools to divide the country as did Germany in 1939.  Brexit is more pernicious than the campaigns of history, however: there is no single identified common enemy, no one sub-section of society singled out for persecution.  Rather, it plays to the worst fears of all social stratifications, always with one lingering threat – you will lose what you have. Again, as with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, one can discern a palpable sense of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” a clear attitude of “rather you than me.”  Brexit has played into the neoliberal ideology in the only way it could: divide and conquer.  But in recent years, it has become the norm for events to resemble past situations.  Occupy, it can be argued, was itself a modified sit-in, grafted from the late-1960s onto the present day and given an Economics degree.  Where it has prospered – as opposed to the disenfranchised, disconnected youth of fifty years ago – is in its organisation and the clarity of its voice, both of which can be attributed to technological agencies unimaginable in the last century.  We have lost our sense of the epoch-making event, the galvanising force to attempt something different: the rule book is no longer torn up, so much as it is re-told through post-millennial perspectives.

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October saw the release of Peter Jackson’s They shall Not Grow Old, a technically astonishing colourised documentary to mark the centenary of Armistice Day.  Nothing can detract from the visual and journalistic achievement, although one could also read the film via Jean Baudrillard and liken the process to, for instance, the endeavours of Japan’s Ōtsuka Museum of Art, where only precise facsimiles of well-known original works are displayed.  The museum is, of course, anything but that: indeed, one might say that it is part-PowerPoint presentation / part-PT Barnum grotesquerie.  Or perhaps the film is more akin to the Abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa which was rebuilt by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.in Upper Manhattan using building materials from the original abbey in Southern France from what remained after it was rebuilt in 840.  The latter suggestion is given more weight when one considers that much of the original footage found in They Shall Not Grow Old was filmed using arcane hand-crank cameras which struggled to maintain a steady 12 frames-per-second, which is why the original films appear so jerky.  This jerkiness has been digitally offset by high-end digital trickery to save the World War One soldiers from an eternity of coming across like “…Charlie Chaplin-type figures.[8]”  This obviously means that fifty percent of what one sees in Jackson’s film is not original footage at all, but very sophisticated computer animation.

When Jackson says “I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more” he misses the mark somewhat for what has actually happened is that these veterans have indeed been brought out of the past, but only in a digital suspension: half-human, half-computer-generated chimera, they hang on the screen like exhibits from the Ōtsuka Museum.  Similarly, much of the audio track to They Shall Not Grow Old is actors’ dialogue, translated via the offices of a deft lip-reader who no doubt spent as many hundreds of hours reviewing the original footage as Jackson’s team did animating it.

Curiously, one can with great ease finish watching They Shall Not Grow Old and immediately begin watching the first episode of Peaky Blinders (set in 1919, one year after armistice) without any disruption in either narrative or visual quality.  Peaky Blinders itself, is an example of history’s reworking and re-presentation.  Its non-diegetic soundtrack is entirely of the Twenty-First Century, and consists of artists aping the late 1970s and early 1980s.

 

There can be no table of contents for 2018, nor can it be reviewed month-by-month.  The writer cannot simply disclose a year as a series of events which range in importance or ramification.  I certainly have not done this (nor would I ever wish to).  Charlie Brooker, when not writing episodes of Black Mirror, will scan the year in a linear manner in his New Year’s Eve Wipe, but for serious discourse this can never fully articulate the essence of a twelve-month duration.  I will, however, borrow one recurring sound-off from Brooker:

 

“That was (2018)…now go away.”

 

[1] DeLanda, M. (1997). A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York: Zone Books, pp.15-16.

[2] Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of my life. Winchester: Zero Books, pp.21-39.

[3] Lefebvre, H. (1991). Critique of everyday life. 2nd ed. London: Verso, p.5.

[4] Sallis, J. (2018). Elemental Discourses. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.13.

[5] Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2004). A thousand plateaus. London: Continuum, p.5.

[6] Bergson, H., Ansell-Pearson, K. and Ó Maoilearca, J. (2002). Key writings. New York: Continuum, pp.49-50.

[7] Reynolds, S. (2012). Retromania. London: Faber and Faber, p.50.

[8] Ilse, J. (2019). Prince William attends World Premiere of “They Shall Not Grow Old”. [online] Royal Central. Available at: http://royalcentral.co.uk/uk/cambridges/prince-william-attends-world-premiere-of-they-shall-not-grow-old-110509 [Accessed 2 Jan. 2019].

The Nomadological Worm

Introduction

This is a treatise on nomadology. Yet, often more than this it is a treatise on the rhizomatic influence Gilles Deleuze has had on contemporary art and – on a much wider scale – Western culture in general. It is only reasonable, then, that its structure should be nomadic in nature, fashioned as such more as a tool to illustrate this often problematic Deleuzian concept than as a homage to A Thousand Plateaus , his and Felix Guattari’s magnum opus. Ours is an age when linearity is a matter of both personal interpretation and artist’s prerogative: from meta referentiality, disruptions in a given narrative order, prosopopoeia or a more time-honoured allegory. During the course of this dissertation I shall be using many of these devices, yet the most notable will be prosopopoeia in the form of Harry Irene, a fictitious art critic who will on occasion resemble Clement Greenberg, will sometimes reflect the mannerisms of John Berger or even unashamedly ape Brian Sewell. Never affected with malice, this gestalt interpretation merely serves to reflect on the typically modernist attitude which was the hallmark of mid-Twentieth Century criticism. We can imagine pince nez, and furnish Irene with them accordingly. Yet, If Irene is a virtual gestalt of Twentieth Century art criticism, then this of little significance. Art critics have always necessarily been spectres at the feast of invention: they help to mould style by trimming away excess, adding (sometimes) rich commentary and narrative to artworks and exponentially increasing the culturally affective clout of same. Conversely, their function can also serve to stifle and stunt cultural growth. Perhaps one can say that the text can also be read as an affectionate lampooning of that profession, although one must therefore remember at all times that this would merely be subtext. A lighthearted subtext, certainly, but subtext all the same.

As an artist I have constantly been nomadic in my practice: this goes hand-in-hand with a mind which is constantly flitting from one concept to the next, considering the commonalities which unite otherwise disparate issues and allowing one sole constant throughout my body of work – myself. From themes such as father/son relationships, mental health, hauntology, Althusser’s interpellation, cinema, memory, identity and even the work of Deleuze himself, I have never remained lingering on any one topic for long, nor has the materiality of the work remained static. When a viewer once commented that my work consisted of “everything but the kitchen sink,” I briefly entertained the idea of sourcing that very item and, early on in my career when lamenting my own lack of style or idiosyncratic visual coding, a tutor responded with “you know what? It’s overrated.”

This dissertation does not seek out the specific times and places of any nomadological departures per se, and certainly the aim is not to traipse once more through Twentieth Century art history in an attempt to temporally tick the boxes which support my thesis. What it will do, however, is suggest artists whose spirit has either prompted or perpetuated nomadic art practices. Again, this is by no means a left-to-right recounting of the past as it meets the present for to do so would run counter to the very phenomena discussed. It will remain atemporal throughout, much like the indexical numbered lines of flight detailing specific instances of events which, in one way or another, are nomadic. It is important that this work be allowed to stop and start at its own pace, according to its own nature, that it reads like a Deleuzian plateau.

Chapter One: Harry Hits Out

Harry Irene, much like other similarly flamboyant modernists of the day, espoused formalism and unity as the hallmarks of “good art.” With six years’ boarding school behind him and an impeccable grasp of Latin, for a while Irene was considered the Philosopher King of art criticism. The spokes on his bicycle would resonate machine-like as the art critic weaved his way throughout the London streets from one gallery to the next. Good-natured and sympathetic to all, with the notable exception of artists. By and large, he openly despised them. His beloved Willem de Kooning set the benchmark, if one were to ask him, of painterly excellence. Robert Rauschenberg, on the other hand, he considered the scourge of the art world – if one were to ask him, Irene would lay the blame of aesthetic decline almost squarely on Rauschenberg’s shoulders, and was particularly scolding towards any artist who appeared to ally themselves with the American. In 1967 Irene wrote on Conceptual Art “the ill-deserved revival of the redundant French buffoon.” Typically dismissive of anything which eschewed the aforementioned two values of formalism and unity, Irene said this in 1962 of Öyvind Fahlström’s solo exhibition at Paris’ Galerie Daniel Cordier:

“The novelty of in-patient logic combined with a flagrant disregard for context notwithstanding, the Cordier has delivered a flat, jejune show. The painterly has been reduced to the wax crayon, and Rauschenberg apparently loves it. The exhibition brochure features the blushing artist rejoicing that there are like-minded souls in the world. All structure, such as it is, is purely virtual – blending the political with the fantastical and presenting the result in works that are only ever two steps at best above an adolescent’s boredom-breaker may appeal to the radical, but should not be encouraged if art hopes to maintain its plateau. Cartoon politics and beatnik affectations belong to the pulps, not the Cordiers.”

The plateau alluded to would be – in 1962 – one more singular and hierarchical than a plateau suggested by Deleuze and Guattari. Theirs was one of a reciprocal multitude, while Irene’s was still very much in the nature of the sermon on the mount.

In 1980, The Fall paid tribute to Harry Irene in the lyrics to How I Wrote Elastic Man:

Life should be full of strangeness
Like a rich painting

The above couplet, whether Mark E. Smith at the time realised it or not, also succinctly outlines what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari referred to as “lines of flight,” and implies by its imperative that life is only worth living if it encounters strangeness. Analogous to the becoming outlined in the two volumes which comprise Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari propose that it is through the encounter that consciousness and subjectivity are defined. The various and infinite forces which our universe (that non-transcendental state which the authors refer to as the plane of immanence) is governed by are always in flux, connecting and passing through other forces at random and in so doing creating new perceptions and systems of thought. “Strangeness,” then in this context should be read as an encounter (be they subjective or objective) between two disparate forces. Simply put, the subjective force of an art work upon the viewer only opens up possibilities for discourse if that art work is unfamiliar, strange or in many cases ugly, to that viewer. This makes possible and likely new ways of perception, new modes of thought and new creative possibilities (for the strangeness perceived by the viewer should, if interpreted correctly, inspire fresh creative forces which pass through the viewer-becoming-artist). These phenomena are not restricted to any cultural discipline (or, as Deleuze and Guattari would have it, “captured”), but are instead multi-disciplinary in nature. In this respect, lines of flight can be traced between contemporary art, cinema, literature or – as the above lyrical example attests – music. Art is never purely a process of subjectivity: rather it is emancipatory in the sense that it opens up potentiality. Abstraction becomes a plane of immanence on which the virtual is perceived as utopian potentialities.

Among Deleuze & Guattaris’ more crucial themes – in terms of contemporary art-world parlance – is that of nomadology, which has gradually over recent years become a dominant practice. The nomadic artist will jump from materials, themes, ideas and strategies in an ostensibly random manner, whilst retaining a core constant (on the plane of consistency, staying with Deleuze) which is more often than not the artist him or herself. This text should therefore focus on nomadic practices, their origins and their implications, the central idea that art should retain a chaotic sensibility in order to remain relevant in a chaotic word. More than this, though, is the sense that while a given artist superficially seeks to create order from chaos, there is also a strong element of the opposite: to create a chaotic linguistic framework from a pre-existing order, and then to reassemble the elements taken apart into a seemingly chaotic bricolage, which is in itself deceptively ordered.

To place this phenomenon into an historical context, it is perhaps useful to go back to Post-Conceptual Art, that 1970s movement which not only reintroduced materiality to conceptual practice, it added new and emergent materials in order to expand the potentiality of same. John Baldessari is often credited with creating both Post-Conceptual practice and its taxonomic during his tenure at the California Institute of the Arts, although one could also argue that the basis for Post-Conceptualism was already put in place by the Fluxus movement. Certainly, Happenings bore all the extra-material hallmarks of Post-Conceptual art, though artists who were the product of Fluxus were already exhibiting nomadic traits as far back as the 1960s. Yet Baldessari, in 1973, was using strategies of games in his work Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square (best of 36) which mirrored those of Swedish multimedia artist Öyvind Fahlström. Fahlström can be said to be a forerunner of nomadic practices.

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Line of Flight #1: “Everyone is an artist,” Joseph Beuys once famously said. Rather than a trite throwaway statement, Beuys perfectly sums up the Deleuzian concept. Where nomadology and the rhizome resonate most profoundly is in the biological, rather than the linguistic (although we may reason that the two are not mutually exclusive). If everything is in a perpetual state of becoming (desire, as Deleuze would have it), then everything is subject to affect: one body affects another to varying degrees of intensity. What Beuys proposes is that the substance of art (whatever form this may take) increases the intensity of the affect. A person who spends their entire life without once putting brush to canvas, without moulding clay or taking any photographs is still an artist in the affective sense, in that their very existence will resonate with another living thing. Art, as Wittgenstein once said, is a semiotic triangle – a thing is art if it “arts,” thus affecting the receiver. Human beings, by their very linguistic nature, are artists due to communication.

Irene had already dismissed Fluxus the previous decade as “Flatus.” Having met Joseph Beuys in Germany, he had advised the artist to purchase for himself a proper pair of trousers.

Irene would later – in 1978 – reverse his opinion of Fahlström somewhat, citing the “latent and intersticial nature” of his work. In accordance with the paradigm shift brought about by Baldessari’s post-conceptual departure, Irene was but one of a number of critics who began to realise the potential of the idea as opposed to the finished work. If Fluxus began to erode the material norms of art practice, then post-conceptualism re-assembled art practice in a way which, for commentators such as Harry Irene, was perhaps too much of a shock to traditional values to at first work in the same manner as previous decades.

Rather than pertaining to actual nomadic people, nomadology is simply an illustrative tool to suggest that we may think and write without reference to hierarchical, arborescent models. Favouring the rhizomatic at all times, Deleuze and Guattari propose a means of production which is emancipated from any pre-established linguistic framework. The painter should paint without reference to other painters, the playwright (like Beckett) should write according to their own haecceity and to the fire with the Shakespearian orthodoxy.

Line of Flight #2: in 1966, Tom Phillips purchases a second-hand copy of W.H. Mallock’s obscure Victorian novel A Human Document whilst in a furniture repository with painter R.B. Kitaj. He sets himself the task of reworking every page in the book, by inking over, deleting and otherwise mutating the story into an entirely new and rhizomatic narrative interpretation. Completed in 1973 and exhibited that same year, Phillips’ A Human Document Redux, now retitled A Humament , was published in its new incarnation in 1980. Since then the novel has mutated even further, with Phillips re-working his interpretation and developing this into an opera. According to Phillips, “Once I got my prize home I found that page after randomly opened page revealed that I had stumbled upon a treasure. Darting eagerly here and there I somehow omitted to read the novel as an ordered story. Though in some sense I almost know the whole of it by heart, I have to this day never read it properly from beginning to end.” This is precisely how Deleuze and Guattari propose that the reader approach A Thousand Plateaus, ignoring the left-to-right linearity of a book in any traditional sense.

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Nomadology is subject to lines of flight, and the biunivocal relations between bodies which occasion these lines of flight. The nomadic artist flags vectors and creates other lines of flight towards new vectors. Consider the work of Ken + Julia Yonetani, which “explores the interaction between humans, nature, science and the spiritual realm in the contemporary age, unearthing and visualizing hidden connections between people and their environment.” This self-assessment, courtesy of the duo’s website, already sounds nomadic yet, when we consider any collaborative venture we may conceive of two (already nomadic) vectors meeting to create a further (two-fold) nomadic vector. This vector, then, contains an exponentially greater potentiality. This phenomenon bases itself on the concept of the smooth and striated space. Striated space being hierarchical and of the state (that which can be counted and occupied in sedentary steps), whilst the smooth is rhizomatic, multitudinous and decidedly more democratic.

Chapter Two: In Which Style is Forsaken in Favour of a Globalised Non-System of Signs

Can art be traced on a map with any degree of exactitude? By this, we may imagine a vast chart which historically positions movements, artists, themes and media, imagining further that these can be connected according to commonalities: which themes link two otherwise seemingly disparate art practices? Certainly, we can draw inferences from social and political issues, in that prevalent societal factors in the 1950s, for instance, can still be attributed to the contemporary work – societal factors are never purely tied to one particular epoch.

Line of Flight #3: 2013. Raqs Media Collective bring their multimedia project The Last International to New York’s Performa 13 biennial. From the germ of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ idea to move the Council General of the First International Working Men’s Association to New York City in 1872, the exhibition develops into “a deep sea dive, head-first, into the future, and into infinity” which “stages debates, a wine-drinking symposium on time, involves a runaway rhinoceros, a time travelling bicycle, a conversation between a yaksha and a yakshi, as it turns mathematics and botany into poetry and creates a ruckus out of concepts, questions, symbols and totems.” Raqs transcend linear time and geographical space, imagining temporalities and realms which might be considered hauntological. Jacques Derrida postulated that Marxism would haunt Western society from beyond the grave in an omnipresent, miasmic manner neither alive nor dead. Raqs do not indulge in prosaic nostalgia: they re-imagine the past as a precursor to a present that never was.

Beyond that which is immediate in art, past issues of form, colour and content, lies a subtle, reflexive mechanism. Shadows present themselves in the varying distances between the machinic apparatuses of the work and the eye; the eye and the brain. These shadows are interpreted in tandem with the more tangible, visual stimuli to make up a process of affect (the ability to affect and be affected) which may or may not immediately be perceived by the subject. Often, the encounter is the essence of art, a trend which has persisted throughout the latter half of the Twentieth-Century and has found its own milieu in Relational Aesthetics (for what else could we term this affective discourse if not “relational”?). Relational Aesthetics is now a central fixture of an art market which has long celebrated the rhizomatic, the nomadic and the affective yet can more throroughly be traced back to Fluxus.

We take the view that Deleuze and Guattari’s prodigious invention of concepts should be understood as an attempt to create a new set of coordinates for thinking that can and should be modified to suit new circumstances and new questions.

Art history has proven time and again that political and social entropy leads to multiple points of departure in art practice orthodoxy: Dada owes its inception to the First World War, the decidedly nomadic catalogue of Ilya Kabakov is a by-product of Social Realism. It is perhaps churlish to expect an artist’s milieu to remain the same in a world in a constant state of flux. In an age of rebranding, rebooting, re-shuffling and profound uncertainty, art which rigidly adheres to an aesthetic model is now more often than not seen as a trifle old hat.

We can observe here that nomadology had already been a practice and attitude within the art world long before Deleuze and Guattari had coined the term, and had indicated a shift towards the virtual and latent which has since become standard vernacular. Artists, like writers, are involuntary narcissists. Both fabricate worlds in which said artist’s ego has the dominant ideology, and both dictate life and death according to their whims. Every writer and every artist is God to their individual micro-disciplinary practice, a practice which we can perceive as a world, or sphere. If we were to create a model of the seemingly endless practices being engaged at any one time, we would see an actual world filled with these spheres orbiting one another, feeding off of a shared, reciprocal energy. To begin any kind of creative endeavour is to feed from and absorb the energies flowing from these multiplicitous bodies, and to negotiate the regulations governing these. The artist borrows and re-conditions: nothing is purely genius. In this sense art is always a collaborative process, allowing multiple voices to be heard to varying degrees of intensity. This process has previously been referred to as a constellation, though art practice in the 21st Century has become a thing decidedly more immanent, allowing literal connections, juxtapositions and collaborations to occur. The artist, we can argue, who does not engage culturally, socially or creatively with the spheres in orbit around them must either be an artist of the most profound genius, or no artist at all. We may also think of the artist as the zeitgeist of their particular field, in that an artist cannot help but be a vector in a specific chain of semiotic connections starting with obsessions and inspirations, contemporary osmosis and going on to include those works which the artist has necessarily inspired. Naturally, the number of “inspirational” vectors both before and after the artist’s own vector can be nigh-on infinite, and each prone to mutation – for the flow of creative energy goes backwards as well as forwards. We retrospectively attribute aspects culled from other sources to a piece of work after we have encountered the second pieces of work, altering and mutating the meanings and semiotic representations to both primary and secondary sources. Indeed, in this respect are there any longer primary or secondary pieces of work? The present is irreducible to any singularity. This is what Bergsonism teaches us, and what common sense forces us not to forget. The present can only ever exist in any quantifiable measure as a memory, in which case it is imbued with attributes gleaned from the fanciful whims of subjective recollection (an object observed by many people five minutes ago is already undergoing an erosion of reality whereby the individual recollections of these many people have themselves trailed off into the unstable areas of perception, association and interpretation).

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Öyvind Fahlström connected the semiotic schemata of Fluxus with the lexicon of popular culture in a way which has now become familiar within galleries and biennials: understanding the simple maxim that society and culture are in a perpetual symbiotic loop with one another and adjusting the linguistic framework of his art accordingly. Five decades later, Franck Scurti is doing much the same thing, albeit from a decidedly altermodernist perspective. Compare Fahlström’s appropriation of Robert Crumb’s Meatball cartoon for his 1969 sculptural assemblage Meatball Curtain (for R. Crumb) with Scurti’s hand-drawn comic insert for his 2002 exhibition at Switzerland’s Kunsthaus Baselland. Both employ the semiotic tactics of Marcel Broodthaers in their playful linguistic displacement. Consider 1974’s Les Animaux de la Ferme (The Farm Animals) : illustrations of multiple breeds of cow with their actual taxonomies replaced by car manufacturers. A tactic derived from Magritte, certainly, yet altogether more playful and with a more cynical eye. This is among Broodthaers’ more renowned pieces, and serves to throw the observer into a nonsensical black hole.

This practice is today lauded among the echelons of criticism, unlike in Fahlström’s time, which suffered from a modernist reactionary backlash. Franck Scurti enjoys higher praise from contemporary critics such as Nicolas Bourriaud:

It is through his writing that Scurti distinguishes himself among the great French artists of his generation, including Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Dominque Gonzalez-Foerster and Xavier Veilhan. Yet for all that he does not stand out because of a formal trademark, a formula that can be infinitely repeated. His “style,” if that term must be employed, lies rather in a movement toward assemblage, a personal phrasing, not in some visual code bar that is easily spotted among a thousand others. He seems to make it a point of honor (sic) never to repeat the same figures, even to change his working principle with each new show.

Scurti’s offbeat milieu is to direct idea into already-present social matter, to transmute the semantic drift of signs and apply a meaning that is certainly rhizomatic. For 2000’s video installation Colors, Scurti observed a football match between Ireland and France held in Dublin where various corporate sponsors had ill-advisedly painted their corporate logos upon the pitch. As the rain started to fall, the paint diluted and became tacky, covering the players in these corporate, interpellative primaries. There are several ways in which we can read this: one interpretation would be of a capitalist spillage, whereby the economic machine becomes jammed with its subjects; another reading would be the cross-cultural accident of a sporting event resembling an art “happening.” The following year, a gallery in Lyon was temporarily taken over by a clothing manufacturer making cheap t-shirts. Each day a different cartoon was printed on the shirts reflecting on the day’s practices. In 2013, Scurti put his own spin on Broodthaers’ series of mussel pots by filling a snakeskin suitcase with popcorn, while an interview given to Blouin Art (with the headline “Duchamp Prize Nominee Franck Scurti on Being an Artist Without a Style”) Scurti said “I really think that things are happening elsewhere today. Don’t you kind of feel as if you’ve seen everything? The phrasing is more important than the style, I believe.”

The artist without a style, while immediately striking the reader as a pejorative, is perhaps one of the more fundamental elements of nomadology. To forsake geographic restrictions, ontological categerisation or indeed to eschew any sedentary restrictions is to take full responsibility for one’s own freedom: to discard the State we must truly discard the State, and in this we cannot expect to retain a State-defined, repeatable identity.

Chapter Three: Harry Plays Go!

Line of Flight #4: In 1980, Peter Greenaway delivers The Falls, a feature-length absurdist narrative concerning the mysterious Violent Unknown Event (VUE). Formerly a student at Walthamstow College of Art, Greenaway then begins a film career which retains many of his art school traits. Throughout his career, Greenaway references his cultural background and persistently returns to the prosopopoeial character Tulse Luper, who lingers on the narrative edge of much of Greenaway’s films.

Line of Flight #5: Prior to his death in 1986, Harry Irene delivers a two-hour lecture which is itself essentially nomadological. Beginning with Irene singing the praises of Nam June Paik (much to the bewilderment of those in the audience who are familiar with Irene’s previous writings) and comparing the Korean’s work to that of Auguste Rodin. With a full appreciation of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus to his credit, Irene postulates that the smooth sculptures of Rodin have, Via Paik, been re-interpreted as striated and found a new smoothness in the artist’s appropriations of television sets and radios, and particularly focuses on Paik’s robotic assemblages:

The robot in this instance is nothing less than a self-contained monad. It is a haecceity as much as it is synecdoche – the thing is the body and the bodies form the thing. Perhaps our emerging media works best in unity, or perhaps the sum of its parts it entirely irrelevant. This is of no consequence given that our world is inescapably built of this technological fabric, as intransigent and unmoveable as Rodin’s marble.

Irene then goes on to postulate that the cinematic output of David Lynch proved the futility of Freudian interpretation, citing the director’s latest Blue Velvet as an attack on modern psychoanalysis because the entire film is bookended by the camera going both inside the human ear and passing out of the ear. Irene theorises that the film therefore only exists inside the subconscious and refuses to extricate itself from the same until it becomes convenient for the director to do so. Few present in the audience can see the logic in this, though they are more than satisfied that Irene has become that most miraculous of things: the State Machine which has become the War Machine. Typically the nomadic, eventually, becomes the sedentary. The War Machine becomes the State Machine as it attempts to preserve its own order. The champions of Abstract Expressionism eventually became its protectors – bulwarks against the oncoming storm of postmodernism. So for Harry Irene to become an exemplar of this phenomenon in reverse is something startlingly unique. Irene, a lifelong proponent of chess, and the occasional school champion of same, has recently taken up the game of Wei Chi. Whereas chess is fixed and rigid, Wei Chi (or Go, as is its Western nomenclature) is ever-expansive (infinite, even), observes a few simple rules and allows for a fluid competition. The game is only over when one or both players decide that enough is enough. One imagines that if Max von Sydow had challenged Death to Wei Chi rather than chess, the film would still be playing out today.

“Chess pieces are coded; they have an internal nature and intrinsic properties from which their movements, situations, and confrontations derive. They have qualities; a knight remains a knight, a pawn a pawn, a bishop a bishop. Each is like a subject of the statement endowed with a relative power, and these relative powers combine in a subject of enunciation, that is, the chess player or the game’s form of interiority. Go pieces, in contrast, are pellets, disks, simple arithmetic units, and have only an anonymous, collective, or third-person function. “It” makes a move. “It” could be a man, a woman, a louse, an elephant… But what is proper to Go is war without battle lines, with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy, whereas chess is a semiology.”

How can we take this passage and apply it to art practices? Key words such as “coded” and “Semiology” can here be read as hallmarks of a closed and distinct practice (i.e. that of painting), whereas in Go the authors describe a “springing up at any point,” and “movements not from one point to another…without aim or destination.” We can understand this last as being of the rhizome.

Deleuze and machinery are somewhat synonymous. The War Machine, the State Machine, etc. The State Machine is static and sedentary. We can look upon this is the machine of bureaucracy, that thing which has become fixed and immobile due to its own inability to expand and mutate – bureaucracy stunts growth, as it were. The State apparatus apportions and distributes territory and marks out borders. The War Machine, however, is subject to change. It plots its own territory according to its own arbitrations. It affects, is in a constant state of becoming and is by its very nature nomadic. The mirrored affect in contemporary art is primarily an intellectual one, in that the artist, when once would be disciplined and produce according to history and contemporary tutelage, now pays little mind to the historical regime of artistic discipline. Codings and de-codings no longer function in the same way, thanks also to the capitalist and – perhaps more so – neo-liberal paradigm shifts within our very language.

If we consider the social factors contributing to the late-Twentieth Century nomadological turn in art, then the most obvious event would be the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. Before this, countries were silenced – the suppression of artistic freedom was a la mode for a regime which allied itself with More’s Utopia. East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria had literally no presence on the global art scene whilst the Berlin Wall stood. Borders, both literal and metaphorical, were dropped overnight. That same year Centre Georges Pompidou hosted Magiciens de la Terre, billed as the world’s first truly global art exhibition, it sought to sought to correct the problem of “one hundred percent of exhibitions ignoring 80 percent of the earth.” It would be churlish to assume that these two were events were not connected: Communism is a literal State Machine, and its dissolution here literally gives was to the nomadic.

We shall conclude with a reverential mention of Michael Haneke’s 1997 TV film Das Schloß (The Castle), in which the director explicitly acknowledges Franz Kafka’s original, unfinished text . The film ends with sheer abruptness, as Kafka wrote (or, indeed did not write it), with K traipsing through the snow. He never gains entrance to the castle, nor is the bureaucracy in place to prevent this given any resolution. It is problematic to offer any absolute conclusion on the topic of nomadology, for it is both an ongoing phenomenon and, in many ways, has always been there on the horizon of our society and culture. If the fall of communism led to a nomadic rupture, then the same can be said for each time capitalism gives way under pressure. The War Machine exists on the border of the State, and can be said to be the very thing which applies pressure to the apparatus. Kafka is synonymous with the bureaucratic machine, so the novel’s abrupt ending – though technically an unfinished work – is the most profound way for it to finish. Haneke reflects on this, and pays homage to its nomadic nature by allowing his film to just…stop. I, in turn, pay homage to both Kafka and Haneke by following suit.

Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. and Massumi, B. (1993). A thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.
2 Smith, M., Scanlan, C., Hanley, S. and Hanley, P. (1980). How I Wrote Elastic Man. [vinyl] Manchester: Rough Trade.
3 Baldessari, J. (1974). Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square (best of 36). [8 color photographs] Not exhibited.
4 Mallock, W. (2005). A human document. United States: Elibron Classics.
5 Phillips, T. and Mallock, W. (2005). A humument. New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson.
6 Tomphillips.co.uk. (2018). Tom Phillips – Tom Phillips’s Introduction to the 6th Edition, 2016. [online] Available at: http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/humument/introduction [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018].
7 Kenandjuliayonetani.com. (2018). Ken + Julia Yonetani 米谷健+ジュリア – collaborative artists. [online] Available at: https://kenandjuliayonetani.com/en/ [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018].
8 Raqsmediacollective.net. (2018). .:: Raqs Media Collective ::.. [online] Available at: http://www.raqsmediacollective.net/works.aspx# [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018].
9 Derrida, J. (2012). Specters of Marx. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
10 Buchanen, I & Collins, L (eds) (2014), Deleuze and the Schizoanalysis of Visual Art (Schizoanalytic Applications). London: Bloomsbury

11 Fahlström, Ö. (1969). Meatball Curtain (for R. Crumb). [Enamel on metal, plexiglas and magnets] Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA).
12 Broodthaers, M. (1974). Les Animaux de la Ferme (The Farm Animals). [Lithograph on paper (edition of 100)] Various: Various.
13 Bourriaud, N., Sans, J. and Durand, R. (2002). Franck Scurti. Paris: Palais de Tokyo.
14 Scurti, F. (2000). Colors. [Video Installation (3 Screens), Master Betacam] Angoulême: La collection du FRAC Poitou-Charentes.
15 http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/831686/duchamp-prize-nominee-franck-scurti-on-being-an-artist-without [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018].
16 The Falls. (1980). [film] Directed by P. Greenaway. Gwynedd, Wales: British Film Institute (BFI).
17 Blue Velvet. (1986). [film] Directed by D. Lynch. North Carolina: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.
18 The Seventh Seal. (1957). [film] Directed by I. Bergman. Filmstaden studios, Sweden: AB Svensk Filmindustri.
19 Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1986). Nomadology. New York, NY, USA: Semiotext(e).
20 Steeds, L. and Lafuente, P. (2013). Making art global. London: Afterall.
21 Das Schloß (The Castle). (1997). [film] Directed by M. Haneke. Germany; Austria: Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF); Wega Film; Arte; Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR).

Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part four): Neither For Nor Against Architecture, Yet Happy to Pit Wodiczko Against Bataille

Bataille and Foucault would have it that our day-to-day existence is governed by architecture: the tomb, the prison, the government office, etc. I have previously surmised that the 21st Century is a schizophrenic age, and what could be more schizophrenic (if we accept Foucault and Bataille) than a climate in which architecture is endlessly toppled and reconstructed? In my more languorous moments, I am myself guilty of making the connection between architecture and the human body (or, at any rate, the human psyche), in which social housing is issued on the merits of reproduction and death, educational institutions mirror the structural logic of the prison block (in this, one would be churlish to argue with Foucault) and the architecture of consumption – the supermarket, the fast-food outlet or the shopping complex – mimics the human digestive system, whereby consumers pass through the architectural “body” and experience change as they do so (the change in finance; the change in ownership; a re-balancing of symbolic power during the monetary exchange). The struggle to secure social housing, for the working classes, has produced an architecture of desire – or, indeed, a Deleuzian lack (regardless of the psychoanalytic attributes of the actual architecture, endlessly cycling back to the model of the panopticon).
Even in an age of site-specificity, art is still slave to architecture, as our constantly urbanised world endlessly re-interprets the metropolis in tandem with our fluctuating relationships with it. The lambent nature of semiotics within art is such that a work may not be removed from one location to another without there necessarily being a re-evaluation of its meaning – the removal and re-location itself may actually be the element which contains said meaning. Is the present-day work of art, then, an extension of architecture or is it (logically) a removable part of the architectural body itself? If we have already imbued distinct examples of architecture with psychic properties, does it not then follow that the art – created within one such property – is created with similar properties, and when we re-locate that art are creating a rift in the structural relationship between the architecture and the art?

the_big_duck

When studying the relationship between architecture and art, it is difficult not to cite Venturi’s model of the Duck and the Decorated Shed and share the analogy across the two disciplines.  Some art is as it is (just as the same is true in architecture), because its form is dictated by its functional meaning.  Cinematic Art is decidedly duck because its form and meaning are both historically linked to the Platonic shadow, which retains the basic outline of the archetype without projecting the regularly-perceived reality found outside the screen’s border.  Its meaning can be re-interpreted depending on the situation of the screen or the texture of the surface on which it is projected, yet it ever retains its integral nature of duck: it remains as it is due to its functionality.  Paintings can be either duck or decorated shed, as history has repeatedly proven – they are both functional and ornamental (depending upon the painter’s intention).  Sculpture is formally the closest artistic discipline to architecture, owing obviously to its dimensions, although that too carries a history of semiotic ambiguity.

One must then question why it is easier to apply the duck analogy to Video Art than it is to the other disciplines.  One trite answer would be that it is the newest, and therefore its meaning has not been afforded the time necessary to confuse.  Video Art has yet to be commodified as a soft furnishing – one can easily imagine a projection of (fittingly) three flying ducks on a living room wall and instantly mock the notion, yet there was a time when sculpture and objet d’art would not be found anywhere other than in the palace.  Though Video Art has already proven itself to be semantically malleable: the masterful way in which Krzysztof Wodiczko transforms architecture with projection alters both the video and the structural surface.

Fete de Montréal / Partenariat Quartier Des Spectacles

Decalcomania: Rhizomatic Analogy of the Art Object and its Simulacra – Where is the Precious Essence?

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There are two instances within this essay of previous journal entries being spliced into the main body of text. This works on two levels: the first level is the most logical, in that two short passages lay dormant in relatively spurious pieces of writing, and as an author I decided that they would be put to better use to illustrate similar points herein. The second reason is more abstruse, and perhaps illustrates those aforesaid points to a greater degree. Does the removal of these paragraphs and their subsequent transplanting onto these pages take anything away from their original essence, or are they given greater weight in the context of a lengthier (and by implication, more profound) text? The free play of signs and signifiers (so says Jacques Derrida [1]) would have it that those words were never rigidly fixed into those journal entries to begin with, and were merely a perceived element of my own construction. Yet what is a similar thing happens to works of art?
Decalcomania is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the process of transferring designs from prepared paper on to glass or porcelain. Without referring directly to the materiality explicit within the definition, Deleuze and Guattari – in their seminal work A Thousand Plateaus (2) – employ decalcomania to illustrate the rhizomatic process of creating maps rather than tracings. Here the map is the origin and centre of thought, whereas the tracing is the regressive tendency of ascribing hierarchical signifiance to arborescent thought, or to suggest that the map is, in the first place, fixed and unable to be altered in any way (with further implications that the map is the word of “God” [we may infer “God” in this context to refer to any form of higher spirituality or metaphysical other] and thus final). The distinction between arborescent and rhizomatic thought is key to an understanding of Deleuze and Guattaris’ philosophical viewpoint, and holistically of poststructuralist theory in general: arborescent plants are hierarchical and operate in a linear, binary and above all vertical manner, placing earlier strata of the root as original and containing greater value. In this way, one can trace Western thought retrospectively through to Plato, and work forwards from there. Deleuze and Guattari suggest the rhizome as a more truthful representation of thought, whereby roots operate in multiplicities, connecting thoughts non-hierarchically and operating within what they call the plane of consistency.
In Naruto, Japan the Ōtsuka Museum of Art has, since 1998, had on display nothing except ceramic reproductions of notable artworks from history. These works are created by firing photographic images onto flat ceramics, and the idea for this is ostensibly (and superficially) one of preservation: keep the art alive for as long as humanly possible by exhibiting its replica. This exemplifies perfectly the tracing as fixed arborescent obeisance to an established academic orthodoxy, and accepts unquestioningly the judgements of historical criticism. However, in contrast to conventional etiquette, visitors are actively encouraged to touch the works on display regardless of the fundamental truth that there is, in fact, nothing to touch – all that is reproduced is a two-dimensional photographic image and even sculptural works are reduced to these two dimensions. One could just as well enter “art history” into Google Images and project the results upon the gallery wall, such is the complete lack of substance for the visitor to actually interact with. These facsimiles also unwittingly work towards destroying the essence and vitality of the original: the more we rely on the reproduction as our primary communication with an artist’s intention, the more we allow that original intention (as most effectively contained within an original work) to fade from existence. This process, while ostensibly done in the name of preservation, actually preserves nothing, and merely allows us the privilege of choosing to erode the original art piece – erosion from the publics’ first-hand knowledge of the work (and, ultimately, memory) versus a more physical erosion which would result from prolonged exposure to public contact.
There are echoes of Georg Simmel (1858-1918) to be found within the not-so-radical praxis of the Ōtsuka Museum, and we are reminded of his lauded essay Der Henkel (The Handle, 1911) (3), in which Simmel postulated two distinct realities for objects: that of functionality and that of aesthetics, whilst correlating the unity of the two.

The handle belongs to the enclosed unity of the vase and at the same time designates the point of entrance for a teleology that is completely external to that form. It is of the most fundamental interest that the purely formal aesthetic demands on the handle are fulfilled when these two symbolic meanings of it are brought into harmony or equilibrium. Yet this is not an example of that curious dogma which makes utility a criterion of beauty. For the point at issue is precisely that utility and beauty come to the handle as two unrelated demands–the first from the world, and the second from the total form of the vase.

Doubtless Deleuze and Guattari would perceive one reality (the aesthetic) as the tracing of the other (the functional), however in the years following their deaths – 1995 and 1992, respectively – much has changed to redefine “reality” in the first place. And in this we arrive (somewhat rhizomatically) at Baudrillard – for we cannot discuss the ramifications of simulacra or an evolving sense of “reality” without also discussing his famous “Xerox degree of culture.” (4) We need only refer to the cloisters of Saint-Michel de Cuxa and their repatriation – twice-removed from their native South West France to New York and ultimately back to their original location to understand that very little is indeed beyond this process of artificial longevity. A dismantling, relocation and reassembling of an original artefact is by no means any less of a reproduction than a direct copy. The Ōtsuka Museum of Art handles art with much the same species of binary removal: once removed, the original works are also removed from the lay consciousness, while its clone assumes the role of its analogue source. For the essence, it may well be argued, lies in the birth of the original, because only at an artwork’s inception is the semiotic unity of intention (signified), creation (signifier) and display (sign) at its purest and only then is an artist and that artist’s audience experiencing a Deleuzian rupture. The event is forever time-locked into an artist’s primary idea and a viewer’s initial encounter. After this event, the art remains as a reference for future discourse. If the sign is the art piece, the signified is the referent and the signified the meaning, there is an extra layer of meaning between Sign and Signified which takes place during artistic presentation. To wit, the meaning in Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is not on the canvas itself, nor was it during the painting’s creation, but rather lies in its presentation as an absence. This absence is seen often throughout the Twentieth-Century in response to Wittgensteinian silence, which in itself is demonstrated in Ludwig Uhland’s Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn whereby the referent in the poem is the cutting, or sprig. The fact that the meaning of the sprig is never revealed is where Wittgenstein find’s the essence of philosophical truth. Rather than some mystical, ineffable essence, absence is, linguistically, that which has the most power in being shown rather than said.

Count Eberhard Rustle-Beard,
From Württemberg’s fair land,
On holy errand steer’d
To Palestina’s strand.

The while he slowly rode
Along a woodland way;
He cut from the hawthorn bush
A little fresh green spray.

Then in his iron helm
The little sprig he plac’d;
And bore it in the wars,
And over the ocean waste.

And when he reach’d his home;
He plac’d it in the earth;
Where little leaves and buds
The gentle Spring call’d forth.

He went each year to it,
The Count so brave and true;
And overjoy’d was he
To witness how it grew.

The Count was worn with age
The sprig became a tree;
‘Neath which the old man oft
Would sit in reverie.

The branching arch so high,
Whose whisper is so bland,
Reminds him of the past
And Palestina’s strand. (5)

Contemporary art has a propensity for relying on an arborescent structure of value for individual works – a propensity which has been in decline since Duchamp, yet which still – paradoxically – ascribes immense importance to the Duchampian method: a method which itself stood for (amongst other things) the end of arborescent hierarchies of culture. Art criticism still tends to value the already-valued whilst time-locking singular cultural events (or, to use a term favoured by Deleuze and Guattari, ruptures) in reverence to art historical (or arborescent) hierarchies, yet human endeavour constantly proves that the creative process exists far outside of such rigid temporality. On any given day, the human mind is subject to incalculable heterogeneous abstractions which superficially bear no relation to one another other than their chronological linearity – or the oft-cited stream of consciousness, that convenient one-size-fits-all coat with which lazy commentators have dressed such diverse literary figures as Beckett, Burroughs, Thompson, Joyce and Proust. Terms such as stream of consciousness exist to categorise that which has no formal category (other than, in this instance, that of literature), and visual artists are no more immune to such taxonomies. It is far too convenient to brand Thomas Hirschhorn a “Relational Aesthetician,” or Rauschenberg a “Pop Artist” when those are two synthetic terms created critically and applied arbitrarily. Rauschenberg could be equally as conceptual as any of his contemporaries in the ‘sixties, and in many ways Hirschhorn would have flourished during Fluxus or the Situationists. The only “real” reason why Pop Art was Pop Art is that there were critics present to record it. There is always more going on than critical terminology allows for – indeed, one of the primary questions an artist must ask of his or herself is whether or not their output should “nutshell” the world when the world, subject to the fundamental laws of universal entropy, will never do the same. It is not an artist’s job to present the world in its de facto state, but rather to recognise its many subliminal codifications, deconstruct said codifications and re-present all of this via strategies of different codifications peculiar to an artist’s peculiar specifications.

Certainly, the strategies available to an artist differ all the time, and often in tiny, incremental ways, and thus the artist must surrender to the multiplicity, or the plane of consistency. One can easily cite such an artist as John M Armleder as a primary exemplar of a body of work becoming one with the plane of consistency: ever-elusive of the Modernist propensity for material invention and suspicious of the Postmodernist tendency towards aping the past, Armleder has time and again fused the aesthetic with the utilitarian in his Furniture Sculptures. Initially associated with the Fluxus movement in the late 1960’s, the Geneva-born artist went on to found the Groupe Ecart in 1969 and has, for nearly five decades, produced an evolutionary body of work which makes little-to-no distinction between Art and life. Armleder has variously selected inspirational sources from what he calls “a supermarket of forms,” a term which we can infer to mean a world of constantly-replenished objects, new or outmoded commodities and a semantic slippage of quotidian vernacular.
Thus we have Armleder and The Groupe Ecart on the one hand, offering us the notion that there is virtually nothing to separate the art object from the utilitarian, while on the other hand The Ōtsuka Museum of Art has homogenised the art object, converting it into a simple referent. If Armleder’s marriage of the quotidian to the essential yet retains trace elements of recherché (and one has good cause to argue that this is the case, and more besides), then the Ōtsuka has dredged history of its cultural precious essences, drained its artefacts of their rarity and left nothing but the dried husks picked clean by centuries of critical orthodoxy. The essence, then, can be said to lie within the encounter: an encounter which, owing to that aforesaid Xerox degree of culture, has within the walls of the Ōtsuka, become retrospective, regressive and redundant.
Bereft of its essence (and therefore its life), let us linger on the mortal analogy and imagine a mortuary. This mortuary is arrayed with metal drawers containing bodies: a few drawers are open. If we look at the corpses prostrate in these drawers, we begin to recognise them – there is Baudrillard, whose drawer is adjacent to another containing a perfect replica of Baudrillard. Barthes is on the left and one shelf down, holding a photograph of himself in his present state, whilst Wittgenstein has a ghostly speech bubble protruding from his mouth (the speech bubble is blank). This is how art critics would perceive this morgue, whilst the linguist would see something different (for example, Wittgenstein would have a children’s game of language with him in the drawer, whilst Barthes would be accompanied by a television set broadcasting nothing but advertisements). If a thing is perceived correctly in a certain context by an individual working within that context, is that essence not then of equal value to the perceptions of another viewer considering the same object from another? If a Duchampian shovel can be removed from the context of the gardener and transplanted into a more academic field of semiotics (in that instance, the art gallery), cannot then an art object be appreciated with as much merit in a garden for its ornamental or utilitarian ends? Critical Theory offers us various vantage points from which to consider, not only aesthetics, but the essence of the art object – that often-elusive substance which imbues an artist’s wares with perceived value. If Contemporary Art ever hopes to rid itself of its Promethean bondage and exist with any value in a world outside of its own, then artists and critics alike must ever – like John M Armleder – strive to operate lines of flight (a further term coined by Deleuze and Guattari which refers to a disregard of disciplinary applications and cut through any and all barriers which segregate thought in order to fully appreciate its essence).
We are arguably living in an age in which Derrida’s free play of signs and signifiers is the cultural currency. Few are the objects which remain fixed to a semantic field, yet a lack of semiotic boundaries and demarcations within society and culture themselves, do we not now have to begin to question the old, Modernist notions of value within Contemporary Art? Lines of flight flow through all that we behold and touch and, as the Ōtsuka Museum has shown us, nothing is ever around to touch forever.

 

References

  1. Derrida, J. and Bass, A. (2001) Writing and difference. London: Taylor & Francis.
  2. Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. and Massumi, B. (2013) A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
  3. Simmel, G. (1958) Two essays. The Hudson Review, 11(3), p. 371. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3848614.
  4. Baudrillard, J. (2005) The conspiracy of art: Manifestos, texts, interviews (Semiotext(e) / foreign agents). New York: Semiotexte/Smart Art.
  5. Uhland, L., Platt, A. and Ludwig, P. (2010) The poems. United States: Nabu Press.

No Job for a Grown Man (part seven) – The Compatibility of Simple and Complex Machines

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…when one writes, the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work.” These words, written by Deleuze and Guattari in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, are key to an understanding of how many contemporary artists – myself included – manipulate the abstract fabric of their works into a cohesion. Artists are haecceities (again using the term as described in A Thousand Plateaus), just as every human being is a haecceity, or a sum of all the events and forces involved in an organism, object or event. Certainly, artists tend to be focal haecceities, but individual haeccaeities all the same, and therefore subject to every singular element and event which led to the individual making x or y decision concerning z art piece. How have I incorporated influences such as The Fall, Alfred Jarry, Louis Althusser or European cinema into my work in the past?  I negotiated a method of plugging these separate machines into the art machine, to varying degrees of success (which in itself was subject to the laws of the haecceity). The side of the machine that faces the strata is where all of the external machines are plugged into, and its obverse side – the side which is observed by the audience – is smooth (or as smooth as the artist is able to make the machine). Deleuze and Guattari discuss Kafka and his incredible bureaucratic machine. Kafka himself was a haecceity governed by the strict laws of bureaucracy, now inexorably and miserably linked to its dehumanising values and de-humanised social necessity. The bleak world of Kafka has ever been – and continues to be – a rich source of inspiration for the artist. Fitting, that in a contemporary age subject to fears not only of our employability and stability, but of our very survival, that we still see the relevance in that bureaucratic machine of a century ago begin to erode away at the humanity of its subjects. As such, Kafka has remained relevant throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, because that bureaucratic coding has never altered: on the contrary, it has mutated and made itself more sophisticated; it has mimicked our human behaviour; it has presented itself to us in our own image. It can be argued that some species of symbiosis has taken place, whereby we have become bureaucratic beings (linguistically, at least) and bureaucracy has become more humanised (obviously, this latter is far from the case, yet the maintainers of the bureaucratic machine have understood that, for the machine to survive, it was necessary to make the machine more human-like). Certain machines – like Kafka’s bureaucratic machine – have long-lasting compatibility with the art machine, as has been illustrated. There are however an infinity of machines, varying in size and form, which are ever-present in orbit around our plane of existence. Some of these machines are more difficult to plug into the art machine, and have only a limited time in which they are compatible. Political art tends to suffer from this limitation of compatibility because not all political matters persist longer than a decade-or-two. The trick is always in ratiocinating what larger machine governs the smaller machines, or what greater social factors must be in place for the smaller political machines to function. It has long been an ambition of mine to find a way of re-formatting (particularly resistant to re-formatting) literature and presenting it as art. I have had my eye of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman for a number of years now, and I think that this initially came about because of the parallels one can draw between the protagonist struggling financially to complete his critical work on the fictional scholar de Selby. Any art student can certainly appreciate the protagonist’s frustration at being unable to complete a work of subjective importance due to a factor as fleeting and arbitrary as money. It is not just for this reason, though, that The Third Policeman is ripe for re-presentation: the book is full of that rich absurdist humour which also draws me to Alfred Jarry, Steve Aylett and Sergio Caballero. This absurdist literary machine, to work in this context, must be compatible with the particulars of my current art machine, and that is where the real work lies.