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Brian Holmes, "Revenge of the Concept"
posted by jim on Friday January 24, @03:29AM
Printer-friendly layout | email this story

from the performing-resistance,-without-a-net dept.
Theory Brian Holmes writes: "[There follows the lecture I gave at the expo "Geography - and the Politics of Mobility" in Vienna. It revists the gift economy debates, via Karl Polanyi, with some new ideas thanks to the talks at the WorldInfoCon, all in the hope of understanding networked mobilizations. Plenty of things for nettimers to disagree with anyway! -- BH.]"

"The Revenge of the Concept:
Artistic Exchanges and Networked Resistance"
Brian Holmes

Since June 18, 1999, I have been involved in a networked resistance to the globalization of capital. This resistance has been inextricably connected to art. It has taken me from London to Prague, from Quebec City to Genoa and Florence. It has given me an interest in experimental uses of advanced technology, like the Makrolab project. It has pushed me to explore new organizational forms, like the research network developed by Multiplicity. It has encouraged me to support cross-border solidarity movements, like Kein Mensch ist illegal. And it has resulted in collaborations with Bureau d'Čtudes, in their attempts to map out the objective structures of contemporary capitalism. But the experience of the movement of movements has also led me to ask a subjective question. What are the sources of this networked resistance? And what exactly is being resisted? Is revolution really the only option? Or are we not becoming what we believe we are resisting? Are the "multitudes" the very essence and driving force of capitalist globalization, as some theorists believe?

To look deeper into this question, consider the work of Anthony Davies and Simon Ford, who observed how artistic practice was being integrated to the finance economy of London during the late 1990s. These critics pointed to the establishment of convergence zones, "culture clubs" sponsored by private enterprise and the state. In these clubs, so-called "culturepreneurs" could seek new forms of sponsorship for their ideas, while businessmen sought clues on how to restructure their hierarchical organizations into cooperative teams of creative, autonomous individuals. Basing themselves on the new culture clubs, Davies and Ford claimed that "we are witnessing the birth of an alliance culture that collapses the distinctions between companies, nation states, governments, private individuals - even the protest movement." For unlike most commentators from the mainstream artworld, these two critics had immediately identified a relation between the activism of the late 1990s and contemporary forms of artistic practice. But what they saw in this new activism was the expression of a conflict between the "old" and the "new" economy:

"Demonstrations such as J18 represent new types of conflict and contestation. On the one hand you have a networked coalition of semi-autonomous groups and on the other, the hierarchical command and control structure of the City of London police force. Informal networks are also replacing older political groups based on formal rules and fixed organisational structures and chains of command. The emergence of a decentralised transnational network-based protest movement represents a significant threat to those sectors that are slow in shifting from local and centralised hierarchical bureaucracies to flat, networked organisations."

The alliance theory of Davies and Ford combines the notion of a network paradigm, promoted by people like Manuel Castells, with an anthropological description of the culturalization of the economy, as in British cultural studies. But what they portray is more like an "economization of culture." In fact their network theory draws no significant distinction between contemporary protest groups and the most advanced forms of capitalist organization. As they conclude: "In a networked culture, the topographical metaphor of 'inside' and 'outside' has become increasingly untenable. As all sectors loosen their physical structures, flatten out, form alliances and dispense with tangible centres, the oppositionality that has characterised previous forms of protest and resistance is finished as a useful model."

These kinds of remarks, which came from many quarters, were already quite confusing for the movement. But they took on an even more troubling light when the Al Quaeda network literally exploded into world consciousness. On the one hand, the unprecedented effectiveness of the S11 action seemed to prove the superiority of the networked paradigm over the command hierarchies associated with the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. But at the same time, if any position could now be called "oppositional," it was that of the Islamic fundamentalists. Their successful attack appeared to validate both the theory of a decisive transformation in organizational structures, and Samuel Huntington's culturalist theory of the "clash of civilizations." Suddenly the protest movement could identify neither with the revolutionary form of the network, nor with the oppositional refusal of the capitalist system. Loud voices from the right immediately seized the opportunity to assimilate the movement to terrorism. And to make matters worse, the financial collapse the movement had predicted effectively happened, from the summer of 2000 onwards, casting suspicion over everything associated with the dot-com bubble and making it easier for society at large to accept the policing of electronic communication, whose formerly inflated prestige drastically plummeted. The difficulty of situating a networked resistance to capitalism within a broader spectrum of social forces became enormous -- as it still is today.

Now, this difficulty has not stopped the mobilizations. What has come to a halt, or rather, splintered into a state of extreme dispersal, are the theoretical attempts to explain them in a way that can contribute something to their capacities of self-organization. What I want to do here is to make a fresh try at this kind of explanation, from the viewpoint of an economic anthropology that specifically distinguishes between the market and what we call "culture." From this viewpoint I will try to show why a resistance to capitalism has arisen, how this resistance operates in a networked society, and where art fits into it. Now, if you are specifically interested in the field of art, the gain you may expect at the end of this reflection is an understanding of the way that conceptual practice has come to have its full effect -- or to take its revenge -- in the context of a networked society. But I hope this understanding will also help you to realize that the promise of contemporary art can only be fulfilled outside the institutional frame that specifies it, and claims to separate it from its cultural context. I think it would be interesting, in a show about "geography" and "mobility," to ask about the most productive relations that could be maintained between a museum and artistic practices whose destination lies outside.

Let's begin with some considerations of the subjective reasons why a networked resistance to globalization has arisen in the Western societies. It is well known that we are increasingly coming beneath the gaze of an intensifying surveillance regime. The most obvious example is DARPA -- the American military entity that created the Internet. They are now interested in things like "bio surveillance," "human ID at a distance," "translingual information detection," "evidence extraction and link discovery," "future mapping" (for which they want to use "market techniques"), and the so-called "Genoa program," which aims at a better fit between human beings and machines, providing "the means to rapidly and seamlessly cut across -- and complement -- existing stove-piped hierarchical organizational structures by creating dynamic, adaptable, peer-to-peer collaborative networks." Here, at the cutting edge of military surveillance, you have a program for a networked repression, integrating humans into a machinic web.

These innovations in military technology have been extensively covered by exhibitions like World Information. There has also been a large mobilization by No Border against at least one police database, the Schengen Information System in Strasbourg; and a very interesting map on the subject was done by Bureau d'Čtudes, under the title Refuse the Biopolice. What is not so well understood is the fact that many of these surveillance systems have been implemented for years, particularly in the workplace, with the omnipresence of CCTV cameras, radio tracking badges, workstation monitors, telephone service observation, remote vehicle monitoring, etc. And even less apparent is the way this coercive surveillance is mirrored, as it were, by data gathering techniques which have adapted military technology to the job of building profiles on one's individual desire, so as to inform product design, targeted advertising, consumer architecture, etc. So-called "one-segment" marketing companies such as KnowledgeBase sell detailed lists of individuals with specifically catagorized "consumer attitudes." They also offer "Digital Neighborhood" lists, where, as they say, "we combined online intelligence gleaned from click stream data with demographic, lifestyle and transaction data from our AmeriLINKĆ national consumer database to segment consumers into clusters that describe their digital behavior -- not just what they are doing online but why they are using this channel." This behavior-specific information is supposed to guide retailers to "the best ways to develop an e-relationship (or not!) with each segment." As the authors of The Harvard Guide to Shopping explains, "the aim is no longer to control the consumer, but to follow his every whim with perfect flexibility."

"Flexibility" is the key word. Elsewhere I have theorized the development of the "flexible personality," whereby the quest for personal development and unique experience, carried out by individuals employed within loosely networked structures, serves to mask the intensified exploitation of a so-called "flexible" labor force. With this concept, I wanted to show the ways that creatives in the semiotic economy -- including the so-called "culturepreneurs" -- actually participate in the new regime of domination. In effect, labor patterns, managerial techniques and consumer desire are all being mobilized under increasingly tight regimes of monitoring and control, guided from a distance by the imperatives of transnational financial speculation. What we are seeing in this process of mobilization is an economization of subjectivity -- ushering human existence into the accelerating circuits of networked capitalism, and over-coding every form of behavior with a monetary calculus. Now, I don't want to reiterate all the details of that argument, but rather to suggest that there are limits to the flexible personality. Perhaps our first consciousness of them in the affluent societies comes through the intensification of the surveillance regime; but ultimately they are anthropological, they have to do with humanity's very capacity for survival, for self-reproduction. To understand them we shall have to take a detour through the work of Karl Polanyi, an economic anthropologist who in 1944 published a book called The Great Transformation.

Polanyi's concern was to explain the collapse of the free-market economy in the early twentieth century. He begins by establishing the coordinating role that international financiers, or so-called haute finance, had played in ensuring the century of relative peace that lasted up to 1914. "Independent of single governments, even of the most powerful, [haute finance] was in touch with all; independent of the central banks, even of the Bank of England, it was closely connected with them," he explains. The paradigmatic example is the international banking firm constituted in the late eighteenth century by Nathan Rothschild and his four sons: "The Rothschilds were subject to no one government; as a family they embodied the abstract principle of internationalism; their loyalty was to a firm, the credit of which had become the only supranational link between political government and industrial effort in a swiftly growing world economy. In the last resort, their independence sprang from the needs of the time, which demanded a sovereign agent commanding the confidence of national statesmen and of the international investor alike." The system of haute finance, coordinating national values through the universal equivalent of gold, allowed for the functioning of a world economy whose benefits, in turn, were a powerful argument for peace -- or at least, a powerful argument against any conflict on a scale large enough to disrupt international trade. The gradual abandonment of the system, culminating in 1933 when the United States went off the gold standard, then led to the organization of purely national economies characterized by large, integrated industrial conglomerates, which could find a positive interest in the unleashing of war.

It is dizzying to consider the contemporary role of the American dollar, or more precisely, of the negotiated balance between the yen, the euro and the dollar, as the guarantor of peace and prosperity in what Rem Koolhaas calls "the world of YES." The yen, euro and dollar signs form the symbolic language of exchange under globalization, which has abandoned the stability of gold for the fluctuating balances of a computer-linked value-system. But I would like to confront the flexible world of YES with Polanyi's basic thesis as to reasons for collapse of the entire laissez-faire system in the 1930s. For his argument is that the basis of this system -- the notion of a self-regulating market, the "magic of the marketplace" that dazzled the world again in the 1980s -- was actually a fiction. In reality, the exchanges of the self-regulating market depended on social institutions foreign to it, institutions which its operations would ultimately tear apart. The Great Transformation retraces the gradual destruction the cultural institutions of exchange into which the natural environment, human production, and the various national monetary systems themselves were embedded. Land, labor and money -- the symbolic language of exchange -- were reduced to the status of commodities, to be bought and sold on markets regulated by short-term profit. The result of market-governed exchange was to wreck the patterns of reciprocity that had made it possible for society to reproduce itself over time. The fascism of the 1930s, in Polanyi's explanation, was a failed and disastrous effort to restore these institutional balances.

Now, the point I want to make will become obvious when you consider that in the late 1990s, the desperate attempt to maintain the exchange value of the Argentine peso against the international standard represented by the US dollar and the currencies of ?§$ led to the exclusion of increasing numbers of Argentineans from access to work, to food and basic services, and then even to their own money, when limits were placed on the possibility of bank withdrawals. The reproduction of society became impossible in neoliberal Argentina. This ultimately resulted in an insurrection which has paralyzed the Argentine state. Of course, Argentina is the most extreme case so far of the social disaster wrought by the dominance of the self-regulating market. But to return to the question of the flexible personality, I think the artistic insurrections against neoliberalism in Europe and North America can be understood as advance reactions against the imposition of a market-based regulation upon subjectivity itself. This is why the notions of freedom, gratuity and of the gift economy are so prominent in the movement, to the point where they seem to form its specific culture. To give things away at the demonstrations is a way to publicly reinstate other patterns of exchange, while opposing the dominance of money. And these kinds of give-aways, like potlatch itself, are not only extraordinarily playful. For example, a scathing satire of the language of YES was carried out by the group known precisely as the Yes Men, when they posed as the WTO to offer a neoliberal solution to world famine. They suggested that the poorest countries could commercialize hamburgers, which indeed were being given away to the audience as they spoke; the meat, they said, could be recycled as many as ten times through the use of a cheap, charitable defecation filter, a so-called "Personal Dietary Assistant" (PDA)... Finally they intimated that the modern food business could even learn something from the Aztecs, who had found an ingenious way to supplement the lack of protein in their diet - by sacrificing their neighbors! Could there be a more precise analogy for the life-destructive nature of the neoliberal economy?

Rarely have the protests attained such extremes of black humor. But the networked resistance continually theatricalizes Polanyi's basic insight, that economic exchange is embedded within cultural patterns of reciprocity. And this theater, the entire carnavalesque dimension that is so characteristic, is clearly a way of reaching back or forward to a culture that cannot be identified with capitalism. The idea would seem to be confirmed by the important place that indigenous cultures hold in the mythology of the counterglobalization movement, such as the Mayans of Chiapas or the Ogoni tribes facing up to the transnational oil companies in Nigeria. What then should we make of Manuel Castells' opposition of the Net and the Self, of progressive mobility and regressive identity as two contradictory figures of the contemporary world? Or again, what then should one make of Toni Negri's notion of the real subsumption of labor by capital -- that means, the penetration of all the aspects of life by the processes of extraction, circulation and accumulation of abstract value -- whereby market-based exchanges effectively bring all other social relationships beneath their transformatory empire? What I think is that the real subsumption of traditional culture by capitalist relations of production almost immediately creates an imperious need to invent new forms of non-monetary exchange, so as to escape from the constrictive and sterile realm of pure commodity relations. Therefore the Net is always accompanied by figures of the Self, and a progressive, mobile subjectivity seeking to reinvent patterns of exchange always feels a kinship with the bearers of ancient cultures, who in the case of the Zapatistas at least, and probably in very many cases, do not cultivate the regressive identity that Castells suggests, but instead try actively to transform their traditional heritage into something emancipatory in the present.

All of which is not to say, of course, that regressive mentalities do not exist in the contemporary world. The stock market crash of the year 2000, and the continuing menace of deflation that haunts the world's leaders and financial elite today, combines with the manipulated resurgence of archaic social forms to paint an increasingly ugly and depressing picture which no one can ignore. My own belief is that the continuing imposition of networked capitalism, backed up increasingly by military force as the symbolic language of money loses its ability to integrate the world system, is going to bring up waves of violent resistance whose nature we cannot really understand from out positions here in the Western world. But although these realities clearly exist, what I want to do right now is not to talk extensively about them, but rather to look first at the technological, and then at the specifically artistic conditions of exchanges that do not depend on the universal equivalency of globalization's floating currencies.

It is clear that "the oppositionality that has characterised previous forms of protest and resistance" is in no way "finished as a useful model." On the other hand, the oppositional energies I have been pointing to are very much entangled in networks, and even specifically electronic ones. Now I will discuss the way that these networks operate outside capitalist forms of exchange.

It is well known that the Linux operating-system kernel, and free software generally, is made cooperatively without any money changing hands. This is something that quickly caught the attention of artists and culture critics, with the result that in the early days of Nettime, for instance, there were a lot of discussions about the "high-tech gift economy," to use Richard Barbrook's phrase, or about "Cooking-Pot Markets," to quote Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. Behind these discussions one occasionally catches a glimpse of an anthropologist, not Polanyi, but a figure of even greater importance: Marcel Mauss, author of the famous essay on The Gift. As Barbrook points out, Mauss was a living presence, his ideas having inspired the Situationists, who passed them on to the do-it-yourself media ethic of the Punk movement. But mostly what fueled the discussion of the Internet gift economy was the actual practice of adding information to the net. As Ghosh writes, "the economy of the Net begins to look like a vast tribal cooking-pot, surging with production to match consumption, simply because everyone understands -- instinctively, perhaps -- that trade need not occur in single transactions of barter, and that one product can be exchanged for millions at a time. The cooking-pot keeps boiling because people keep putting in things as they themselves, and others, take things out."

Today, with the popular explosion of Napster, Gnutella, and other peer-to-peer file-sharing systems, these debates over the high-tech gift economy are quite well-known indeed. Less well-known, because of a denial which is characteristic of economic liberalism, is the fact that non-monetary models of exchange have been operating on a very large scale for as long as one can remember, for instance in the realm of academic publishing, where information is shared not for monetary value but for the recognition it brings -- which itself is at least partially dependent on the feeling of contributing something to humanity or truth. Recently, an author named Yochai Benkler has taken the twin examples of free software and academic publishing as a foundation on which to build a general theory of what he calls "commons-based peer production," by which he means non-proprietary informational or cultural production, based on materials which are extremely low cost or inherently free. This ownerless, voluntary form of production depends, in his words, "on very large aggregations of individuals independently scouring their information environment in search of opportunities to be creative in small or large increments. These individuals then self-identify for tasks and perform them for complex motivational reasons." Benkler's problem, however, unlike Polanyi's or Mauss's, is not so much describing the reasons for motivation, as the organizational and technological conditions that make this self-motivated scouring of the informational environment possible.

Benkler identifies four attributes of the networked information economy that favor commons-based peer production. First, the fact that information serves as an inexhaustible or indestructible raw material for products which share the same characteristics. Second, the cost of production equipment, high in the era of the printing press, has become low in the age of the personal computer. Third, creative inspiration, the main input to information production, is notoriously hard to identify by anyone except the individual who experiences it. Fourth, distribution of the results has become extremely cheap. Under these conditions, quite complex tasks can be imagined, divided into small modules, and thrown out into the public realm where individuals will self-identify their competency to meet any given challenge. The only remaining requirement for large scale production is to be able to perform quality checks and integrate all the individual modules with relatively low effort into a completed whole -- but these tasks, it often turns out, can also be done on a distributed basis. The fact that all of this is possible, and actually happening today, allows Benkler to contradict Ronald Coase's classic theory, and make the claim that commons-based peer production has joined the market and the firm as one of the viable ways for organizing and coordinating human production. And this is a very large claim, because it means that there is a productive economy outside the two major organizing devices of capitalism as we know it.

Now, the examples Benkler uses to prove the existence of voluntarily organized large-scale cultural production are nethead favorites like the Wikipedia encyclopedia project, the slashdot technews site, the Kuro5hin text-editing site, and so on -- basically situations where publicly available text plus creativity produces publicly available text. But perhaps it is more existentially, socially and even visually impressive to consider the peer-production of recent networked demonstrations, where publicly available text and perception about the increasingly deplorable state of our shared world, plus human conviction, solidarity, creativity and courage are able to touch off huge collective performances, media irruptions, social and political crises, and of course, more publicly available texts, as well as reverberating memories of shared experience.

So -- if you're willing to concede that something like the networked demonstrations against the IMF and the World Bank in Prague in September of the year 2000 are perhaps not more noble, but anyway more socially and visually impressive than Wikipedia, then I shall have to ask you to imagine about 15 thousand people from all around the Western world self-selecting and self-motivating themselves for the volunteer tasks of informing each other in advance, of traveling across Europe to meet at specific dates, and then upon arrival, preparing a convergence center, a counter-summit, a festival of resistance, a networked media unit, and above all, a massive and successful direct-action demo, which itself was self-organized into three different sections, namely: the blue line, which went to tangle with the cops; the yellow line, which went to block an important bridge with a very peculiar kind of theater; and the pink line, which went to blow people's minds and basically show them that anything is possible, including getting into the conference center and stopping the meeting. I think if you have the chance to look at the different kinds of actions undertaken by the different lines, you'll realize two things: first of all, that making the right decisions about what kind of module you're up to working on is quite important, and second, that the sheer fact of redundancy -- I mean, lots of people working on the same module -- does in fact help get over the problem of those little mistakes some people make about what they really can accomplish.

Now, if it's still possible to be serious about such kooky events, then there's just one more thing I'd like to say, in terms of Benkler's thesis about peer production being a new possibility for human organization. That one thing is that the Global Days of Action in which I have been involved, far from being the random, violent mass events that are portrayed in the media, are in fact among the most complex, intelligent and creative social productions that I know, precisely because of their self-organization. The research of the Multiplicity group, in particular, has gone a long way towards showing how complex and innovative these kinds of self-organization can be, and how far they escape previously known categories. I would only add that situations like these demonstrations, where conflict is expected over very high stakes, seem to take self-organization to yet higher levels of complexity, creativity and effective realization. This is a politics of mobility, which has begun to operate at a world scale. And the kinds of exchanges that take place during these events -- of ideas, images, gestures, cultures and solidarities -- are very intriguing indeed, for those who believe that cultural innovation must now take place outside the established institutions.

Finally I will try to use some of the familiar terms of the art world to talk about the relationship between concept and performance, as a cultural exchange within the networked resistance to capitalism. It is well known that conceptual art was a failure. The "escape strategies" that Lucy Lippard talks about, in her famous book on The Dematerialization of the Object of Art, were intended to free artists from dependency on the gallery-magazine-museum circuit as their sole means of distribution. But the escape led at best from market-oriented New York to the museums of Europe. And even that was only a detour. In 1973, Seth Siegelaub said in an interview: "Conceptual art, more than all previous types of art, questions the fundamental nature of art. Unhappily, the question is strictly limited to the exclusive domain of the fine arts. There is still the potential of it authorizing an examination of all that surrounds art, but in reality, conceptual artists are dedicated only to exploring avant-garde aesthetic problems.... Unhappily, the economic pattern associated with conceptual art is remarkably similar to that of other artistic movements: to purchase a work cheap and resell it at a high price. In short, speculation." Lucy Lippard, for her part, wrote in 1973 that the "ghetto mentality predominant in the narrow and incestuous art world... with its reliance on a very small group of dealers, curators, editors and collectors who are all too frequently and often unknowingly bound by invisible apron strings to the 'real world's' power structures... make[s] it unlikely that conceptual art will be any better equipped to affect the world any differently than, or even as much as, its less ephemeral counterparts."

These admissions of defeat are well known. But it is also very intriguing that quite recently, another history of conceptual art has been coming back to light. It is a history that unfolds in Latin America, and particularly in Argentina, in the cities of Buenos Aires and Rosario. It would seem that here, in the context of an authoritarian government and under the pressure of American cultural imperialism, conceptual art could only be received, or indeed, invented, as an invitation to act antagonistically within the mass-media sphere, which had already been thematized as an artistic medium by Argentine pop. The most characteristic project in this respect was no doubt Tucum·n Arde, or "Tucum·n is Burning," realized in 1968. A group of some 30 Rosario artists researched the social conditions in the province of Tucum·n, carrying out an analysis of all the mass-media coverage of the region that was currently available, and going out themselves to gather first-hand information and to document the situation using photography and film. They then staged a traveling exhibition that was explicitly designed to feed their work back into the national media, so as to counter the propaganda of the government which had shut down the entire sugar-cane industry in the province, and was now trying to paint an idyllic picture of a region which in reality was wracked by poverty and intense labor struggles. In this way, the artists sought to work oppositionally within the media sphere, insofar as that sphere directly affects social reality.

Now, to understand the differences from today, you must realize that Tucum·n Arde was done with the support of the Argentine CGT, that is, a labor union, and that the exhibition was shown in union halls. In other words, to obtain the funding and distribution of work that would not be supported by the market, the Rosario group had to collaborate with a bureaucratic structure, which despite being "workerist" is essentially an outgrowth of the capitalist firm. This is where Benkler's central remark, about the possibility of peer production emerging only when the relevant equipment is widely dispersed and densely interconnected, takes on its full significance for a contemporary practice of conceptual art. The communications and transportation network of today is the precondition for the revenge of the concept. But the Rosario group's relation to the CGT prompts another remark, which is that after the anti-bureaucratic revolt of the New Left in the Northern countries, from 1968 onward, it has become practically impossible social movements, let alone artists, to collaborate with bureaucratic structures, such as parties, unions, etc. This is why the revolution must now be a do-it-yourself affair, and why the concepts that work are those that can be freely actualized, by each participant, as a political performance. To roll it up in a phrase: "the revenge of the concept = do-it-yourself geopolitics."

This is about to bring us full circle, back to June 18th, 1999. First I'd like tell you that an important share of the preparation for the London performance of this global street party and carnival against capitalism was done by artists. They were apparently the ones who pointed to the LIFFE building, the London International Financial Futures Exchange, as a perfect instance and symbol of globalized finance capitalism. Because they had read extensively about Situationism and been part of its prolongations in England, they were sure that a spontaneous mass action could succeed in a district where large, sophisticated modern buildings were laid out on a medieval street plan. Because they were Joseph Beuys freaks, they were very curious about the fact that a natural river still flowed beneath all the steel and stone of the street where the LIFFE building is located. And because they were contemporary artists, they knew that what they had to do was to throw out ideas and metaphors and images, amid a group of many more people doing the same, and then work further with the ones that would start coming back to them, transformed. To exemplify that, it seems that the idea of a global street party rapidly went around the world, passing from person to person through various networks, and was eventually sent back to people at London Reclaim the Streets by someone in Buenos Aires, saying this is a great idea, you should really work on this!

To see how well the frozen vocabularies of conceptual and performance art in the museum applies to this outdoor art of concept and performance, just look at this [or imagine the images!]:

- ATTITUDE: "Our resistance is as transnational as capital"
- FORM: Global street party
- AUTHOR: Crowd of protestors at the tube station
- INFORMATION: Text on the mask, describing carnival possibilities
- THEATRICALIZATION OF PUBLIC SPACE: People dancing in the street
- RELATIONAL ART: Couple kissing under the spouting fire hydrant
- SOCIAL CRITIQUE: A rear guard of protestors fighting the police
- MEDIA INFILTRATION: FT headline: Anti-Capitalists Lay Seige to London
- TRACES: Smoke over St. Paul's catherdral,br> - DOCUMENTATION: RTS webpage showing global map of J18 actions

(It's important that this documentation, rather than just being some kind of contemplative archive, actually helped inspire people to do what they did in Seattle about six months later...).

In conclusion, I'd like to both agree and disagree with Eric Kluitenberg, who, by drawing on Manuel Castells, has written a suggestive essay on what he calls "the negative dialectics of the net." In phrases which seem like a contemporary echo of the ideas of the Argentinean pop and conceptual artists of the sixties, he explains:

"The logic of the digital network now informs all dominant aspects of society. This fact on the one hand marks the end of the virtual, a sphere that has become completely intertwined with the real world. At the same time, however, every significant social interaction can only become meaningful by virtue of how it is mapped in the digital domain."

What this means is that if artistic resistance is now entangled in the networks, it is because the networks are thoroughly entangled in the real, just as television has been since its massive deployment in the 1950s, or radio since the 1930s. Yet whereas television, like radio, could only be very imperfectly made into a medium for art, the real virtuality of computer networks has been far more open to autonomous uses, which are in fact able to defy the systemic aspects of the channels they invest. Thus Kluitenberg writes: "In this paradoxical environment, dominant discourses of social, political and economic power can be challenged at the level of the representational systems they employ. The classical avant-gardes provide a repository of ideas, tactics and strategies that are now played out in a radically enlarged context; no longer the context of art itself, but that of the network society."

I see it pretty much that way. The interest of a cartography of contemporary capitalism, for instance, is to break the frame, not of art, but of domination as it is exercised over society. But I have to add something: if the strategies of vanguard art can function in this "paradoxical environment," it is precisely because they have given up vanguard privilege, or perhaps more exactly, extended it in a kind of potlatch that destroys it. It is the capacity to actualize the virtual - what I have so far called "performance" -- that destroys the privilege of any vanguard. And this capacity springs from an anthropological level of resistance to domination about which there is still everything to be learned.

For it is clear that "round one" of the revenge of the concept is now over. For three reasons. On is that the initial form of media penetration no longer works: it has succeeded in publicly identifying the illegitimacy of the transnational institutions -- a major victory. But what we have seen since Genoa is nonetheless a containment strategy that successfully minimizes and distorts the media coverage. Second, and more importantly no doubt, the operative limits of the initial discovery of self-organization in transnational space have also been reached; and the "multitudes" must learn deeper forms of coordination, without giving into the representative fallacy that looks to create a new political party, ripe for absorption and neutralization. But finally there is the question of enlarging the struggle, and learning from those who bear the brunt of capitalist exploitation today, in a moment of impending Imperial war and devastation. All of the people touched by the emergence of new capacities for self-organization, for cultural production outside the frameworks of the market and the firm, will have to decide, in a thousand different and very diffuse ways, whether they want to go further, whether they want to actualize an understanding of what life is like, and of what resistance means -- outside the spheres of privilege which are insured by contemporary capitalism.

Absurd Responses vs. Earnest Politics | The Dark Side of the Multitude  >


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  • Brian Holmes, "Revenge of the Concept" | Login/Create an Account | Top | 2 comments | Search Discussion
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    Brian Holmes, Marcel Mauss, Economic Anthropology (Score:0)
    by Anonymous Comrade on Friday January 24, @04:15AM (#984)
    "…[For Polanyi] The result of market-governed exchange was to wreck the patterns of reciprocity that had made it possible for society to reproduce itself over time.…"

    "…Behind these discussions one occasionally catches a glimpse of an anthropologist, not Polanyi, but a figure of even greater importance: Marcel Mauss, author of the famous essay on The Gift.…"

    Brian Holmes' lecture makes a coherent case for networked forms of art and political resistance based on economic practices opposed in principle to capitalist markets. He legitimately invokes the work of Karl Polanyi in support of an anti-market economics, but he does not point out that Polanyi looked to the planning structures of socialist states to implement redistribution as an alternative to the market. The idea that Marcel Mauss was interested in promoting something called 'the gift economy', just because he wrote an essay on The Gift, is a fallacy shared by many anthropologists and political activists alike. He and Polanyi agreed that the attempt to separate the self-regulated market from social life was disastrous, but Mauss wanted the inherently social character of markets to be more explicitly recognized and he believed that the gift was an inferior economic mechanism since it had sustained unequal society throughout history, including state socialism.

    Mauss is universally acknowledged to be the founder of economic anthropology and he did it with one essay of less than a hundred pages, The Gift, published in the mid-1920s. Anthropologists today, when they address the economy, invariably draw on his distinction between two forms, gift-exchange and the market, embodied in the gift and the commodity respectively. The vast majority of them do so in a spirit of rejecting capitalist economy, finding rather in the ethnography of exotic cultures (which used to be called 'primitive') a romantic antidote to the crass commercialism of their own societies. At the same time, by drawing a line between "gift economies" and those dominated by buying and selling, these anthropologists demarcate a zone of exclusive professional expertise, beyond the reach of economists and other social scientists. Political activists who wish to carve out an anti-capitalist economic domain using the net are fundamentally similar.

    Mauss is consistently paraded as the authority for this move. Yet his intentions were in many ways the opposite of this, even if he may have prepared the ground for such a contrast through his own separation of anthropology and politics.

    Marcel Mauss led a double life. On the one hand, he was the faithful collaborator of his uncle, Emile Durkheim, founder of the new discipline of sociology at the turn of the century. Mauss took on the task of developing ethnology in France as part of the wider sociological enterprise. But he was also passionately engaged in the politics of his day. There are stories of him hiding from his uncle when he passed Marcel talking politics with his friends in sidewalk cafes. For a long time, academics knew Mauss only by the small number of brilliant essays that he bequeathed to the discipline. This exiguous output was usually explained by the myth that, as well as being hi-jacked for his uncle's enterprises, he selflessly organized and published the work of his comrades who were killed in the first world war. But the publication of his political writings in 1997 (Ecrits politiques, edited by Marcel Fournier) reveals that he was a pamphleteer far more than an ethnologist.

    Of the book's 800 pages, almost two-thirds consist of short pieces written between 1920 and 1925, from the aftermath of the first world war and the Russian revolution to the publication of the Essai sur le don. In these pages Mauss is revealed as a socialist of the co-operative labour persuasion, with affinities to movements in Britain, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. He was strongly anti-Bolshevik, but this opposition has its roots in the split

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      Re:Brian Holmes, Marcel Mauss, Economic Anthropolo (Score:0)
      by Anonymous Comrade on Friday January 24, @04:29AM (#985)
      Keith Hart says that my text

      "...legitimately invokes the work of Karl Polanyi in >support of an anti-market economics, but he does not point out that Polanyi looked to the planning structures of socialist states to implement redistribution as an alternative to the market."

      True enough -- I'm mainly interested in Polanyi's analysis of how things fall apart, as there are signs of very similar processes right now. As for Mauss:

      "He and Polanyi agreed that the attempt to separate the self-regulated market from social life was disastrous, but Mauss wanted the inherently social character of markets to be more explicitly recognized..."

      Now that's interesting! And it would mean changing the markets. If Polanyi says that self-regulating markets are a "fiction" it's because in the real world of contemporary Western civilization they obviously do not work on an egalitarian basis, they favor concentrated capital which increasingly sets the hidden rules to favor more concentration. That's why neoliberal state capitalism is not a contradiction in terms: cf. the WTO, the main developments in IP law, etc. Today's version of the state is about security and markets regulated in the favor of big corps, with "laissez-faire" and "self-regulation" ideology as the fig-leaf.

      Keith likens me to exoticizing anthropologists:

      "... by drawing a line between 'gift economies' and those dominated by buying and selling, these anthropologists demarcate a zone of exclusive professional expertise, beyond the reach of economists and other social scientists. Political activists who wish to carve out an anti-capitalist economic domain using the net are fundamentally similar."

      There might be substance to this critique, but it's also true that I contrast,not so much gift economies and the market, as self-organized cooperative production and what I call "the flexible personality" -- a name for the way that contemporary trends in labor organization and management tend to structure our entire culture.

      Where I think the whole argument suffers from a lack of precision on both sides is that I'm not fundamentally against money (i'm not against a symbolic language of exchange), but I'm against the exorbitant kind of rents now being extracted by speculative capital. When I talk about "domination," that's part of what I mean. By the same token (sorry, die-hard anarchists) I'm not metaphysically against every kind of institution (even those integrated to "the state"), and Mauss wasn't either, far from it! But neoliberal state capitalism is bad news and getting worse. The problem is making the social institutions of reciprocity work for people, different kinds of people, without destroying their sustaining environment.

      "Mauss is revealed as a socialist of the co-operative labour persuasion, with affinities to movements in Britain, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia... Roughly speaking, the co-operative socialists believed in self-organization from below, like the anarchists and to some extent the liberals. They believed in the unity of collective and individual interests, as in the co-operative movement, where combination in the market went with private property. They were against the state and for the market."

      I suspect that the last sentence is a simplification (I'll read up to find out). But the preceding part, on self-organization from below, is very close to what I talked about in my lecture. And now comes the most interesting part, about the difference betwen market and gift reciprocity:

      "The main difference between the two forms lay in the timing of the return, which in the case of the gift was delayed and in the market contract simultaneous. Because givers in all cultures are superior to receivers, that gap between the gift and its return was a source of inequality, even as it sustained a spiritual and personalized version of society; whereas participants to a contract walk away free and equal, if alienated and alone."

      Tell the people working for today's inter

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