In McWorld, and of it also

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The ways of the postmodern activist.

"ACTS of resistance, collective gestures of revolt, and the common invention of a new social and political constitution" for the whole world, no less, are continually "passing together through innumerable micro-political circuits: and thus in the flesh of the multitude is inscribed a new power, a counter-power, a living thing that is against Empire." So Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt rhapsodised as they talked on globalisation and democracy at the last Documenta. The multitude they conjure is a novel form of political being - neither the sum of the peoples whose sovereignty nation states were supposed to incarnate, nor a mutation of the labouring masses whom Marx's enthusiasts had thought to steer toward Atlantis. That is just as well perhaps; the universal consumer whom globalisation both makes and serves seems the other face of Labour redeemed, after all, while the only peoples now worth the name seem to know themselves most as casualties of the process. The `flesh' of this multitude is a new quantity as well. It is neither matter nor mind, Hardt and Negri declare, following Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but rather "an element of being" in just the way that fire, air, water and earth were once supposed to be the elements of material creation. Out of this flesh, brought forth by "powers of invention that work through singularities to weave together hybridisations of space and metamorphoses of nature", will come "monsters and beautiful giants, continually emerging from within the interstices of imperial power and against imperial power itself", whose bodies "are not susceptible to the forces of discipline and normalisation" that maintain Empire.

This seems the language of vision or prophecy - the mixings of register are natural, one is tempted to say, to the sort of Koine English is becoming - so one must be careful in probing it. But the circuits of these powers of invention will remain "micro-political" just so long, we must suppose, as their monstrous issue is "interstitial" because Empire will collapse with "the full epiphany of the monsters", who will embody the new social and political constitution which Hardt and Negri call "the absolute democracy of the multitude". As a projected condition of some global polis this, again, is something dimly imagined. The rule of multitude over itself is absolute in not being delegated, at all, to any representative members; but we are not told how else this consummation of "a desire for a common life" is to be conceived. The large reason why the multitude will come to rule itself absolutely, however, is that "the power of invention has become the general and common condition of production in the political economy of Empire". And the freely combining multitude of bodies each multitudinous in itself - each variously "crisscrossed by intellectual and material powers of reason and affect", moving severally across "the old boundaries that separated the human from the machinic" - will inevitably invent "forms of life" which are "irrecuperable in the capitalist logic" of Empire. Yielding our elemental flesh freely to our own powers of invention we shall, Hardt and Negri seem to say, surely regain Paradise.

The platform on "democracy unrealised" hoisted at Documenta was the high place of this vision and perhaps artists and their enthusiasts were its proper communicants. One has to wonder where, in the world as we have it, any power of invention has become the common condition of production. That is not obviously so beyond the pale of the First World and one must ask how many even there, among those who exercise such a power freely, are not willing clients of Empire. But if we gloss the phrase suitably it will seem that "the power of invention" is indeed "the general and common condition of production" in the microcosm of the art-world - that is one way of describing the condition of perfect aesthetic entropy in which, as Arthur Danto has put it, a work of art can be whatever artist and patron want it to be. So perhaps Hardt and Negri mean to hold up as exemplary the play of a "power of invention" in the making of artworks nowadays, which certainly seems immune to any "forces of normalisation and discipline".1

The suggestion that the practice of art is a model of political praxis will seem risible to anyone who considers doings in the art-world coolly, or the doings in its Anglophone quarters at least. Documenta's platform had played host to a luminary on the American scene, someone received as a `theorist' there, whose deliverances on aesthetics and activism were detailed in a recent issue of this magazine; readers who find mine a jaundiced view are invited to imagine just what an artist with such a preceptor might do (Frontline, September 26, 2003). But, however that may be, to suppose that the making of art goes on in "the interstices of Empire" is simply silly and the character of both practice and patronage now almost ensures that anything done "interstitially" will pass unnoticed. The votaries who had gathered at Documenta did hear the recounting, though, of a piece of activism that appears to have been as micro-political and interstitial as Hardt and Negri would want. It might be instructive to look at that.

THE story is told in a piece titled "New Rules for the New Actonomy" by Florian Schneider, who was one of the principals of the event. His is the first essay of the section retailing "Counter-Politics: Direct Action, Resistance, Civil Disobedience" in the volume where the proceedings of our platform are collected.2 "Time is running out for Reformism," Schneider begins by declaring, so "this is the golden age of irresistible activism. Accelerate your politics. Set a target you can reach within three years and formulate the key ideas within 30 seconds. Then go out and do it. Do not despair. Get the bloody project up and then: hit hit hit." Just as you begin rolling up your sleeves, however, you are counselled to "be instantly seductive in your resistance". Workaday activists who might be puzzled by such advice are assured that their demands need not be "signs of a dogmatic belief system" anymore. Rather, "if well formulated" they can be "strong signs, penetrating deeply into the confused postmodern subjectivity", which is "so susceptible to catchy phrases, logos, and brand names".

A radical enough political praxis could, one supposes, conceive of its demands as `signs' of some belief system rather than as statements of considered desire. Radical praxes have been expressly impatient of philosophy after all, being modes of action first, and as such may have had more use for slogans than careful articulations of position. And radicals who have begun to think of the `subjectivity' they are acting upon as confused mainly, rather than say "ideologically determined", might well agree that the larger aims of political resistance are better served by seduction than by argument or confrontation, strange as it sounds to say so.

The `order' produced by the doings of transnational capital is Schneider's target. Perhaps one should talk of Capital here if only to distinguish such doings from what pawnbrokers and loansharks, say, might get up to. Anyway, a frontal assault on Capital seems quixotic now. "Slowly changing capitalism from within" hardly seems a workable strategy to Schneider, perhaps because "society is changing much faster than any of its institutions can handle", and "there is no time anymore for rational planning" by anyone - by neither the powers that be nor those who oppose them. "The political arena has dissolved into thousands of fragments" apparently. So it might be all to the good that, "instead of lamenting the disappearance of politics, the public, the revolution" and so on, "today's activists are focussing on the weakest link defining the overall performance of the system - the point where the corporate image materialises in the real world and leaves its ubiquitous and abstract omnipresence".

Only a casuist would ask when ubiquity is not omnipresence, I suppose, or wonder how an image materialising at a point can be abstractly present everywhere. Such are the sweet nothings a postmodern activist must learn to mouth no doubt, to seduce fellows to his cause at least, and his work will be done if they go forth then to get "the damage done on the symbolic level", which, apparently, is what counts. The visual and audial `identities' that transnational business concocts for itself - the graphic blare or chime of logos, the catchy copy and music that, together with packaging, is meant to brand products on consumers' brains - all seem to have worked themselves into the warp of everyday experience: they are the lineament, as it were, of the McWorld that global business makes and rules. To those born before the world was so remade the compresent heraldry of the corporation makes palpable Capital's investing of daily life, one might say, running the military meaning of "invest" together with the sense of "endowing with attributes" that the word once had. And Schneider's claim seems to be that the powers of Capital are somehow weaker for having to greet with just these `faces' their servitors and hostages.

That is an intriguing suggestion - one that will at once elate and alarm advertising moguls. Whether things are really so would be difficult to determine; but a campaign Schneider helped orchestrate in 2001, to try and derail something Lufthansa does, does make for engaging reading here. The airline flies deportees from Germany to their countries of origin. These `passengers' are seated at the back of the aircraft always, often in handcuffs or like restraints. The campaign was called Deportation.class and it began with a competition, conducted on the Net, "to create a corpus of parodic slogans". These were then used in "prank promotional material" distributed to travel agencies, ostensibly advertising bookings in a `deportation class' and offering a price reduction on seats "normally reserved for the transport of deported asylum seekers". The blandishments of "waiting-list priority" and "increased baggage allowance" added to the temptation. The campaign tried to expose, in all sorts of ways, the carrying of deportees on commercial flights. For instance, at one airport, "activists disguised themselves as employees of an advertising agency, purportedly conducting a survey among Lufthansa passengers as to their readiness to be reseated from business or tourist into deportation class". In doing this kind of thing they acted as "communications guerillas", one might well say, "conserving their strength so as always to appear where the enemy least suspected".

Lufthansa had to take notice eventually. But its public relations people made a hash of things, calling a press conference to protest "the cynical and inhumane proceedings" of our "communications guerillas" - "score one for the activists" as Schneider properly says. Deportation.class culminated in an "online demonstration" conducted on the day of Lufthansa's annual shareholder meeting that year, when from 10 in the morning to noon "the Lufthansa server was to be overloaded or, at least, its response time significantly slowed down", by an "electronic gathering" enabled to address it in unanticipated ways through "software that supported mass protest". And the doings of this virtual collective are supposed to have cohered in a form of action that "both visualised and globalised protest" through "a hybrid of immaterial sabotage and digital demonstration".

Lufthansa's homepage was almost inaccessible for these two hours, apparently, but its Web services were not shut down all together. The campaign had made public its intent to try and disable the server well in advance of the event, and the airline was able to control the damage. That might ordinarily be thought a defeat for the activists. But "the nice thing about virtual reality", we are told, is that "both sides can be right in claiming success" and "the final tabulation of pluses and minuses has little meaning" because the activists' goal is "not so much to gain institutional political power, but to change the way things are moving and why. The principal aim is to make power ridiculous, unveil its corrupt nature in the most powerful, beautiful and aggressive symbolic language, then step back in order to make space for changes to take effect".

Just before this, however, Schneider had laid down the following "laws of the semiotic guerilla: hit and run, draw and withdraw, code and delete. Postulate precise and modest demands, which allow your foe to step back without losing face". One wonders how, and to whom, power can at the same time be made to seem ridiculous. But that is the magic of seductive resistance, presumably, and perhaps both Schnieder's "new actonomists" and Lufthansa parted more happy with themselves than not after this oddly civil duel. Deportation.class seems to be "a novel form of political articulation" certainly and perhaps such forms of collective action will create modes of "subjectivity and interactivity" that are not easily suborned by Capital. Whether tilting at the corporate image will make a more material difference, though, is another matter. The operations of Capital are overseen by institutions and orchestrated by discourses that do not depend, in any way, on an image presented to any sort of public. To make their power look ridiculous one would, for instance, have to parody the doings and sayings of business schools and `theorists' of management and it is not clear where an audience for such fare would gather.

One has to admire Schneider's actonomists, though no matter how inconsequential their "actions that are more like performances than traditional political demonstrations" may eventually prove. A good many in the art-world would want to applaud them, one imagines, though practice has come to depend in so many ways on Capital. Some might even want to regard Deportation.class as an extended piece of performance art. One wonders if Schneider's actonomists would be flattered by that, but let us consider what regarding it so will presuppose.

WORKS of art embody meaning in singular ways - that is their salient feature. Embodied meanings need not be sayable ones. What a painting means, for instance, may be as little sayable as a poem is picturable. And this is so even where, and perhaps especially when, its meaning is plain to see. But artworks mean what they do by lending themselves to words in certain ways - by, at the very least, making particular descriptions of how they look or what they do seem particularly apt. Now to understand Deportation.class as a work of art one has to take it for the work of "semiotic guerrillas" whose actions intend an "immaterial sabotage" of Capital by "seductively resisting" its operation. Taking our actonomists doings in just this way, under these or some like descriptions, seems a condition of understanding it so.

Of course, their actions announce an intent to sabotage. But such intending would be idle wishing only, unless it were informed by some sense of just how the powers of Capital depend on the corporate image. The understanding behind intent here may be ill-founded. After all, the meanings embodied by artworks depend on the beliefs and desires of their makers and intended beholders only, no matter how egregious these may seem to others. Then, one has to impute to the actonomists some understanding of Capital's workings if one is to think of Deportation.class as seductive resistance intended to immaterially sabotage Capital - even if they disclaim any such understanding themselves. Such understanding must be articulate enough to be shared. We could not otherwise suppose our "semiotic guerrillas" able to concert their actions as they seem to. Moreover, in order to tell such intending from idle wishing we would have to ourselves possess the understanding we impute.

Recall that Deportation.class is meant to do more than annoy or merely inconvenience. It is meant to "penetrate deeply into our confused postmodern subjectivity" and in that way help produce a public whom the powers of Capital cannot easily suborn. But that may take some time. Schneider's actonomists are ready, at any rate, to "step back for changes to take effect" after they have done their work as putative saboteurs. The crucial question then is whether, given what understanding of Capital's workings is imputed to them, they can be seen as intending the sabotage they wish before any changes take effect because understanding something as a work of art cannot wait upon what might or might not come to be. Taking in Deportation.class as a work of art requires, in short, that our actonomists be seen as immaterial saboteurs regardless of whether their actions will sabotage Capital at all.

The point is worth labouring. To regard our actonomists as saboteurs - to see them as actively intending sabotage and not idly wishing it only - we have to assess the chances that their actions would sabotage Capital were its workings in accord with the understanding of such workings that we impute to them. That is peculiarly difficult. Our grasp of such counterfactual situations is vitiated by the circumstance that no sabotaging of Capital is likely to be recognised as such until much after the job is done. It might be worth remarking now that, not too long ago, artworks were praised for subverting various sorts of oppressive order. The same difficulty should have complicated the exercise of regarding them so. One has to see the work as subversive regardless of whether it will subvert anything at all while, again, subversion is usually detected only after it has done its damage. And if an artwork proves subversive as a consequence of its having been understood in some particular way, that would be incidental to its being a work of art.

Of course, merely logical difficulties do not deter artworlders. But we must now ask what sorts of understanding of Capital's workings the members of the artworld are likely, in general, to possess. Such understandings may be seriously mistaken, as we noted. But they must be articulate and consistent enough, within themselves, to allow the sort of exercises in counterfactual assessment that were just sketched. There may be optimists who suppose that possible. But no one will think so who has tried to make sense of what passes for theory or interpretation in the art-world now: attempts at either there are, almost always, only banal when they are not incoherent. That will seem harsh, but there is no room here to make good the charge and, as always, there are splendid exceptions. For those new to the art-world, however, a glance at the dicta of the `theorist' mentioned should give the claim enough colour.

Schneider and his actonomists did not set out to make art, of course, and they may not mind that their actions cannot be understood as such. So in the next part we shall look at an artist whose dealings with Capital seem "monstrous" in a way that Hardt and Negri might applaud.


1. Hardt and Negri will seem descendants of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon now, desiring like him that Art be the destiny of Labour; and perhaps they would count Courbet as an ancestor of their `beautiful giants'.

2. Published by the firm of Hatje Cantz with the title Democracy Unrealised.

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