Art, Autonomy, Pedagogy in 2013

“La poésie ne rythmera plus l’action, elle sera en avant!” (A. Rimbaud, Lettres du voyant)

Among those of us parasitically ensconced in the cultural wing of contemporaneity, rehearsing cultural responses to an economic matrix long ago displaced, one possible way out of the stagnation symptomatized by the rhetorical staging of “the crisis” might be to reject its already conventionalized rhetoric in order to embrace the factual kernel informing it. Changes in the way value is made and disseminated have made the language of “criticality” another fold in the valorization of business as usual. But even to say this is to repeat something regurgitated ad infinitum since Virno, Negri, and friends made their appearance on the American, and Anglophone, world since the publication of Empire in 2000 (for starters). And that would be the beginning.

The rhetoric of crisis stages a language, one which would have us believe that simply thinking the relation between aesthetics and social justice a little better, harder, more creatively, will finally break the impasse between aesthetic autonomy, by now a kind of empty code for indifference to the market, on the one hand, and the failure of “art into life,” understood as resistance to both state and market, on the other. Of late, a new rhetoric, itself part of a body of art practice, is emerging, one that suggests the impossibility of art-making altogether under the current regime of value, aka. capitalism—precisely because of the vanishing horizon of the very possibility of value production under capital.

The artist collective Claire Fontaine addresses the artist himself or herself (or themselves) as one readymade product among many, part of a landscape in which subsumption—literally, as on the factory floor and, on a metaphorical register, to describe social relations that mimic the circulation of commodities—has fully triumphed, fully saturated all areas of life. Claire Fontaine mobilizes the general strike as one last tactic. I say “one last” because the avant-garde was about just that, strategies and tactics. But already a contradiction seems to surface. The problem here is that to make good on this last chance of “art into life,” albeit negative dialectically, means very simply the foreclosure practice itself. This self-realization through self-abolition may be the right way, the only way, to act in a hegemony that reduces all existence, much less action (if agency can be said to exist as such separate from the fully saturated parameters [capitalist] that make it possible, to its own logic). But what do you do if you want to “make” something? How is process or practice possible? How is mark-making possible when all marks belong to the market insofar as the market made it possible? This last already “makes” the point. Authorship is itself made by the market, as CF suggests. And what does this say about pedagogy? What possible difference would the quixotic specter of the free school make if it were, ultimately, to simply entail the daily reproduction of [potential] value—of subjects held in abeyance yet marked to reenter the system of value after a limited absolution from its machinery? How would this scenario not be in a kind of mimetic relationship, however “subversive” or “prefigurative,” with the next generational strata of vanishing value?

We need to dismantle the “edu factory.” That goes without saying. But the logic motivating that project needs to shift. If we suspend the impasse, to better acknowledge it, dialectically, what problems might emerge? What “unthought in thought” so to speak, might surface that could then engage the problem forcefully, on its own terms? How else to be of it and against it? How might letting “problem-sets” emerge hold out a margin of possibility, “potential” as the sad Potere Operaio movement in Italy might have said? How else to imagine a necessary rupture with the fabric of totality—which is to say Capital given that only capital can achieve totality through the organization of all against value, in a homogenous flow of goods and services, if a provisional space can’t be artificially made to do so?

Pedagogy, autonomy:
The sudden and breathless turn to financialization as the sign of each and every dynamic in late capitalism, each and every practice made transparent to the market, maybe honest enough, but what of it? And how does the use of that sign—financialization as “key,” as master-signifier—not become another fancy and well-theorized excuse to acquiesce to the inevitability of capitalism, of the logic of general equivalence? One way out [of the self perpetuating rhetoric, in order to come back to the problem of history with some clarity] may be to suspend the problem provisionally. How about a pedagogy that stops asking after ethics and social justice, and that starts permitting practice, process for its own sake, a means without ends. Why not allow process to simmer, and suffer, in its own opacity? There is no practice, however seemingly autonomous, that does not necessarily engage its context. It happens no matter what. The attempt to imagine “context” as something transparent enough to “think,” may not be art’s immediate problem. Its problem may be to break limits that have yet to be “thought.”

But who are we kidding? Means and ends are neither here nor there. Above all, why legitimate pedagogy by making it serve “social justice,” when one of the greatest social injustices is corporate education running on debt? Like the society to which it has played the faithful servant, the university is bankrupt. As “Communiqué from an Absent Future,” drafted from the historically and geopolitically situated U.C. Occupations succinctly put it, “This bankruptcy is not only financial. It is the index of a more fundamental insolvency, one both political and economic, which has been a long time in the making. No one knows what the university is for anymore. We feel this intuitively. Gone is the old project of creating a cultured and educated citizenry; gone, too, the special advantage the degree-holder once held on the job market. These are now fantasies, spectral residues that cling to the poorly maintained halls. The world-historical with its pageant of catastrophe is no more real than the windows in which it appears.”

To move from pedagogy to art pedagogy may provide one trap door: Art has made the transition before, from Window, to Mirror, to Media, etc. Its entry into the academy is, if history is to be taken seriously at all, fairly late. It preexisted the state and the market, it will carve its way somehow into the future, even one absent to “us.”

At present, art-making, like any other production, is a function of “globalization,” a process in which revenue, or value, is generated on factory floors in far away places, making it seem remote enough to argue that value derives from moving things around in electronic circuits. In fact, value is produced as it ever was within a capitalism order—which is to say through human work, the vanishing horizon of labor offshored, out of sight, smell, and touch, which is then appropriated by Google and Google users who doubly efface the laborer by claiming to produce value. Among whom the creative users could be factored in (here, the model of the artist is as user) clicking around in the limited digital matrix. The question being whether it’s possible to come out on the further banks of conceptual art, which turned out to be synonymous with the management of changes in the geopolitical location of capital. As production moves to other shores, those of us left behind by capital have to restructure even if nothing needs to be restructured, in order to keep ourselves and others busy so no one gets too panicky about matters.

Walter Benjamin: “[t]he realization of dream elements in the course of waking up, is the canon of dialectics.”

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Jaleh Mansoor

JALEH MANSOOR currently teaches in the department of Art History, Visual Art, Theory, and Critical Curatorial Studies at the University of British Columbia. She has taught at SUNY Purchase, Barnard College, Columbia University, and Ohio University. Her research on materialist abstraction in the context of Marshall Plan Italy opens up on to problems concerning materialist abstraction.