Saturday, May 30, 2009

Zizek update

The world of Zizek studies was rocked this week with the publication of a five year old article by Ian Parker, which was basically sympathetic to Zizek, and which went some way toward explaining his writing, but which also contained an apocryphal anecdote about Zizek. The article is available as an MS Word file here:

According to Parker, one of the themes addressed in Zizek's work is "how it [is] possible to engage in transformative personal change", which, if we really are "caught by ideology" and "caught by fantasy", literally coincides with the problem "how it is possible to be revolutionary". Zizek's greatest wheeze was probably his discovery of a new role model for "transformative personal change", previously unknown in the world of Mind Body Spirit publishing: Vladimir Lenin.

This is Zizek's "mischevious" side. What is strange is that Parker really has to spell it out, for those otherwise gifted souls involved in "artistic practice, personal change and political transformation", not to mention "quite difficult theory", who might otherwise "overidentify" with Zizek's drollery for no good reason whatsoever. In this Parker has done a great service to advanced education. In fact, one wonders whether Zizek himself wanted to signpost the article, in order to reign back some of the Ultra-Zizz graduate students.

The weaknesses of the rest of the article are the weaknesses of advanced education, which is dominated by people who are good at believing anything. One might have thought that pro "philosophers" would be able to decompose the Freudian system into the logical operations that constitute it (i.e. the "Freudian proof" underwrites each otherwise unrelated development of the Freudian system), but apparantly this isn't possible. Instead, all the "advanced studies" are layered on top of each other, as in a Hanna Barbera monster sandwich: "Hegelian phenomenology, Lacanian psychoanalysis", "Marxist politics".

Parker compares Zizek's "lessons" with "hysterical" explanations:

"Psychoanalytically speaking, and drawing on the work of Lacan, we could put it like this. The hysteric finds a way of speaking the truth through lies."

It is precisely the "Freudian proof" that guarantees for the "hysteric", that is, the client, their inevitable, though unconscious, omniscience over their own history. For Zizek to perform the same function for his readers, his particular clients, he would have to have the same omniscience over universal history. Zizek seems to have read maybe two books in the last five years (not counting the books he's written), and he's not really that clever anyway.

(see also Colonel Chabert's latest Zizek studies masterpiece, here.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Stress by Justice

What people saw in this video, although its makers intended something else, was a film propagandising against youths from the suburbs of Paris, responsible, apparently, for the troubles in France. But this was to insult the film makers, who only wanted to put their brand on these youths, or their imagined version of them. Because their own milieu in fact responded positively to the idea of youth gangs. Like Barthes said, as a collective project, instead of Gothic Cathedrals...

part of an ongoing collective project: a vast underclass fantasy

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

were postmods correct?

People mainly think arts criticism is the preserve of the effete upper classes, who cannot even make it in investment banking; hideous characters, like Batman villains who have not learned how to steal. This may or may not be accurate. We can argue against this negative picture that:

1. arts criticism is just a part of social criticism

2. Our Western Civilisation is heavily "artistic", judging by the resources devoted to the production and consumption of "art"

3. this mythology of social criticism still has to be accounted for - by social criticism

4. popular culture in the 90s wasn't so against it. (History is not just the present tacked onto an imaginary past, loosely based on 50s America)

(Social criticism was more acceptable in the 90s. This aspect of popular culture seems to have been deserted, to some extent, by other sections of popular culture, since popular culture is partly institutionally based, and the priorities of these institutions change, while some disappear. Antoine de Caunes is no longer on teevee. Probably people used to take more drugs in the 90s. Everyone wanted to be an "art terrorist", like Jean Baudrillard. It used to be that it was "kool" to know people who made electro concept albums, about corporal punishment in English Public Schools, for the Mo Wax record label. People still feared Japan, not China.)

A more serious indictment of arts criticism is: that identifying the "real" meaning of "works of art" is a false operation. For example, Lukacs identifies the nineteenth century naturalistic novel as being about reification. This wasn't the dominant impression for the producers or consumers of these novels, so isn't the theory a sort of imposture?

What Lukacs has done, or what I have tried to do, is to assume these "works of art" "reflect", more or less loosely, the concrete conditions in which they have been produced, not just economic events, of course, but memories, the weather, events lost to history. Criticism, then, ideally ought to run parallel to the "art" in "reflecting" these circumstances. That a great deal of guesswork is involved makes approximation and error inevitable. This method is, in principle, formaliseable, hence scientific. It has this advantage over "dominant response" criticism: if the dominant response to a "work of art" is that it's a scam, or just rubbish, or an aspect of our society's totalitarian tendency, this fails to account for its conditions of production.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

the social background of confusionism

I used to work for a company that marketed office supplies, in which capacity I learned that you can get specially laminated Kandinsky prints for the walls of your office or factory, for the purpose of motivating your staff. Even though I am sympathetic to a future in which call centre workers might take their easels and pots of paint into work, and work on their pictures during their lunch hour, or even while they're on the phone, I have some reservations about this enterprise. After all, motivational pictures generally serve to dramatise management turning a deaf ear toward their workers' legitimate concerns.

Jean Arp, whose pictures, duly laminated, might well be available from the same company said: “we had a dim premonition that power-mad gangsters would one day use art itself as a way of deadening men's minds”.

I suggested that the regulative idea of art that underlies Kandinsky's paintings follows from the attempt to apply functionalist logic to works that are supposed to have been produced in complete freedom. I don't just mean Kandinsky but his milieu, his class even, who took naturalistic conservatism for granted even as they became interested in the basically anti-bourgeois ideas of romantic anti-utilitarianism.

It is reasonable to explain a great many consumer products on functionalist grounds. A ballpoint pen, for example, can be understood as something that exists to solve a technical problem as efficiently as possible. It conforms to a technical limit, even if this limit involves criteria relating to its function as a commodity as well as as a writing implement. The same principle cannot be applied to so called cultured art, unless the ideas of art pour art are to be abandoned, and for all art to be treated as kitsch art, merely conforming to a need like any other product.

This culture, which could not accept inefficiency or kitsch, compelled its painters to imagine and to show a technical limit for art, at or around the point at which it becomes unintelligible. Such a limit was duly invented. Consequently we have a moral concept: "high art", and a descriptive concept: "abstract art", for the same sort of thing: the confusion and alterisation of culture.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kandinsky's triangle

In 1911 the greatest modern painter wrote:

"The spiritual life can be accurately represented by a diagram of a large acute triangle divided into unequal parts, with the most acute and smallest division at the top. The farther down one goes, the larger, broader, more extensive, and deeper become the divisions of the triangle. The whole triangle moves slowly, barely perceptibly, forward and upward, so that where the highest point is “today;” the next division is “tomorrow,” i.e., what is today comprehensible only to the topmost segment of the triangle and to the rest of the triangle is gibberish, becomes tomorrow the sensible and emotional content of the life of the second segment.

At the apex of the topmost division there stands sometimes only a single man. His joyful vision is like an inner, immeasurable sorrow. Those who are closest to him do not understand him and in their indignation, call him deranged: a phoney or a candidate for the madhouse."

Kandinsky's system is to apply the selectively naturalistic logic of Burke or Hayek to the masterpieces of art. The triangle is a metaphor for the sublation of the indefinite. Suppose a masterpiece of art is ordinarily defined along the lines of "an artwork considered to be especially excellent from a set of works of art". According to Kandinsky, masterpieces of art not only represent a kind of "conclusion" to the "syllogisms" of ordinary art. But also, ordinary art itself no longer needs to be submitted to critical judgement. It is formally subsumed by the masterpieces of art, and may remain undefined.

What Kandinsky has done is to apply the functionalist argument from Burke or Hayek to something which is meant to be, by the standards of art pour art, which he also wants to uphold, absolutely functionless. Some strange arguments follow from this...

Monday, May 11, 2009

"the Talisman"

"Comparison of others' attempts to setting off on a sea voyage in which the ships are drawn off course by the magnetic north pole. Discover that North Pole. What for others are deviations, for me are data by which to set my course."

- Walter Benjamin

Impressionism had always had a mannerist side. It wasn't all about optics. But the idea that it was all about optics was allowed to stand as a total explanation. Sérusier's, or Sérusier's and Gauguin's the Talisman, is meant as a sort of painted manifesto to a style where the mannerist side of impressionism is to be stressed exclusively, and the alibi of optics dropped. In one respect this style stresses the richness of human experience, by showing what would correspond to a superlative form of human experience, and as such can be understood as arguing against the real immiseration of human beings. On the other hand, what is actually shown as a possibility of human experience is an invention, an impossibility. It is as if the work "supposed" a superhuman author given to superperception. Sérusier had been reading Hegel, in whose works such contradictions abound. Gauguin's career in the financial sector had been ended by the recession. He had abandoned his family in Denmark and was working in Pont-Aven, Brittany, which became a sort of hipster Lourdes.

I wanted to explain the theory of avantgardism. If the lead up to this has concentrated exclusively on "celebrity masterpieces" this is because the theory of avantgardism is a theory of "celebrity masterpieces".

Friday, May 08, 2009

British Art

When people refer to British Art they are not referring to something necessarily brilliant, though this possibility isn't definitively ruled out. The idea of British Art has an affinity with the idea of British Cooking. Some of it may be very poor, but this isn't an inevitability. Referring to British Cooking is not the same thing as referring to Italian Cooking, for example, which is generally considered to be unambiguously good; or Italian Art. The usage is different. For example if Balzac had written to Stendhal:

"what I do, is I do these frescoes; but you, my friend, have made British Art"

Our soldiers, returning from Afghanistan, are to be presented with the best of British Cooking, and the best of British Art.

But Britain did have a sophisticated visual culture at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, best exemplified by satirical cartoons. If these works don't convince enough people, or the right people, that they qualify as art proper, it's probably on account of the absence of obviously irreproducible skill, their opacity to modern viewers, and their puerility. The preponderance of figures engaging with the viewer also plays a part. If, in the style of Garfield minus Garfield, these figures were erased, at least some of these pictures would come across as great modernist renderings of the capitalist city, with the objectivity of Hiroshige prints.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"a great humanist gesture"

There's a kind of Marxist history where the principal classes in society fight over a common means of cultural production, like a rowing couple each trying to drag a disconsolate baby from the other ones grasp. Intellectual conflict is mapped onto social conflict. This wasn't the Marxism of Edward Thompson, who, in The Making of the English Working Class described the following:

"A witness before the parliamentary committee enquiring into the hand-loom weavers (1835) was asked to state the view of his fellows on the Reform Bill:

Q. Are the working classes better satisfied with the institutions of the country since the change has taken place?

A. I do not think they are. They viewed the Reform Bill as a measure calculated to join the middle and upper classes to Government, and leave them in the hands of Government as a sort of machine to work according to the pleasure of Government.

Such men met Utilitarianism in their daily lives, and they sought to throw it back, not blindly, but with intelligence and moral passion. They fought, not the machine, but the exploititive and oppressive relationships intrinsic to industrial capitalism. In these same years , the great Romantic criticism of Utilitarianism was running its parallel but altogether separate course. After William Blake, no mind was at home in both cultures, nor had the genius to interpret the two traditions to each other."

...which in one way suggests two and only two rival positions of two rival classes, but also something else. Because, on what grounds could the workers' criticism of Utilitarianism have been made, if not those underlying "the great Romantic criticism of Utilitarianism"? That political economy represented the final denial of man?

The establishment at the time believed and made use of several kinds of ideology. Thompson analyses the traditional or induced attachment to "Church and King" and religious revivalism as well as the much vilified Utilitarianism. I tried to demonstrate that the "modern conservatism" exemplified by Burke's arguments against the French Revolution, selectively and retroactively naturalistic, represented an important innovation, quite distinct from a genuine attachment to tradition or utilitarianism, even if the "spiritualising" tendency of this "modern conservatism" is employed alongside utilitarian arguments, as in most economics texts.

This is to slight the venerable historian somewhat, whose book is pretty good, but the multiplicity of conservative ideologies is a development that underlies and informs the modern political aesthetic, and as such is of some importance.

The great difference between Manet's and Gauguin's treatment of similar subjects is not just historical. The political situation is no longer that of the Second Empire. Gauguin's Anna the Javanese is a depiction of someone on the margins of society, perhaps even defiantly so. The old bourgois conception of sex work has been restored, somewhat. It would be an outrageous insult to call this woman a prostitute. The picture doesn't convince us about where and when it was painted, other than in its style and celebrity. It all looks a bit like a theatre set. It couldn't really be described as a criticism of modern life, unless blurishness is taken to be a political statement.

I used to work nights in a petrol station, and this kid came in about four in the morning to clean the forecourt and replenish the stock. The storeroom in which the stock was kept was a windowless concrete cell impregnated with motor oil. Imagine, it's full of old boxes and cobwebs. And this kid just went to sleep in there. The great Romantic criticism of Utilitarianism. It's got to have been like an Eritrean prison cell, except with bottles of Pepsi Max and old boxes of Quavers. And this kid just used to sleep in there. I understand he smoked a lot of weed, but even so.

The pre-critical ambivalence underlying Manet's Olympia is ordinarily political: the vexed relation between bourgeois culture and the sex industry, so the picture can be understood as a partial criticism of society. For Gauguin, ordinary political considerations seem of less importance than the "truth" underlying the "great Romantic criticism of Utilitarianism": the defiant assertion of man in the abstract. Even in Gauguin's pictures with "cut out" figures, the mystery of internal depth seems to have a decisive weight: the eyes of the doll rolling back in its head.

If Gauguin isn't quite, or not always asserting the idealism of Berkeley, the impression that comes across is something like Heidegger's overidealised politics: the mystery of Mankind's relation with the Cosmos. As if the frills of Javanese Pagodas, or Gothic Cathedrals, or the frills of this woman's costume, which she is momentarily without, prefigured the intermediate world of Heideggarian froth.

Monday, May 04, 2009

the anti-political communist tendency

One might have expected the anticapitalist disturbances of the 90s to have generated a voluminous critical literature with the sangfoid of the two undated, apparently online only issues of Letters Journal (whether pro or con):

"With this journal we wish to understand and analyze capitalism and crisis, attack the Left, critically engage with our own ideas and practices, and develop a more dynamic transgression from the political."

The "anti-political communist" tendency might involve a dozen people or so. It has also been articulated in articles under the pen name Monsieur Dupont, the best of which is probably the theory masterpiece Do you want to be or don't you want to be soft like me?

Saturday, May 02, 2009

ten franc historical research: Manet's Olympia

The object of our study is not the nineteenth century, which we have hardly researched, but the contradictions of the present.

In 1864, the year after Manet painted Olympia, and the year before it was exhibited, the Goncourt brothers reflected on the history of prostitution in Paris:

"Our little cousin Labille came to see us this morning. He had a rendezvous with a cocotte who was going to take him out to Asnières in her carriage. There exists a peculiar type of high-class prostitute nowadays who finds her custom among boys still at school, emptying their pocket-books and building up a reserve of men who will keep her in later years.

When the boy had gone, we reflected on the course taken by love in our three generations. The elder of us, at our cousins age, had a girl who stitched shoes for a living. I had a tart who always had a few sous in her chest of drawers. And this youngster has a woman who keeps her own carriage and horses. The world progresses. Here we have the three periods: Louis-Philippe, 1848, and the Second Empire."

In the early years of the nineteenth century conditions were markedly worse. Jules Janin wrote in 1839, with reference to Parent-Duchatelet's earlier study:

"If all orders of society are represented in the convict prisons of Toulon and Brest, just as they are in the Golden Book of the Legion of Honor, does that mean that the novel and the play may concern themselves with those vile heroes, ever cowering beneath the public's contempt or the warder's truncheon? In his Histoire de la prostitution publique M. Parent-Duchatelet , the learned gentleman who, out of pure charity, lived amid filth, that rigid Port-Royal Christian who lived out his whole life in haunts of ill fame out of sheer virtue, tells us that in order to perfect his frightful knowledge of Parisian vice he was once taken to a house where five-score ladies of the night were sleeping promiscuously with thieves on a great pile of rags gathered from all the garbage heaps in the kingdom. M. Parent-Duchatelet saw it; he tells us so; we must credit him. And yet, merely because the thing exists, does that mean that the novel and the play may pore over this den of vice to dredge up choice morsels? No, no, there are some things from which we must avert our eyes..."

Janin's first sentence is reflected years later in Lautrec's obituary notice, whose writer peevishly observed that the list of the artist's thousand conquests could also be found on the desk of the chief of police.

I suppose it is a question at the back of Janin's mind whether Parisian prostitutes constitute a particular "estate" within the social order, and the answer is that they do not.

During the Second Empire prostitution was legalised and subject to police regulation. The Emperor had the character of a procurer, and the bases of the bourgeois conception of prostitution altered. Syphilis was pandemic. Beyond the celebrated courtesans, the Second Empire filles publiques were multiplied and massed together in barracks, like artisans in factories or the destitute in the poorhouse. Prostitution became an integral part of the social machine of the Second Empire.

Political ideas inevitably lagged behind these social changes. Conservatism, admittedly, had already ceased to be purely dogmatic and had become more often reactive and naturalistic. But the idea of a social estate of prostitutes engaged in great factories devoted to their trade must have been necessarily disquieting. Because of the special status these women had, the Second Empire prostitutes, whose profession was somewhat naturalised and somewhat denaturalising, dramatise the contradictions of industrial civilisation as a whole, itself naturalised and unnatural.

If we accept that, intellectually at least, someone like Manet could have contemplated the Parisian prostitute with a kind of excited ambivalence, we can reapply the analysis of Alfred Jarry's poster.

A moment of everyday paranoia is pictured which threatens to be indissociable from paranoia about the whole of society. I have tried to show that this paranoia is the opposite of extreme psychopathology. It is, rather, the excited indifference of the pre-critical mindset. The type of representation involved conveys this paranoia. In place of Jarry's exaggerated double take, Manet has three figures in distinct registers: Olympia, her maid, her cat. The whole effect is something like three seperate "cut outs", assembled in the same picture, or three offkey figures from a diorama, indicating simultaneously the perspectives in which they appear realistic and nonrealistic.

Friday, May 01, 2009

caveat mutant

Franco Moretti has an ideosyncratic take on "modern monsters": Frankenstein and Dracula. This is from Signs taken for Wonders:

"The fear of bourgeois civilization is summed up in two names: Frankenstein and Dracula. The monster and the vampire are born together one night in 1816 in the drawing room of the Villa Chapuis near Geneva, out of a society game among friends to while away a rainy summer. Born in the full spate of the industrial revolution, they rise again together in the critical years at the end of the nineteenth century under the names of Hyde and Dracula. In the twentieth century they conquer the cinema: after the First World War, in German Expressionism; after the 1929 crisis, with the big rko productions in America; then in 1956–57, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, directed by Terence Fisher, again, triumphantly, incarnate this twin-faced nightmare. Frankenstein and Dracula lead parallel lives. They are indivisible, because complementary, figures; the two horrible faces of a single society, its extremes: the disfigured wretch and the ruthless proprietor. The worker and capital: ‘the whole of society must split into the two classes of property owners and propertyless workers.’ That ‘must’, which for Marx is a scientific prediction of the future (and the guarantee of a future reordering of society), is a forewarning of the end for nineteenth-century bourgeois culture."

"They are indivisible, because complementary"? Strangely enough, when I was at school the class was split between two rival gangs. The leaders of the gangs were called Elephant and Dracula. I never learnt their real names!

The main point of my criticism of this piece is, it's all very clever but is Mary Shelley really anticipating Marx's theory of the decomposition of Nineteenth Century class society, which actually didn't pan out exactly as Marx anticipated? Isn't the operative political faultline in 1816 still Radical against Conservative rather than proletariat against bourgeoisie? Why is there only one monster who hardly interferes in society at all, but rather remotely terrorises it? Why doesn't this terrorism relate to the social relations made possible by capitalism, and that made possible the assassination of Spencer Percival, for example?

There might be something in the correspondence between the monster in Frankenstein and a certain way of looking at the destitute, but it surely requires the complete abstraction of the "disfigured wretch" from economic, social and familial relations.

The personal history of the author of Frankenstein ought to be asserted here.

Mary Shelley's mother was involved in a famous controversy of the period whose theme coincides with the theme of the book. More or less, Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense arguing for a rational society. The French Revolution took place, offstage. Edmund Burke came up with a very strange argument against the ideas of Paine and the actions of the revolutionaries. Certain institutions in society should be accepted as being unfathomably efficacious. Acting against these institutions, apparently rationally, would be either futile or disasterous. Reality is a mousetrap; Enlightenment a piece of cheese. Mary Wollstonecraft responded to Burke's pamphlet with Vindication of the Rights of Men. Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein appropriates Burke's theme of the horrific aspect of the new: in modern language, the "mutant".

This is a fairly conventional analysis of Frankenstein. It might appear, from this, that Moretti has failed to understand the significance of the "Burkean" theme. In fact he goes over just this theme later on in his book, in a chapter on Sherlock Holmes.

Having established certain similarities between the treatment of the same theme by Burke and Mary Shelley, it's relevant to stress their differences. The same theme that served as the basis for a polemic by Burke serves as the basis for an imaginitive work by Mary Shelley. It has ceased to be a doctrine to be argued for or against and become somewhat naturalised itself. It has become possible for it to be contemplated with a kind of excited indifference.