[x-posted from Infinite Thought]
1. Swinging from the Canapes
When I grow up I want to be...a freelance curator.
Of all the jobs spawned by the increasingly rapacious culture industry,
this one has it all: connectivity that is itself creative, and vice
versa. Who wouldn’t want to be a freelance curator in this brave new
world of deracinated galleries and the unfettered celebration of the
productive power of networking? Sure, it’s precarious,
but isn’t everything these days, and, yes, it might all disappear in a
puff of smoke, but that’s just the nature of creative destruction isn’t
it? All hail creativity! And, hey, you should really check out my new show...
The freelance curator is the immaterial labourer par excellence. Consisting almost entirely of contacts, human or otherwise, and operating by means of a series of associative strategies, this knowledge-worker in the realm of the imagination understands that what the world needs more than anything is a network of innovation – a kind of profitable glee in plugging things in.
We could treat this psycho-social type structurally, as a kind of excrescence thrown up by a combination of the weightlessness of cultural forms combined with the realisation that actual, material products are just so nineteenth century. We could even be charitable, and think of the artworld as a kind of playground for theoretical experimentation. Peter Osborne argues that with the decline of independent Left political-intellectual cultures, the artworld remains, ‘for all its intellectual foibles, the main place beyond the institutions of higher education where intellectual and political aspects of social and cultural practices can be debated, and where these debates can be transformed.’
There is no doubt that earlier bastions of Leftist cultural discourse – factory gates, universities, coffee houses – are not what they used to be. Nevertheless, the ‘intellectual foibles’ that partly constitute the artworld deserve closer attention. If the artworld is where immaterial labour goes to party and, let us not be coy, a very attractive concern for investors everywhere, then we should be concerned both by what it says about the ‘political-intellectual’ culture, and by what it says about itself. It is the language of the curator and the artworld that deserves some sort of explanation – if the curator is simultaneously the nodal master (and slave) of contemporary immaterialism, by what else shall we know them than their words?
2. Between the Playground and the Public
Let us agree with Lazzarato that the concept of the immaterial refers to (at least) two different aspects of labour. On the one hand, to the ‘informational content’ of the commodity at the level of its manufacture and production – the technologisation of the organisation of work and the shift of skills towards a computer-based economy. On the other, to the ‘cultural content’ of the commodity itself, and the incorporation of activities that are not normally recognised as ‘work.’ As Lazzarato puts it, ‘the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.’ It is this second mode of immaterial labour that concerns us here, as it is precisely the exploitation of elements of cognitive and cultural capacity that gives the artworld its preeminent role as the space in which linguistic, theoretical and political concepts currently circulate.
What we have here is a peculiar combination of what used to be considered as play (or at least those activities not ‘normally’ recognised as work) and the fixing of consumer and cultural norms (however ‘fluid’ or temporary those norms turn out to be). A kind of creative repetition, as Virno suggests:
Sometimes we speak about the childishness of contemporary metropolitan forms of behaviour...The publicness of the mind, the conspicuousness of “common places,” the general intellect – these are manifested as forms of the reassuring nature of repetition.
what gets mined in contemporary forms of high-end immaterial labour is
the cognitive, intellectual and imaginative capacities of those who are
involved in such enterprises, and this in turn constitutes a kind of
takeover of public space – or indeed, becomes the main place ‘where
intellectual and political aspects of social and cultural practices can
be debated’, as Peter Osborne put it, then the very form of this debate
remains deeply problematic. There is nothing to suggest that the
sharing of linguistic-cognitive capacities in the name of a creative
art space will guarantee the progressive nature of this sharing. As
Virno puts it:
As far as capital is concerned, what really counts is the original sharing of linguistic-cognitive talents, since it is this sharing which guarantees readiness, adaptability, etc., in reacting to innovation. So, it is evident that this sharing of generic cognitive and linguistic talents within the process of real production does not become a public sphere, does not become a political community or a constitutional principle. So then, what happens?
Indeed, what does happen when there is publicness without a public sphere? When the language of philosophy and politics is used everywhere, at all times, but without referent? We are afloat in a world in which the endless invocation of theoreticians, philosophers and political theorists serves very little purpose other than to bolster the cultural capital pretensions of an artworld detached from anything other than its communicative connectivity and its obscure economic value in an economy of fleeting and faddish desires.
The transient set of references of artspeak should not of course be opposed to an authentic realm of coherent, serious philosophical discourse (as if any such thing existed any longer, or ever did), but nevertheless, the total lack of correspondence between concept and referent invokes a kind of abyssal fear. As Virno puts it, ‘if the publicness of the intellect does not yield to the realm of a public sphere, of a political space in which the many can tend to common affairs, then it produces terrifying results.’
This terror is something like the fright experienced by Deleuze and Guattari in their final collaborative work, What is Philosophy? when they begin to reflect upon the misuse to which their claims about creativity, particularly the creative nature of the ‘construction of concepts’ (their definition of philosophy) have been put. They write:
Finally, the most shameful moment came when computer science, marketing, design, and advertising, all the disciplines of communication, seized hold of the word concept itself and said: “This is our concern, we are the creative ones, we are the ideas men! We are the friends of the concept, we put it in our computers”. Information and creativity, concept and enterprise: there is already an abundant bibliography.
As naïve as Deleuze and Guattari sound now – you mean, they thought that discussions of novelty, creativity and concepts wouldn’t be put to use in the ‘disciplines of communication’? What precisely was going to prevent this parasitism of their self-consciously philosophical terminology? The autonomy of philosophy? A sense of propriety? As for advertising, marketing and design, so for the artworld:
Marketing has preserved the idea of a certain relationship between the concept and the event. But here the concept has become the set of product displays (historical, scientific, artistic, sexual, pragmatic), and the event has become the exhibition that sets up various displays and the ‘exchange of ideas’ it is supposed to promote. The only events are exhibitions, and the only concepts are products that can be sold.
This ‘exchange of ideas’, a rather prevalent formulation in the current artistic conjuncture is profoundly ambivalent. On the one hand, what could more generous, more democratic, more open, nodel and productive than an ‘exchange’ of ideas? On the other, it conjures up the vision of a sinister immaterial economy for which the exchange-value of concepts comes to dominate a kind of shifting Theory market (‘I’ll swap you two Agambens for one Lacan’). As Deleuze and Guattari rather quaintly put it: ‘Philosophy has not remained unaffected by the general movement that replaced Critique with sales promotion’. Not only the replacement of Critique with sales promotion, but the very conflation of terms that Deleuze and Guattari thought should most be kept apart. As Alberto Toscano puts it:
In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari famously registered the apparent proximity between their understanding of creativity, philosophical creativity in particular, and the increasingly bullish discourse of marketing, innovation, and – to mention their chief nemesis in those pages – communication…[they] frame their very notion of resistance in terms of the combat of creation against communication. But the current jargon of novelty would rather see a happy coexistence, or even a potent hybrid: creativity is communication and communication creativity.
Pick up any gallery catalogue, read the blurb stuck to any gallery wall and this conflation will come back to you: creativity is communication, and vice versa, and all is well in the world. Whilst there is no doubt a real immaterial practice that corresponds to the happy belief that creativity is communication, it is increasingly the case that the artworld simply is the unfolding of a series of ‘creative communications’ – and that it is in fact quite pleased to think of itself in this way.
3. Language without Referent
Despite our gleeful obsession with communication, it is not surprising that some contemporary thinkers of immaterial labour have turned to cognitive and linguistic stumbling blocks and deficiency to try to come to terms with the role that language plays in our brave new world of language games. Virno’s comments on aphasia and Marazzi’s work on dyslexia are critical here: these linguistic-cognitive conditions are not mere anomalies within the general free-flow of language use, but are rather constitutive of its current theoretical and economic success.
Aphasia is a condition characterised by either partial or total loss of the ability to communicate verbally or using written words. The generic linguistic capacity that Virno sees as the subject of contemporary immaterial exploitation, the very thing in which the very idea of the public is both mined and occluded, is not merely a resource for expanding the range and types of communication, but a site to be defended, even in its opaqueness. The possibility for non-exploited speech is to be developed by reclaiming ‘that which, in successful communication, remains nevertheless unrealised, opaque, “aphasic”.’
Marazzi, however, the role of linguistic deficiencies in contemporary
capitalism appears to be constitutive, beneficial even, in Toscano's
In a recent investigation into managerial thinking on the virtues of dyslexia, Christian Marazzi has pointed to the manner in which the informational saturation-bombing and ‘anthropological shock’ that characterises contemporary financialised capitalism has turned a linguistic pathology into a subjective ‘comparative advantage’. Fortune 500, among others, has honed in on ‘dyslexic achievers’ as a category of managers, who mine their condition for the ‘capacity to alter and create perceptions, an extreme awareness of the environment in which one is immersed, a greater-than-average curiosity, an ability to think in images, intuition and introspection, multi-dimensional thinking and perception, a capacity of feeling thought as real, a vivid imagination.’
We are all dyslexic now, agrammatical entrepreneurs putting our ‘active use of disorientation’ to very productive use indeed. For Berardi the dyslexic paradigm means that ‘the pursuit of linear strategies becomes almost impossible’. We could, in keeping with the generalised constant rebranding of concepts, give these immaterial forms of capital-friendly communicative (dis)advantages a name: Nu-language – the repackaging of the new must be constantly updated, like a once-socialist party changing its colour from red to pink.
By saying nothing at all, repeatedly and forcefully, you can wear your audience down much easier than by outright lying. It is easier to tire a room full of people out with junk syntax than it is to deliberately mislead. The opposition between lies and truth, between meaning and nonsense has been transcended. As Adorno puts it: ‘now nothing seems precisely the opposite of anything else’. Battles, political, artistic or philosophical, are no longer waged within language, which is precisely why we have so few meaningful debates. The hallmark of Nu-language is its inability to be refuted. If someone says something that doesn’t really make sense, it is impossible to oppose it, except to criticise the terms of the language itself. And how often can we turn round and say ‘I do not accept the very terms of your debate. Your language is all wrong!’ Nu-language is ideology without a counterpart, a battle waged at the level of the generic capacity to speak itself, a kind of amniotic fluid in which everyone exists and no one can escape.
This kind of language without referent, this endless demand to keep speaking without making sense is characteristic not only of the contemporary artworld, but of businesses, academia and politics, all of whom learn something from each other (if the freelance curator is the artworld’s paradigmatic immaterial labourer, then the management consultant is surely the business equivalent). But it is in the artworld that we perhaps most often see the ill-digested consequence of the non-positions of nu-language. To take just one example: a recent conference on the idea of ‘Art after Aesthetic Distance’ states as its remit the following:
Their projects mediate the contemporary frameworks of art as service, as social space, as activism, as interactions, and as relationships. Art historian Miwon Kwon stated that such work “no longer seeks to be a noun/object but a verb/process”.
To ‘mediate’ ‘frameworks’ as ‘relationships’...one could switch the terms around with similar effect: to ‘framework mediations as relationship’, or perhaps to ‘relate mediations as frameworks’. The art historian quoted above is quite right to state that ‘such work’ likes to think of itself as a process rather than an object – if it stood still for more than five minutes someone might just notice that it makes absolutely no sense at all. The peculiar power of Nu-language, as a kind of pure formal currency, has precisely lead to a vapid never-ending abstraction that uses words like ‘consolidate’, ‘reconstellate’, ‘reconfigure’, ‘enhance’, ‘articulate’, as descriptors of some mythical ‘process’, like Hegel’s absolute spirit in a particularly insomniac phase. Nouns, like material products, appear to be out of fashion.
This is not simply a claim about the superficial faddishness of individual terms, but a more serious point about the necessity of agrammaticism for forms of immaterial labour, of the constitutive need for language that no longer needs to ‘make sense’, just so long as communication itself keeps taking place.
proximity of the artworld to Blairism (whose use of ‘spin’ has been
noted on many occasions) is not coincidental. The very cringe-worthy
superficiality of ‘Cool Britannia’ and of Nu-Labour’s constant
promotion of Britain’s ‘creative industries’ attest to the clinch
between those that manipulate the language and those that orbit the
rhetoric. The government’s own definition of such industries is itself
a justification for the economical and cultural abuse of creativity,
written in the very terms of Nu-language itself:
[T]hose industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.
Immaterial Labour indeed! This ‘exploitation of intellectual property’ that is at the same time based on ‘individual creativity’ is a frank admission that we do indeed possess all the signs of publicness, but no public to speak of (or out of). Whether we’ll ever find one in the depthless prose of the artworld is an open – but increasingly depressing – question.