Any work that obtains the level of a genre problem and wants to address the moment of political economy could use Capital as its conceptual upper limit.




Report on Can Art and Politics Be Thought?

4-5 June 2011

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, California

Can Art and Politics Be Thought?—a hybrid conference/performance, hosted by the UCLA Program in Experimental Critical Theory and curated by Kenneth Reinhard and Drew Daniel— was world-expanding.  The expansive topic drew together speakers with a diversity of interests prepared to address an interested audience; my report briefly comments on what interested me most in each presentation.

Joshua Clover, Between Centuries: Distance and the Epic

Clover began with a détournement of Fredric Jameson’s “Always historicize” into his own emphasis, “Always totalize,” with a barb that anything less is reformism.  His approach takes Marxism as foremost a critique of political economy; he brought up Antonio Negri’s interest in biopolitics by way of contrast, arguing that value and crises always assert themselves in the last instance.  But in order to conceptualize totality, necessarily abstract, appropriate forms are needed.  Clover demonstrated this point by explicating passages from Virgil’s Aeneid to conceptualize said epic’s historical conditions.  His remarks on Marx included asserting Capital as a work ultimately unclassifiable into a genre in its complicated attempt to theorize its contemporaneous conditions of political economy.  Clover challenged the conference’s title with a subtle expansion: “Can art and politics do anything else than be thought?” and cited Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Everything can be summed up in aesthetics and political economy,” translating the title’s terms while arguing for his Marxism as an appropriate approach.  In the Q and A, someone followed up on Clover’s challenge of the limits of the conference’s terms and inquired about real action: Clover suggested organized mass default as a form of potentially effective, temporally sustainable resistance for the near future.

In my view, the insistence on the coordinates of political economy’s totality is very welcome against the proliferation of partial approaches within and outside of Marxism that obsess with discursive tendencies without the contextual totality.  However, after establishing the coordinates and disrupting the temptation of pure philosophizing in considering art and politics by the translating them into the frames of aesthetics and political economy, a dialectical return back into art and politics is important to avoid temptations of vulgar determinism and to move from the theorization of totality into praxis upon it.  The vantage point of the political is better equipped for fully considering actions and interventions of power, while the vantage point of art, interrogating its concrete institutions, is also important if one is interested in making a political/art intervention.  The dissociation of Capital from genre is interesting, as in the suggestion that any work that obtains the level of a genre problem and wants to address the moment of political economy could use Capital as its conceptual upper limit.

Steve Goodman, The Martial Arts of Sonic Hauntology

Goodman’s project is to reclaim cutting-edge sound technology from military and police forces’ uses in psychological warfare, such as sound weapons in domestic protest, toward progressive uses in the re-composition of subjectivity in contesting linguistic and non-linguistic elements in the unconscious in subjects as such.  He indicated his affinity for the pervasive possibilities of sound in contrast to more conventional protest song, as the latter confines the vastness of the politics of sound into the limitations of the semiotic.  In the Q and A, I asked how his considerations on a sound artwork’s mediations through different qualities of technology, and how the existing characteristics of subjects as such, both paradigmatically and particularly, influence the production of artwork interested in the composition of subjectivity.  The answers were unclear (and my question might have been unclear as well), but the project’s concept is very interesting.

Lauren Berlent, On the Desire for the Political

Berlent took a psychoanalytic approach in exploring the social unconscious.  She critically examined four experimental political video works for their virtues and limitations.  Of the four, only one was interesting to me, JFK Jr., a creepy examination of a young girl putting a rose on a tribute to JFK Jr. shortly after his death, for its unnerving defamiliarization of an everyday subject after a social trauma.  I appreciated the criticality, but wished that there were artworks examined that could be explicated positively under the same critical lens, revealing the other artworks’ shortcomings, to provide more productive options and possibilities.  The totalizer in me was also impatient with the limited frame of social symptoms, shorn or disconnected from a Marxian analysis of political economy.

Matthew Barney

Barney showed a 45-minute segment from the film part of his latest project, “Ancient Evenings.”  It started realistically with a CSI investigation on Detroit’s Rouge River, but quickly irrupted into the surreal, including avant-jazz bands circling on boats and an occult ritual performed on a destroyed car pulled from the river.  There was too much to attempt to usefully summarize here: one can read about the project in detail online.  I was tremendously impressed.  The work’s hyper-cognizance of different artistic traditions created a controlled excess of innumerable frames of signification through which to engage the work, including its gesture of Joycean overwriting with respect to the Norman Mailer story from which the work takes its title, the mythological structures, the social symbolism of Detroit, and the self-referentiality within Barney’s oeuvre in re-using actors and materials from past projects.  It was an exceptionally stable paradox at all points of being, both fully engaged in the world and its own autonomous set of relations.  The experience was simultaneously a cerebral overload and visceral pleasure.


Four members of Ultra-Red sat at a table beside two tables with butcher paper, markers, and microphones, surrounded by the seated audience.  They played short audio pieces, mostly found sounds with minimal manipulation, with recurring representations of public and domestic conflicts.  After each piece, they instructed the audience to write what they heard and speak it into a microphone.  The responses were generally mimetic descriptions or pithy high abstractions.  Afterwards, they enjoined the audience to ask questions and share what they had learned; these were generally expressions of feel-good collectivity and/or shame at one’s own privilege.  I expressed my learning experience as the discomfort of submitting to the performance’s rules; I also acknowledged that because coerciveness in politics isn’t going to go away, considering the most horizontal deployment of rules remains important.  For me, the performance’s rules produced responses without depth, formal participation smothering more substantial solidarity, and ultimately made the artists into a kind of fetish object, fully subordinating the audience.


Steve Goodman performed as Kode9 in the darkened theater with an excellent sound system.  He live-mixed emotional dubstep melodies and beats with abrasive noise.  A music critic to told me Goodman was playing a lot of new Burial, a group Goodman releases on his Hyperdub label.  It was a tremendously moving mix that accentuated the best affects of dubstep and the sheer force of noise.  The theories he expounded earlier weren’t palpable in the work itself, but they need not be as far as I’m concerned.


The electronic Matmos duo performed on laptops and little instruments with a local jam band trio, a quartet of UCLA mariachi musicians, and a free improvisation electric guitarist.  The stylistic mash was interesting at first, but quickly grew stale due to the limitations of the jam band and mariachi group.  The sight of them alone was interesting, with Drew Daniel of Matmos in punk gear, his partner in a suit and tie, and the mariachi group in traditional outfits.  With the sound of a triangle by Daniel, the performance segued into film and ambient music.  The film depicted a bizarre and darkened room with a large woman lying on a table with shades on her eyes, and a young man in a suit and sunglasses behind a glass staring without movement.  The camera faded through difference perspectives, including close-ups of the young man and close-ups of the figure on the table, who subtly morphed into different figures.  The jam band left the stage and was replaced by four new performers, who along with the mariachi band, donned opaque sunglasses and headphones.  They all chanted various abstract descriptions of waves and triangles.  The segment ended with another sound of the triangle from Daniel.  The effect was beautiful.  The performance uncannily transformed the hellish scene in the film into a heaven of abstraction and dissolved identity.  The Matmos set ended with a short mariachi encore, which came about through audience vote.

Drew Daniel, All Sound is Queer

Daniel expounded a philosophy of sound as excessive beyond its recuperation into semiotic works.  He emphasized that his use of queer was toward sound’s ultimate non-recuperability with respect to semiotic meaning, not its valence as an LGBT identity term, and used the opportunity to take the familiar swipe at identity politics’ consonance with liberal capitalist commodification of difference.  In the Q and A he admitted his theory’s precarious consonance with passé transcendentalism and the difficulty of contributing anything new in this direction after John Cage.  For me, it was too quietly philosophical in its sublimity toward the vastness of sound without a proper dose of the political dimension of antagonism.

Joan Copjec, The Fate of the Image in Church History and the Modern State

Copjec explored the relations between the histories of Iran’s Islamic doctrine, political change, and religious iconography, moved into meditations on image and representation generally, and finally arrived at a study of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up.  It was messy and the entry through Islamic studies made it difficult for me to access.  The film, a classic of Iranian documentary-drama, is profoundly interesting.

Allan Sekula, The Forgotten Space

Sekula talked briefly about his film, Forgotten Spaces, and showed two excerpts from the beginning and the end.  A full synopsis is easily available elsewhere on the Internet.  Parts were very moving in successfully producing empathy with dominated workers.  The creative cinematography and narrative logic moving throughout the global economy was measured and purposeful, and I want to see the whole film.  Sekula said a motivation of the project was to investigate if film could represent political economy.  Joshua Clover asked Sekula about his understanding of the 2008 crisis that informed his work, and Sekula deferred to Robert Brenner.  Clover and Sekula seemed consonant in their approaches and concerns.

Alain Badiou, Negation and Formalization

Badiou began by developing suppositions, including politics as contradiction and Mao Tse-Tung’s “No creation without destruction.”  Politics is inextricable from antagonism, and revolution requires the destruction of existing affairs to create new ones.  Badiou reverses Mao’s dictum regarding art: in art there is no destruction without creation.  The production of art enables the possibility of destruction, the art of negation.  Regarding the art of negation, he identified three main tendencies of interest in the 20th century – (1) nihilist: art that seeks to destroy art itself, such as Dada and Situationism; (2) expressionist: art that seeks to create new social relations so that the boundary between life and art is negated and life itself becomes art; (3) subordinate: art that is in the service of political projects, such as Socialist Realism.  Badiou argued that none of these tendencies are appropriate to the contemporary moment, and proposed the art of subtraction, art that interrupts the repetition of re-presentation and creates new forms and truths, bringing fragments of the future into the present to assist in “waiting” for political change.  He sought to radicalize and reconsider the concept of waiting and cited André Breton: “Independent of what happens and what does not happen, the wait itself is magnificent.”

I was surprised at the presentation’s relative lack of ambition or novelty, compared with much of Badiou’s work.  The presentation didn’t add anything startlingly new to Badiou’s existing ideas, and it stayed at such a high level of abstraction there were no particulars to dispute.  The main problem for me is Badiou’s privileging the art of subtraction over the 20th century tendencies.  Badiou’s theory of art is bound up with a theory of radical subjectivity.  Art produces truth by capturing the present most fully, but our present has little to avail itself of in terms of radical subjective formations.  Also, it might be that his problematic is potentially resolved by basic historical materialism (if one decides to be generous).  I greatly admire Badiou’s work, but the indeterminacy of the presentation made me worry about my own generosity with a figure of such distinction.

The conference concluded with performances from Badiou’s plays, which I could not attend, as I was due to give a poetry reading at the Public Research Bureau in LA’s Chinatown.

The conference as a whole was tremendously thought provoking: problems I had with one presentation were often usefully illuminated in conjunction with the virtues of other presentations.  Big ups to the organizers.

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