Art Under Capital (Part II): Aesthetics Beyond Capital

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At the same seminar where Antonio Negri laid out his historical materialist analysis of art and its relationship to the capitalist modes of production, fellow Autonomist Bifo took to the podium with a very different take on the matters. Art, he said, was no longer something that could be counted upon a part of any movement for social change. Perhaps with Baudrillard’s pessimistic discourse on the market-induced castration of artistic creativity, Bifo maintained that the artistic experience was synonymous with neoliberalism itself, that art was just another justification for a system designed from the assemblages floating out in the sea of hyper-complexities. He elaborates on these thoughts further in his 2011 work After the Future. With reference to Walter Benjamin, he attempts to sketch out the relationship between the attempts to aestheticize politics and the mobilization of the social during a state of war – a situation that aims to bracket the multitude into a “process of self-realisaion of the Hegelian Spirit… everyday life is ready to be subjected to the unlimited rule of the commodity.”1 Under the transnational neoliberal megamachine, this dynamic process, in turn, has produced a state of affairs where

there is no difference between fascism, communism, and democracy: art functions as the element of aestheticization and mobilization of everyday life. Total mobilization is terror, and terror is the ideal condition for a full realisation of the capitalist plan to mobilise psychic energy… In Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century, Gerald Raunig (2007) writes on the relationship between the artistic avant-garde and activism. His work provides a useful phenomenological account of the relation between art and political mobilisation in the 20th century, but it fails to grasp the absolute specificity of the current situation, that is, the crisis and exhaustion of all activism.2

Yet a year later he was singing a different tune. As Europe and beyond buckled through the crises of neoliberalism and the future of the youth faded in their fields of vision, depression and despair fell across the globe. A dark cloud of sadness, sadness spurred by the new precariousness of life, the deterritorializations of everything that had once been solid producing no revolutionary fractures – all across Europe it is the scene of proliferating rhizomes of negativity. Contagious, its like a virus, a meme tuned to the ebbs and flows of a market that nobody can fully comprehend. But Bifo finds a glimmer of much-needed optimism in Germany:

A light of possible intelligence and openness seems to come not from philosophy, but from art… in a recent poll, twenty-four to twenty-five percent of young German people interviewed by journalists answered the question “what do you want to do when you’re an adult” by stating that they wanted to be artists. What are they picturing? What do they think being an artist means, exactly? Are they thinking about the rich possibilities that the art market offers? Well, maybe, but I don’t think so. I think that they are saying they want to be artists because they feel that being an artist means to escape a future of sadness, to escape a future of precariousness as sadness.3

Here we have a new vision of art, not one that follows in the previous paths that art has traditionally moved in, but art first and foremost as a therapeutic tool. Bifo comes to see art not to be utilized as a brick with which the smash the edifices of order, but as an antidote to order – something to both heal the effects that power imposes on the body/mind and to escape this power. He sets prozac, the drug of choice in the Control Society, on one end of a pole and on the other the possibilities born through aesthetic creativity. This resembles the Deleuze and Guattari’s contrast between psychoanalysis and schizoanalysis: both are forms of healing, but the former is a healing that reassigns the afflicted individual to their fixed place in the oppressive social. The latter, on the hand, aims to utilize the break as a launching pad to escape from this fixed place, to initiate a series of radical becomings. Tellingly schizoanalysis makes art one of its central preoccupations – it is a matter, Guattari tells us, of making a new ethical and aesthetic paradigm. He provides us with a single, beautiful quote form Marcel Duchamp, whose Dada practices tried to assault the very foundations of commodity culture: “art is a road which leads towards regions which are not governed by time and space.”4

Unbinding Rigidities

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Let us move backwards in time, to Germany in the wake of World War 2. A wall divided the country, establishing a dialectical tension between two equally oppressive machines, a tension that escalated to dangerous heights across the globe. Youth movements mobilized throughout the West; the precipitating factor was one of horror and pain; horror at what their parents had done in the very recent past, and pain at bearing the inheritance of this dark legacy. Looking out over this angry ferment, Wolfgang Hagen noted that when it came to culture, this movement stood in stark contrast with their comrades in America:

Unlike Dylan or Country Joe in the States, the German ‘protest movement’ brought forth no singer, let alone a rock band. The German SDS was unmusical; and the godfathers of its ideology, the critical theorists Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse were enraged by ‘jazz’ and even more by ‘pop.’ The revolt had so singers, but of course songs and chants (mostly from the 20’s); and like rock, a huge lack of tradition. Everything else was ‘autochorie’: self-growth.5

This “self-growth” was a retrospectively labeled “Krautrock.” It was music that lacked any direct cultural cataclyst, as all previous German culture was viewed as the foam that washed ashore as the Third Reich; it opted, instead, to dabble in as many cultural traditions as possible, drawing elements from the worlds of the avant-garde experimentation and the pop music being developed abroad. The quintessential Krautrock bands include Neu, Faust, Amon Duul I & II (both developed from Germany’s anarchist commune culture) and Kraftwerk, but perhaps the most important is Can. The name alone shows its relationship to radical politics (it stands for “Communism, Anarchism, Nihilism), and the majority of its founding members either studied under or worked directly with Karlheinz Stockhausen, a groundbreaking composer in electronic music who, for a time, was associated with the Fluxus art scene. Irmin Schmidt, the group’s keyboardist, had also spent time in New York City with Fluxus composers like La Monte Young and Terry Riley. These influences showed: basic live electronics were utilized by Can, and their music was often painstakingly assembled from hours and hours of freeform jamming. Like Dada and Fluxus, it also drew heavily from non-Western cultures – samples of field recordings were sometimes blended into the mix, elements from reggae and African tribal drumming were added, and beyond this, “ethnographic” replications of nonexistent musical cultures were created. The sound was dense, complex, designed as an encapsulating sonic tapestry with the intention of showing that not only was it possible to dream of other words, but it was possible too to see them actualized. Music critic Simon Reynolds provides a quite apt description of the band:

Pantheistic and polymorphous, Can’s music opposes barriers and boundaries (musical and generic, psychic and physical). At their peak, Can created the ultimate anti-fascist music: music that melts rigidities of the body and mind, music that is in some sense ‘feminine’, despite the all-male personnel of the band.

Thus Reynolds links Can’s musical mutations to Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomes: it splits and proliferates, makes strange or unexpected conjunctions, moves with viscosity through the air and straddles various flows, jumping from line to line (man and machine, rock and noise, form and post-form) and subsequently obliterating their divisions. Reynolds quotes A Thousand Plateaus‘s suggest that the “the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction “and… and… and…,” and acknowledges the synchronicity that one of Can’s tracks is titled “….And More.”7 Furthermore, Czukay, who employed rudimentary techniques of sampling as well as chance-based shortwave radio experiments in their music, spoke himself of a cyberneticized worldview where man, machine, and nature operate together as living system, a machine of vibrations and intensities: “Can created a vision of Mother Nature as a gigantic, impossibly complex machine, churning out beauty for the sheer splendour of it… this ocean planet is a vast ‘plasmatic machine’ that amuses itself by generating colossal phenomena midway between the sculptural and the meteorological.”8


This is how Can produced a therapeutic “anti-fascist” music: the affective registers of their sonic palette, while retaining its masculinity and Western-orientation, is linked to a vision of a world in a organic-cosmological sense – opposed to the dialectic of West vs. East – and one that is suffused with feminine energy. Klaus Theweleit’s analysis of the mentality of the Freikorps, the proto-fascist volunteer army that set the stage for Germany’s National Socialism, revealed that the society was permeated with a profound fear of the feminine. Their writings and personal journals depict the ‘red woman,’ the communist woman, a creature of abounding sensual energy that constantly threatened the male through temptation; to fall into the abyss of ecstasy with this woman would mean the destruction of their identities – and thus, the fabric, the symbolic order, of civilization. Recalling Deleuze and Guattari’s descriptions of a world of flows, the ‘communist’ feminine sensuality that so frightened the Freikorps was depicted in their writings as a fluidity; terrifying “were all of the hybrid substances that were produced on the body and flowed on, in, over, and out of the body: the floods and stickiness of sucking kisses; the swamps of the vagina, with their slime and mire; the pap and slime of male semen… the warmth that dissolves physical boundaries (meaning not that it makes one body out of a man or woman, but that it transgresses boundaries: the infinite body, the body as flow).”9 Sexuality, desiring-flows rendered as the abject. Importantly, as Kristeva tells us, the abject exists outside the symbolic order, the dialectic and Oedipal triangle – it is “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules.”10 In the midst of a German youth-based upheaval that aimed to illustrate that the energies of National Socialism were still at work in the post-war society, Can provided a direct counterpoint to this psychic rigidity by invoking the flows of desire; tales abound of Can concerts that became so musically intense that the vibrations caused people to vomit, the physical emergence of the abject, the dissolution of the symbolic order at this interchange. In another telling example, the band’s first vocalist left in 1970 on the advice of his psychotherapist, who believed that being immersed constantly in music at the edge of chaos would be bad for his mental health.

Becoming Aesthetic, Becoming Cosmos

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What was it that Deleuze and Guattari said of the process of becoming?

Although all becomings are already molecular, including becoming-woman, it must be said that all becomings begin with and pass through becoming woman. It is the key to all other becomings.11

Becoming-woman does not have to mean literally becoming-a-woman by surgical means or through the act of imitation, nor does it mean to simply swap the gender roles that society overcodes one’s sex with. Instead, it means to begin to do away with binary classification – what greater binary is there ,at the end of the day, than man and woman? – but to circulate the molecules of “womanhood,” that is, to engage with the world of flows. But then what?

If becoming-woman is the first quantum, or molecular segment, with the becoming-animal that link up with it coming next, what are they all rushing towards?Without a doubt, towards becoming-imperceptible.12

Deleuze and Guattari are intentionally vague as to what becoming-imperceptible means; when confronting themselves with the question, they reply that it “means many things.” Then they tell us that it means to enter into a process of “becoming-everybody,” “becoming-everything.” Yet the simple categories of everybody and everything are problematic in this discourse on becoming, for they exist atop the molar scales, while the process of becoming exists in the lines of the molecular. Deleuze and Guattari tell us, therefore, that becoming-everybody/becoming-everything is a creative production that “brings into play the cosmos with its molecular components.”13

Just as Can made therapeutic music that reflected a cosmos as an organic machine, Deleuze and Guattari’s cosmological model is one of “an abstract machine,” composed a innumerable assemblages at work within it. As in systems theory, fluctuations on one line in the assemblage will reverberate in other assemblages, so on and so forth as the whole, the one that is simultaneously a multiple, is awash with becomings move back into the becoming everybody, becoming everything. We are talking of so many things at once: the scientific nature of chaotic systems, wherein spontaneous order can arise from the bifurcations; the mutable contagion of nomadism; the ecological world (which Guattari would later distill as the “three ecologies”) and the political dimensions that accompany it. And by the design of the abstracted cosmos, we cannot help ourselves but talk of all these things at one, for each constitutes an assemblage with lines connecting to the other – and… and… and… and more. To shatter these lines, to replace the periodic successions of ands with just a static ___ is the crime of fascism; the hierarchical and rigid world of totalitarian statehood wallows in ignorant defiance of chaos and complexity.

Deleuze and Guattari’s meditations on art follows this same trajectory (Andreas already beat me to the punch with this one, but ahead we’ll chug. I do recommend that his excellent comments be viewed!). The nomadic trajectory that starts with a fixed state becoming-woman and ends with becoming-everybody/becoming-everything is the trajectory of deterritorialization; the fixed state persists, territorialized, until the willing or even unwilling step is taken that unfixes it, makes the docile and productive body, that rigid construct, non-docile – it moves towards an autonomy for its productions on the scale of the molecular. This break and mutation is precisely what Guattari aims to trigger with his schizoanalytic therapy, with its fourfold ecosophic dimensions. It is also the trajectory of capitalism, schizophrenic in its tendency towards deterritorialization. We can view this through a comparison of Negri’s proposed correlation of the capitalist modes of production and artistic practice with Deleuze and Guattari’s own aesthetic analysis. Negri, as I mentioned in my previous post, starts his analysis with realism, a reaction to romanticism that he links with the explosion of the working class. In A Thousand Plateaus, romanticism is described as a territorialized assemblage; we can see this with the relationship between romantic art and the sentiments of nationalism. Realism, on the other hand, makes its subject the truth of reality, the fabric that constitutes it. As Deleuze and Guattari write,

The painter Millet used to say what counts in paintings is not, for example, what a peasant is carrying, whether it is a sacred object or a sack of potatoes, but its exact weight. This is the postromantic turning point: the essential thing is no longer forms and matter, or themes, but forces, densities, intensities.14

And so as capitalism continues to deterritorialize the world, making things nomad by unlocking repressed desires, aesthetics, compounded with technological advancement, moves along towards the molecular, becoming more abstract, more connected to the cosmos. Music becomes a matter of molecules as it is integrated with electronic components; Varese, who as a young man had flirted with Dadaism, fashioned a music from the howls of electrons. This is the utilization of the cosmos in the production of the aesthetic, the artist’s tools suddenly the abstract machine itself. “If this machine must have an assemblage, it is the synthesizer.”15 Maybe we should note that in the complex flows of cultural history, it is a DNA molecule that traces its evolutionary origin to Can that persist in techno and dance music, where the synthesizer and other technology is employed to make music not as an aural sculpture to be admired, but to create a plane of intentsities where bodies move, where chance becomes a game. Writes Simon Reynolds:

It [techno] was an entirely different and un-rock way of using music: the anthemic track rather than the album, the total flow of the DJ’s mix, the alternative media of pirate radio and specialist record stores.. There was a liberating joy in surrendering to the radical anonymity of the music, in not carrying about names of tracks or artists. The “meaning” of the music pertained to the macro level of the entire culture, and it was much larger than the sum of its parts.16

Rave-1_2074294bHe describes the importance of the drug ecstasy (a name that hearkens back to what the Freikorps so feared) to the rave scene; in conjunction with the music, consumption of the substance led to a breakdown of Britain’s traditional masculine culture. Toughness and macho posturing disintegrated into sessions of “collective intimacy,” a warm rush that crystalized aesthetic vividness as blissful emotions swirled in a sensual cloud. The rigid male undergoes a process that recalls becoming-woman; the newfound intimacy paves way for the “recovery of a childlike amazement at the here and now”17 – the “becoming-child” that is lurks on the path to becoming-everything/becoming-everything.

“But if it is true that drugs are linked to this immanent, molecular perceptive causality, we are still faced with the question of whether they actually succeed in drawing the plane necessary for their action.”18 In the case of ecstasy, the road of excess led to inevitable crash, depression, the specter of chemical dependency. As demand for the drug rose, its quality declined as it was synthesized poorly or cut with other questionable chemicals. It’s like the neoliberal market itself: a deterritorialization of the desiring-flows coupled with the promise of [transnational] collectivity, but falling into a black hole of crisis. As Bifo repeatedly tells us, depression and dependency on chemicals is a byproduct of the hypercomplexity of post-Fordist capitalism, but this time it is not the ecstasy of the ravers, but the fuzzy numbness of SSRIs administered by the psychotherapists, the mental watchdogs of the Control Society. Molecular-becomings halted; all that there is now is the empty circulations of desires reattached to lack, their entropy settling in static fascism on a microlevel.

Towards non-art

Andreas writes that “contemporary art has failed to follow this process of deterritorialization towards the molecular, towards matter itself.” This is because neoliberalism doesn’t give a fuck about the molecular and the micro, even if this is its immanent logic; it is an apparatus of capture and anything molecular is rebounded. Art panders to the art market, reterritorializing itself not on creative flows but on financial flows. In the fever pitches of neoliberalism, we have found ourselves at a bifurcation point, a schiz, where the future looks like a void – but we can also view it as a blank slate. The middle class is disappearing into the mechanosphere; what new class compositions that can emerge is undetermined, which means that we have to start actively looking for ways to utilize this our advantage instead of letting power mold the coming society. Art must be approached in the same way, for it too is a void now. What will the coming society’s art look like? I suggest that we, as Andreas says, make complexity itself our art, insert it back into the cosmological flux on the path of deterritorialization. By the same token, we should finally disavow art itself, like so many before us have tried to do. But the Dadaist and the Fluxusists still reterritorialized, their desire of ‘arts in the streets’ collapsed for it still worked in a boundary between art and everyday life. The No Wave movement that came at the end of punk in New York City (Lotringer and Semiotext(e) lurk nearby), a nihilistic creativity spurned by living in a zone of cultural and socio-political collapse, might hold images (20)answers for us. The rejection of form and virtuosity clashed with the musician as filmmaker, the filmmaker as sculptor, the sculptor as a writer; creative acts that crossed and evaded classification. And when classification finally came, with these disparate moments brought together under the genre moniker of “No Wave,” it simply vanished, unable to cope with being fixed to one territory.

This disappearance marked the death of No Wave, even if its spirit continued to linger in other projects and movements. To be ensnared in the apparatuses of capture meant to return to the zero point (even if the ____ is always what they were aiming for. We need not cling to the energies of thanatos to evade capture, for, as Bifo proposes, we can escape it through living, thinking, and communicating poetically:

Poetry is language’s excess, poetry is what in language cannot be reduced to information, and is non-exchangeable, but gives way to a new common ground of understanding, of shared meaning: the creation of a new world.19

And from A Thousand Plateaus:

The poet… is one who lets loose molecular populations in hopes that this will sow the seeds of, or even engender, the people to come, that these populations will pass into a people to come, open a cosmos. Once again, we must not make it seem as though the poet gorged on metaphors: it may be that the sound molecules of pop musicians are at this very moment implanting here and there a people of a new type…20

The becoming-process is the exodus, just as the medium is the doorway. The kicker is that the medium can no longer be the Art with the capital A (art as capital) anymore than we can count on communication to be an affair of the media. What we need is the proliferation of post-media communicative models, but they should be aesthetic in nature. The Autonomist’s Radio Alice moved towards this, with its desire to communicate “the unstated” (that which escapes language) and “the uncanny” (that which is unfamiliar; that is, the injection of alterity in that which is territorialized)21; the key to a poetic resistance and a post-media media is to stress the importance of collectivity and interaction, all the while maintaining an intentional deterritorialization of the territorialized coordinates. Faced with the choice between the psychoanalytic therapy of the couch and the prescription bottle or a schizoanalytic therapy of communicative and connectivity, which would you choose?

Even if poetry is that which escapes being enclosed as information, we can make the subject of these poetically-inclined aesthetics information itself in order to propagate deterritorialization. This would entail massive collaborative efforts crossing multiple disciplines; those inclined to the “arts” working hand-in-hand with researchers, journalists, teachers, students, activists… the purpose of these non-hierarchical collaborations would be to reflect the complexity of the world, plugging itself into the cosmic flux, while highlighting the stranglehold of power over the multitude in systematic searches for ways out. While the process itself would aim to educate, to activate, it could provide spaces for the unexpected: in the encounters created by the process, who knows what could happen or what could emerge? An affective and creative dynamo operating on the micro level, hoping to reassemble the macro. Because of this, I find the suggestion that Julian Assange be the “artist of the turn of the turn of the century” to be quite apt, but we can push it further still, use these things not just to produce “an effect for both the multitude and for globalized institutions,” but to see certain aspects of them to become actualized, to integrate with them through processes of autopoiesis. Art not in the streets, because art is no longer something we care to carry with us. Instead, the street as a micropolitical symphony of becomings, an aesthetic playground and toolbox from which some imperceptible arises – swarming contingencies, undoing the chains of Empire.

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1Franco “Bifo” Berardi After the Future AK press, 2011, pg. 27

2Ibid

3Franco “Bifo” Berardi The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance Semiotext(e), 2012, pg. 43

4Felix Guattari Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm Power Institute, 1995, pg. 101

5Wolfgang Hagen “’German, It’s All Over:’ A true little story of German rock” The German Issue Semiotext(e), 1982, pg. 234

6Simon Reynolds and Joy Press The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock N’ Roll Harvard University Press, 1995, pg. 198

7Ibid, pg. 199

8Ibid, pgs. 199-200

9Klaus Theweleit Male Fantasies, Volume I: Women, Floods, Bodies, History University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pg. 411

10Julia Kristeva Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection Columbia University Press, 1982, pg. 4

11Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pg. 277

12Ibid, pg. 279

13Ibid, pg. 280

14Ibid, pg. 343

15Ibid

16Simon Reynolds General Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture Little, Brown & Company, 1998, pg. 4

17Ibid, pg. 86

18Deleuze and Guattari A Thousand Plateaus pg. 284

19Berardi The Uprising pg. 147

20Deleuze and Guattari A Thousand Plateaus pgs. 345-346

21Collectivo A/Traverso “Radio Alice – Free Radio” Autonomia: Post-Political Politics Semiotext(e), 2007, pg. 131

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2 Responses to Art Under Capital (Part II): Aesthetics Beyond Capital

  1. noir-realism says:

    Oh, I love that “the street as a micropolitical symphony of becomings, an aesthetic playground and toolbox from which some imperceptible, arises – swarming contingencies, undoing the chains of Empire.” That clicks… as I was writing around my two young characters tonight I was thinking of music: rap and reggae, jazz and blues and their intertwined history of emancipatory rhythms. Two fragile beings caught up in a world between total control and chaos, navigating it as if it were an aesthetic playground of a micropolitical symphony of becomings. O that rings… that helps a lot! You’ve opened a door in my head on which way direction the characters heading. thanks…

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