Now art is living only through its own commemoration. It has become a closed system, art for art’s sake, from which nothing comes out any more. Yet art is a confrontation of man with the illusion of the world, and a way of subduing this illusion through a symbolic representation. But we see today that contemporary art does not speak any more of this illusion. It plays with its own history, and this is a weak strategy. Art exhausts itself in a game which does not commit to anything and in which there are no more rules. It makes it own advertising…
As with every sentence that he wrote, the above quote by Baudrillard is remarkably dual-sided. One side is marked by incredible insight into the sweeping transformation of things under the momentum of technocapital (in this case, art), while on the other side a strong sense of despair, despondency at these conditions – and perhaps a guilt for a thinly-veiled fascination with these processes. Such guilt is surely familiar to those who have perused the pages of left-wing and right-wing critique and noted their strange tips of convergence: horror at the modern world, fear of its delirious flows, and vitriolic reactions against the pulverization of all previously-entrenched concrete forms. From mythic states of ‘organic community’ to artistic creation, the loss of the old registers as shock and trauma, a lingering wound to be patched up.
Sadness at the commoditization of art runs through the center of leftist thought and theory. From Lefebvre to the Situationists to Baudrillard, anxiety over capitalism’s uncanny ability to seemingly recuperate any and all aesthetic tracing played an essential role in the development of the conceptual axis running from the critique of everyday life to the Spectacle to simulation and simulacrum. Such positions mirror the assault on the culture industry carried out by the Frankfurt School; Marcuse’s One Dimensional Society, his own diagnosis of the Society of the Spectacle, finds artistic creation being marshaled to affirm, as opposed to negate, existing society. Later, when the 1980s explosion of finance capital produced the contemporary art market, these fears were revived as the culture industry reached a higher stage of integration and diffusion, a collapse into its own shimmering surface.
As a key site of recuperation and commoditization, art becomes positioned as a site of resistance to the present. In The Uprising, for example, Bifo Berardi makes much hay about the desire common amongst young people in austerity-wracked European countries to become ‘artists’ – the idealized figure of the artist, here, as that which is capable of standing outside the maw of the top-heavy state-capitalism nexus. Long presaging Berardi’s worldview (and obviously informing it) are scores of Situationists, Autonomists and post-Autonomists, as well as pop intelligentsia who claimed that art as an action produced a revolt against the world, that our centuries of fire could be exited through rapturous aesthetic strategies…
It’s clear that at the individual or even group level, certain artists and art scenes have blazed a trail to some form of exteriority, even if that exteriority is in fact an interiority. “’Poetry leads from the known to the unknown, writes Bataille…” The same cannot be said of the notion of “art” as a transcendental abstraction, be it the so-called art world and its corollary, the culture industry. Even if the creation of and/or engagement with art might lead to some encounter with a non-capitalist or even uncivilized and primal extreme alterity, art as a broad register unto itself remains firmly embedded in the ecology that surrounds it. For a spectrum of thinkers and actors ranging from Walter Benjamin to Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), art itself has a totalitarian end to it, fascistic states incapable of being untangled from their aestheticization of politics.
Outside of the sorts of societies being probed by Benjamin and NSK (Nazi Germany and Yugoslavia under Tito, respectively), among others, we could say that art has always had a direct relationship to both the commercialist processes of marketization and to the technological processes that drives them. It would not be a stretch, perhaps, to say that to view art’s recuperation in the contemporary marketplace is a byproduct of the spectacle is to wildly miss the mark, and that one perhaps should treat the becoming-image of spectacular relations as a higher stage of artistic development, of which recuperation is but just one part.
In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari discuss the relationship between phases of artistic development and what they deem as the “three ages”: classical, romantic, and modern. While they urge us not to read these as “an evolution”, they nonetheless affirm that each stage is linked to a particular constellation of machines and social and economic relations, that “they are assemblages enveloping different machines, or different relations to the machine.” These three ages are themselves a reflection of Norbert Wiener’s tripartite schema of the history development of machine technology, with the classic age corresponding to the age of simple machines and clockwork, the romantic age with the era of thermodynamic machines, and the modern with cybernetic, computational machines. As each machinic substrate shifts the ground upon which all things are built, capitalism is forced to retool its own dynamics and adjust its axiomatics (usually by way of the state, to keep the molten core of the market itself maintained under some semblance of human control). So too does art transform the entire spirit of itself.
Classical art, for Deleuze and Guattari, begins with the organization of matter through hierarchy, heavy centralization, and compartmentalization; each element is separated from one another, a system unto itself. The artist puts these different elements into motion to another another, and in doing so gives form to what underneath is chaos. “[T]he task of the classical artist is God’s own, that of organizing chaos; and the artist’s only cry is Creation! Creation! The Tree of Creation!” In the era of the romantic, however, this role changed considerably: “The artist is no longer God but the Hero who defies God: Found, Found, instead of Create. Faust, especially the second Faust…” In keeping with the laws of thermodynamics, initially discovered because of the introduction of thermodynamic machines (and not vice-versa), matter is not treated as a succession of objects and substances, but movement flowing in continuous variation. In this phase, the artist operates in conjunction with the ground. “[t]he artist abandons the ambition of de jure universality and his or her status as creator: the artist territorializes, enters a territorial assemblage.” At the periphery of the romantic madness lies, the domain of avant-gardes, strange obsessions and schizophrenic experience, heralding the coming age of the modern…
If the romantic era concerned a generalized formation of new territories (emphasis on the plural), Deleuze and Guattari see the modern as following a generalized path of deterritorialization. As opposed to the ground of the earth, art “opens onto the forces of the Cosmos”. This is the era of both the synthetic and the synthesizer; previous forms become trash in the face of the ability to sculpt new creations from the howls of electrons. “We… enter the the Age of the Machine, the immense mechanosphere”, that is, the rhizosphere where points of connection proliferate amongst a great decoding. While still to come, Deleuze and Guattari regard the modern as potentially signaling a new people, the figure of the mutant people scattered about in their texts: the strong of the future coming in the wake of absolute deterritorialization. “it may be that the sound molecules of pop music are at this very moment implanting here and there a people of a new type, singularly indifferent to the orders of the radio, to computer safeguards, to the threat of an atomic bomb… the people and the earth must be like the vectors of of a cosmos that carries them off…”
While the role of deterritorialization is foregrounded in the age of the modern, the unfolding of these three ages should 1) not be treated as absolutes breaks with one another, but as shifting fields of interaction marked by the lingering effects of previous formations; and 2) as ‘machinic envelopes’ folded within the generalized arc of deterritorialization. From the full territory of the sovereign to the territories of modern nation-state creation to the penetrative molecularization under the machinic processes of the modern, art maintains a transforming, but consistent relation, itself becoming more deterritorialized, more hybridized, more open as it too undergoes the process of deterritorialization. Art is not outside of or connected to the side of these processes. It is wholly subsumed by them.
(The Classical, Romantic, and Modern)
Tellingly, Baudrillard drew on Wiener’s threefold diagram of machinic development as well, tracing through it a very different set of concerns. Here, the movement from simple machines and clockwork to thermodynamic machines to cybernetic machines leads not to the classical, romantic, and modern ages, but to the precession of the simulacra: first-order, second-order, and third-order simulacra. Each stage is not only a relation of machines to production and society, but a simultaneous deeper penetration of the capitalist market into society and a rise to higher levels of abstraction and detachment, culminating (for Baudrillard, at least) in the wholesale replacement of reality with hyperreality.
Baudrillard finds, in the movement from first-order to second-order, a passage from a situation in which concrete difference exists towards a situation which carries out the “absorption of appearances, or… the liquidation of the real, whichever you prefer.” This is capitalism proper, a society of the spectacle from its inception. It is here, where all that is holy is profaned (what better allegory for the turn from godly creation to the mechanical manipulation of found matter and substance?) that the figure of man stands in direct relation to the machine, no longer simply a matter of using tools, but as ‘conscious linkages’ operating in conjunction.
Third-order simulacra corresponds to the modern age of cybernetic machines. In this stage the forces that slowly filled the void of the liquidated real begin reproducing themselves, self-replicating codes that operate in a state detached from fixed points of reference. Computerized modeling systems, algorithms, automation, and rampant commodification – right down to the genetic level – reign freely in this realm:
Cybernetic control, generation through models, differential modulation, feedback, question/answer, etc. This is the new operational configuration (industrial simulacra being mere operations). Digitality is its metaphysical principle (Leibniz’s God) and DNA is its prophet… At the limit of an ever more forceful extermination of references and finalities, of a loss of semblances and designators, we find the digital, programmatic sign, which has a purely tactical value, at the intersection of other signals (‘bits’ of information/tests) and which has the structure of a micro-molecular code of command and control.
Through their shared deployment of the tri-stage schema for technoeconomic development, a conservation can be staged betweeen Deleuze and Guattari and Baudrillard – a feat quite difficult in other modes. What is to be gleamed from this encounter is clear: that the path of development is both is one of deterritorialization and deepening abstraction and artificialization, and that there is a relationship between the artificial and the deterritorialized. While there is much to say on the topic of this relationship, such questions must be deferred to another time; what is important here is to pursue the question of art.
While Deleuze and Guattari’s account of transhistorical deterritorialization is framed directly through the question of art, Baudrillard relegates much of the discussion of the artistic to the periphery. He does, however, cite Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to discuss the internal logics of the second-order industrial simulacra: “reproduction absorbs the process of production, changes its goals, and alters the status of the product and the producer.” For Benjamin, the introduction of mass production techniques for reproducibility laid a blow across the aura – that is, the intangible ether that allows us to perceive an object’s substantial ‘authenticity’ – that suffused objects, artistic of otherwise. Unlike the output of the artists and artisans of old, the commoditized output of the industrial era was marked by a shattering of aura, a decline that occurred with shades of catastrophe. This loss of aura, in turn, precipitates the rise of the artificial. Such a thing is necessary for the object to enter into the mad circulations coursing through the world market: deterritorialization.
Two propositions concerning the unity of deterritorialization and artificialization:
- Reversing the process is impossible. The most visible aspects of the process are the secondary ice-berg tips of long-term autocatalytic primary processes that are beyond situational control.
- Attempts to push back against these processes at any macro-scale register is unwise and incoherent at the levels of both theory and execution. At best they will fragmented, ephemeral creations tending towards meltdown; at worse they will be inhospitable catastrophe zones.
These propositions stem, of course, from the an unconditional accelerationist perspective, informed at it is by the cybernetic Nietzschean of Deleuze and Guattari, the CCRU, and others. From this ground the injunction is clear: to pursue the path of art’s demolition by way of the commodity form and the art market until the aura is nothing but wind-swept ash. The market, as Jon Roffe points out, is a “realized active nihilism”, a “machine for the problematization of values”; at the technotronic horizon, value as any sort of signal collapses into the maelstrom. This is what Kazimir Malevich had realized, at the dawning of the great Soviet attempt to accelerate this process, when he carried out the final word in all of art by debuting The Black Square at the (poignantly named) Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings, 0,10.
[Modernity pulls itself towards the black box of the unknown, degree 0. “…a series of intensive states based on the intensity = 0 that designates the body without organs.” “…the real becomes volatile, it becomes an allegory for death, but it also draws strength from its own destruction… the ecstasy of denegation and its own ritual extermination…”]
Such an injunction robs the artist from playing any role in resisting the broadening mutations of market forces. Not only does the delusion of art-as-resistance collapse, but it is the very leveling of art as a valorized register that is to be celebrated. The uncanny resemblance between the day-to-day activities of art students and artists with their business-minded patrons is but the tip of the iceberg – following Nietzsche’s delirious premonitions concerning the Strong of the Future that will emerge from the great technoeconomic acceleration, the leveling of art through these very same processes poses the overcoming of art as a category until itself. Under the runaway processes of mounting complexity, sociocultural differentiation, unstoppable exit and virulent illegibility, the sideways step into the cold and static gallery, that chapel of the proto-hyperreal so feared by the unwitting postmodernists, will seem quaint (see the reports stretching back over the past five years marking declines in art gallery attendance and participation in the formal art market writ large). Strange configurations will arise instead in the widening cracks and blind spots of the megamachine as it proceeds deeper into its meltdown stage. “The tower bloc, condemned as a vertical slum by a Control that would rather update its architectural dimensions into forms more amenable to representation.. becomes an ‘incubator’.”
“Fads swept the youth of the Sprawl at the speed of light: entire subcultures could rise overnight, thrive for dozens of weeks, then vanish utterly.” Past the limit points and demarcation zones, the boundaries will collapse and the Great Pleonasm will rise the fore, the Thing of Things, a blinding circuitry. The mutation of forms ripples through it.
This may appear to be a hyperbolic assertion to make, particularly given the generalized specter of cultural-aesthetic inertia that seems to hang over our moribund civilization like a smog. Retromania, nostalgenomics, endless self-replay of cultural fragments via a confounded handful of pseudo-monopolies – “a motley painting of everything that has ever been believed”. This situation can be viewed from uneven, yet non-contradictory, positions. In the first position, the zig-zagging replay of old signs and systems is precisely indicative of the whole system undergoing crazy, the hyperreal vortex spinning faster and spraying out bits and pieces of its worn-out codes. Only in the implosion of value in price-signaling can the delicious garbage pumped out everyday be considered to be even remotely in ‘good taste’.
The second position, which overlaps but is not irreducible to the first, is that elements within the system are desperately attempting to shore up the floodgates, to continually recreate the conditions of the past, while always failing to do so. Creative combustion is not a natural resource that can be depleted, but the ability to wring profits from newness declines precipitously precisely due to the hybridized nature of what is rushing out from the degree 0 of the flux – and thus the non-spaces of the previously-new, be it wholly territorialized or only partially-deterritorialized, become the primary site for the extraction of rents. The irony here is that the vaporwave buff and the nu-country fan, much like the belated Bernie Sanders supporter and the jubilant Donald Trump voter, find themselves occupying the same phase-space, their likeness far outstripping their differences.
It would not be a stretch to charge, in fact, that all-too-frequent demand, issued by the left as much by the right, for culture to return to some primordial state of authenticity is simply the aesthetic-minded equivalent to shouting “Make America Great Again!” at a campaign rally. It is the mark of the unhappy consciousness infused with that Baudrillardian guilt, weeping at the denigrated state of the culture industry like some many traditionalists tearfully pawing at Google Image searches of serene pastoralism. Parochial purification rites are uttered daily on the lips of vulgar Marxists as much as the reactionaries. Their lukewarm efforts crystallize as the perfect mirror of the ugly and backwards-facing assemblage that they oppose.
The pause-button is hit, and the video freezes on Pruitt-Igoe mid-implosion – but this too is artificial, apparatus and all. Beyond it, after it, following the overcoming? Something that is already capable of being seen.