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Interview: William Gibson In Real Life
Like his take on the strategic failures of Occupy: it became too much about holding a single space even when it was clear this would be impossible. ‘If I was writing it as a book’, he says, he’d have had everybody arbitrarily pick up sticks and leave, declaring only that they would be back somewhere else at an indeterminate point in the future. The key to longevity is to leave things open-ended, to steal away before things get to the inevitable stage where the corporations can declare your defeat.
Which reminds me of a thought I had back around the time of the Nov 23rd student demonstration (I think that’s the one I’m thinking of), which many pointed out was essentially a “walking kettle,” with at least one police officer to every three marchers lining the route, and every single side street pre-emptively blockaded by gangs of riot police to prevent groups breaking off into the rest of the city. With hindsight it’s easy to see the most effective strategy would simply have been if nobody turned up. With the clashes at the previous student demonstrations, the media had made sure they’d catch this march with full rolling coverage, so imagine the confusion if this demonstration was somehow surreptitiously cancelled, leaving them only able to report on a total, inexplicable absence, an absence policed by thousands of officers (who all had to get up sometime before 5am that day; how much more that would sting if it had been for nothing). It would be utilising the spectacle to report on its own negation, and this is one of the key tactical lessons to be taken from Debord, that the one thing the spectacle can’t tolerate, can’t handle, can’t understand, is absence. It thrives precisely on presence and the circulation of presence, on an endless reel of things to look at. Hence the logical progression from the provocations of the Lettrists to the realisation with the Sitatuonists that such scandals had already been recuperated as spectacle, and that the best thing now was to dissapear, was to, at most, organise occasions for the presentation of an incomprehensible lack. “Just as the projection was about to begin, Guy-Ernest Debord was supposed to step onto the stage and make a few introductory remarks…”
Though I suppose what we got anyway with the “walking kettle” was a decent enough illustration of how impotent traditional ‘marches’ and so on really are, especially now in this climate of escalating state lockdown. Hopefully this will spur some to start getting really creative with their contestation in the future.
c.f. also this great piece from a guy at occupyoakland on the movements general lack of strategic direction and over-reliance on the ‘spectacle of police brutality’:
Whether we admit it or not, we were implicitly relying on the spectacle of police brutality to catch national attention. This didn’t happen as it did in November. And it couldn’t happen,precisely because it already happened in November.
[…] The focus on the brutality has its uses, but to the extent that it stands in as a substitute for this more substantial self-criticism, it allows the tenuous alliance between adventurism and humanitarian liberalism to persist. While we are all justifiably angry at the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County Sheriffs, what comes out of this experience needs to be more than simply a strengthened conviction that we hate the cops. If we don’t swiftly move towards the self-criticism that we need, the opportunity will be missed.
Despite the situationists’ reputation for difficulty, they are not really all that hard to understand once you begin to experiment for yourself.
—BUREAU OF PUBLIC SECRETS, November 7 2011, ‘The Situationists and the Occupation Movements (1968/2011)’
Let’s see. In the late 1950s and early 1960s a tiny group quietly lays the groundwork for a new type of radical contestation of modern society. Though at first almost totally ignored, the group’s new tactics and new perspectives gradually begin to resonate with more and more people, particularly after the 1966 Strasbourg scandal makes headlines all over Europe. In early 1968, a small group directly inspired by them (the Enragés) begins agitation in the Parisian universities, which leads to demonstrations, expulsions, and then several days of street fighting (in which all the French situationists take part). The police brutality and hundreds of arrests arouse sympathy from all over the country, forcing the government to back down and pull back the police. Students and other young people occupy the Sorbonne and invite everyone else to join them, to come together in a democratic general assembly to address the many problems they face and see what solutions they might come up with. (Does a lot of this sound familiar?) The situationists take part in the initial stages of the Sorbonne general assembly, where they advocate two main policies: maintaining direct democracy in the assembly, and appealing to the workers of the entire country to occupy their factories and form workers councils — i.e. direct-democratic workers’ assemblies that would bypass the labor-union bureaucracies. Within two weeks (in one of the few movements in history to spread even faster than the current OWS movement) virtually all the factories of France are occupied by over 10,000,000 workers. The situationists and Enragés and others organized into a “Council for Maintaining the Occupations” (CMDO) undertake a massive effort to urge the workers to bypass the union bureaucrats and carry on the occupations in order to realize the radical possibilities that their spontaneous action has already opened up, noting that if they do so they will soon be confronted with the task of restarting the social functions that are actually necessary, under their own control. Here, finally, the situationists’ desires are not fulfilled — the workers, understandably unsure of what to do in this strange and unaccustomed situation, allow the union bureaucracies (which had resisted the occupation movement from the beginning) to insinuate themselves back into the movement in order to deflate and dismantle it. (For detailed accounts of the May 1968 revolt, see René Viénet’s book Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement (Autonomedia), Debord’s article The Beginning of an Era, and the leaflets and other documents issued by the CMDO.)
In short, a tiny group manages to trigger an unprecedented mass movement —the first wildcat general strike in history,which in the space of a month brings a modern industrial country to a standstill; but because that movement did not go on to achieve a total victory and bring about a definitive global revolution, Mr. Kamiya believes that it represents a “complete failure.” He apparently has unusually high standards. I would be curious to hear an example of some social movement or radical group that manages to meet with his approval. But stranger still, he attributes this “failure” to the fact that the situationists “remained snootily above the fray.” They supposedly refused to “bring their ideas down into the real world” and thus their influence remained “purely intellectual, not tangible.” The university agitation, the street fighting, the Sorbonne assembly, the factory occupations apparently were not “tangible”; they did not happen in the real world, but in some “purely intellectual” realm. It seems to me that if anyone is remaining “snootily above the fray” here, it is Mr. Kamiya.
—BUREAU OF PUBLIC SECRETS, November 7 2011, ‘The Situationists and the Occupation Movements (1968/2011)’
While the basic dependence of the individual on the social body, and in a highly irrational form, has always prevailed, this dependence was at least “veiled” to many people during the classical era of liberalism where people had come to think of themselves as self-sustaining monads. This veil has now been drawn apart and people begin to face their own dependence much more than they used to 80 years ago; largely because the processes of social control are no longer those of an anonymous market which decides the economic fate of the individual in terms of offer and demand. The intermediary processes between social control and the individual tend to vanish and the individual has once again to obey the direct verdict of the groups at the helm of society. It may be this mounting obviousness of dependence rather than an increase of dependence per se which makes itself felt today and prepares the minds of the people for astrology as well as for totalitarian creeds. Paradoxically, a higher amount of insight might result in a reversion to attitudes that prevailed long before the rise of modern capitalism. For, while people recognize their dependence and often enough venture the opinion that they are mere pawns, it is extremely difficult for them to face this dependence unmitigated. Society is made of those whom it comprises. If the latter would fully admit their dependence on man-made conditions, they would somehow have to blame themselves, would have to recognize not only their impotence but also that they are the cause of this impotence and would have to take responsibilities which today are extremely hard to take. This may be one of the reasons why they like so much to project their dependence upon something else, be it a conspiracy of Wall Street bankers or the constellation of the stars. What drives people into the arms of the various kinds of “prophets of deceit” is not only their sense of dependence and their wish to attribute this dependence to some “higher” and ultimately more justifiable sources, but it is also their wish to reinforce their own dependence, not to have to take matters into their own hands – a wish, true, which is ultimately engendered by the pressure under which they live. One may say that the adepts of astrology frequently play and overplay their dependence; a hypothesis which would fit well with the observation that so many followers of astrology do not seem quite to believe but rather take an indulgent, semi-ironical attitude towards their own conviction. In other words, astrology cannot be simply interpreted as an expression of dependence but must be also considered as an ideology for dependence, as an attempt to strengthen and somehow justify painful conditions which seem to be more tolerable if an affirmative attitude is taken towards them. Anyhow, the world appears to most people today more as a “system” than ever before, covered by an all-comprising net of organization with no loopholes where the individual could “hide” in face of the ever-present demands and tests of a society ruled by a hierarchical business set-up and coming pretty close to what we called “verwaltete Welt,” a world caught by administration.
It is this reality situation which has so many and obvious similarities with paranoid systems of thinking that it seems to invite such patterns of intellectual behavior, as well as compulsive attitudes. The similarity between the social and the paranoid system consists not only of the closedness and centralized structure as such but also of the fact that the “system” under which most people feel they work has to them an irrational aspect itself. That is to say, they feel that everything is linked up with everything else and that they have no way out, but at the same time the whole mechanism is so complicated that they fail to understand its raison d’être and even more, they suspect that this closed and systematic organization of society does not really serve their wants and needs, but has a fetishistic, self-perpetuating “irrational” quality, strangely alienated from the life that is thus being structured. Thus people even of supposedly “normal” mind are prepared to accept systems of delusions for the simple reason that it is too difficult to distinguish such systems from the equally inexorable and equally opaque one under which they actually have to live out their lives. This is pretty well reflected by astrology as well as by the two brands of totalitarian states which also claim to have a key for everything, know all the answers, reduce the complex to simple and mechanical inferences, doing away with anything that is strange and unknown and at the same time fail to explain anything.
- Adorno: The Stars Down to Earth: Essays on the Irrational in Culture
L: It’s curious that in all the discussion of Occupy Everything, which has already reached the heights of meta-meta-commentary, we haven’t seen anything about pop culture besides who does or does not show up to the park or march. In the haze of “What could the protesters possibly want?” I side with Doug Rushkoff calling foul on the whole ignorance pantomime. The same industry that made a movie literally about murdering management—
X: “Don’t you want to kill your boss? Instead, watch Jennifer Aniston die a gruesome death in Horrible Bosses!”
L: They are shocked — shocked, I say! — when their target audience takes to the streets. Of course you know what we want, you’ve been selling it to us for years!
Heksenhaus said this a while back, and I thought it very apt. Too often, people treat the word art as if it were a name to be attached to an art-object once it is determined arbitrarily that the object is “art”. But the art-object is not art, anymore than a sentence IS it’s meaning; a sentence…
I don’t get the focus on naming & coherence, and going from ‘Art is not the name for a thing’ to ‘it’s the symbolic structure we weave during the naming of things’ doesn’t seem like much of a significant jump, essentially saying it’s not what we name something but why we name it; you’re still naming things, and it’s all far too positive for my liking.
My correction would run something like: Art is not the name of a thing, but the symbolic fissure we rend with the making of a thing.
Also, the notion that the art-object as object is the big issue, some key to the commodification of art, doesn’t exactly hold up, given that conceptual art, a practice wholly dependent on ‘context’ as the guiding framework of its reception, at the expense of anything but the most facile of formal/aesthetic considerations, is probably the most ultra-commodified corner in the whole history of art. This is because commodification, especially in contemporary capitalism, is more about branding than anything. Subtract the brand of the artist, and the art-object itself, in whatever form, will become as good as worthless in market terms.
I’m reminded by your tumblr’s url and tagline (and ‘constipation’ imagery at the end of the post) of an appropriate example: Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit. “In October 2008 tin 083 was offered for sale at Sotheby’s with an estimate of £50-70,000. It sold for £97,250.” It’s precisely context which paves the way for the absurd commodification of this art-object, the context of Manzoni-as-artist and the conceptual games he plays, without which, pardon the pun, no one would give a shit about this particular piece in the first place.
For ‘context’ to actually reach the heights you try and raise it up to, as some solution to the dissolution of art into the market, it would have to abandon the notion of art altogether, in a project like that of the Situationist’s, whereby art is dissolved into everyday life through the active contestation of capital and the market as ordering principles of society (c.f. occupy encampments).