May 18, 2010

Prosopopoeia and geopoetics

    Each individual perceives market as an objective system confronting him, although there is no objective market but just the interaction of the multitude of individuals - so that, although each individual knows very well that there is no objective market, just the interaction of individuals, the specter of ‘objective’ market is this same individual’s fact-of-experience, determining his beliefs and acts. Not only market, but our entire social life is determined by such reified mechanisms. [...]

    Prosopopoeia is usually perceived as a mystification to which naïve consciousness is prone, i.e., as something to be demystified. At the beginning of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the goddess of music introduces herself with the words “Io sono la musica...” - is this not something which, soon afterwards, when ‘psychological’ subjects had invaded the stage, became unthinkable, or, rather, unrepresentable? It is therefore all the more surprising to see ‘objective’ social scientists practicing the ‘primitive’ art of prosopopoeia. Dupuy recalls how sociologists interpret electoral results: for example, when the government retains its majority, but barely does so, the result is read as ‘the voters prolonged their trust into the government, but with a warning that it should do its work better’, as if the electoral result was the outcome of the decision of a single meta-Subject (voters) who wanted to deliver a ‘message’ to those in power.
    - Zizek

Perhaps as never before, prosopopoeia dominated the UK election, which was presented to us as a faltering exchange between just two meta-Subjects: the "markets", which we were continually warned would take fright at the continuation of the New Labour administration or, worse, a hung parliament, and the gnomic speech of the electorate, whose unintelligible "message" to the political class was "interpreted" by psephologists with all the fervour of sorcerers picking over entrails. Melanie Phillips moaned last week on BBC Question Time that "no-one voted for a hung parliament" - but no-one could vote directly for a hung parliament, and, in any case, Phillips' argument assumes that elections should be decided by what the majority of individuals think. However flawed and faltering the various prosopopoeiac attempts to divine the "electorate"'s intentions might have been, they at least looked for something in excess of individuals, for some - albeit degraded - approximation of a general will.

It would be harder to find a clearer example of capitalist realism than the repeated appeal to the bond markets, and it is instructive to compare the status of the markets today (which we must propiate as if they were jealous pagan gods) with the stereotype of union power from an older era. Whereas worker unrest, we were told, had to be put down, the bond markets are posited as a reality to which we can only submit. Yet, as Paul Mason argues, this is no mere ideological miasma so much as a Post-Fordist interlock. The bond markets are in a sense "us" because they "tend to be dominated by people from pension fund managers: Threadneedle, Norwich Union, Standard Life, for example, as well as the 'fixed income' desks of the banks which make money out of buying and selling the bonds." In any case, it should be clear that the hard currency of capitalist realism is nothing so solid as a social fact; what we are dealing with is the more elusive stuff of confidence and beliefs (and beliefs about beliefs, anticipations of future beliefs).

It wasn't only the spectre of the bond markets, though, which made this last election seem so saturated with capitalist realism. The poverty and paucity of the "debate", the failure of the public anger about banks to impinge on the three parties' continuing consensus around neoliberal assumptions, the tawdry auction on who could be harshest on immigration: all of these made for a sense of inertia interrupted by false hopes. As Necessary Agitation argues, "Cleggmania may be the most chimeric social phenomenon in recent history." But benind the chimera we can perhaps sense the real (of a) desire for something new, a thaw in this deep freeze, and if - to drop into the prosopopoeiac discourse again - the electorate "spoke", its message was encouraging insofar as it delivered a plague on all their houses, a generalised dissatisfaction. (And, gratifyingly, it was clear that the Far Right had missed its moment to capitalise on this dissatisfaction with mainstream politics.) For what it's worth, I think the election result was the least bad outcome, which is to say the best we could have expected: New Labour wounded (sadly not mortally), the Tories mustering a humiliatingly poor showing in circumstances that could hardly have been more propitious, and now faced with having to impose harsh austerity measures.


The most poignantly tragic moment of the campaign was not Bigotgate - which instead proved, once and for all, that Gordon Brown was the perfect figure for the age of awkwardness - but Brown's rousing speech to Citizens UK on the Monday before the election. If, as Jon Stewart observed, Bigotgate - or Brown's horrified realisation of what it all meant on the Jeremy Vine radio show - was the moment that you could see Brown's political career leave his body, then the speech at Citizens UK was the moment when you could see something return to Brown: it was if he had, for a moment, shucked off the oppressive grey weight of capitalist realism and found commitment and conviction again. (The difference between Brown and his predecessor is nowhere clearer than in the thought that it is impossible to imagine any comparable moment for Blair, of course.) "You've inspired me," Brown roared, and the poignancy was all the more aching because this renewed sense of purpose was nothing more than a fantasy - not only because Brown was heading for inevitable defeat (the speech is tragic because Brown himself knows that, even if he can't accept it, and its passion and drama derives from this refusal to accept what he knows is inevitable) but also because, as more than one commentator has noted, Brown was in effect campaigning against himself. The injustices he was railing against were those that he had put in place; the hopes he was raising were those that he had crushed (in himself as much in everyone else). There's a parable for Labour there, perhaps.

Bigotgate showed that the right wing mantra that it is "not possible to have a debate on immigration" is true, but for the opposite reasons that the right suggests: not because some politically correct elite prevents the silent majority from speaking, but because the politcal class dare not publicly challenge the dominant right wing narratives. In private, they talk of "bigotry"; in public, they talk of "ordinary people's legitimate concerns". And for all the post-election talk of Labour Party renewal, here's Ed Milliband still singing the same song:

    But the truth is that immigration is a class issue. If you want to employ a builder it’s good to have people you can take on at lower cost, but if you are a builder it feels like a threat to your livelihood.

    And we never had an answer for the people who were worried about it.

    When competition is driving down your wages and your pension rights, saying globalisation is good for you and for the economy as a whole is an example of what I mean about becoming a technocrat. Because it is a good answer for economists but it is no answer for the people of Britain.

Well, it's nice to hear "class" and "globalisation" mentioned by a Labour politician, I suppose ... Certainly, the view that the cause of most of the country's ills are down to immigration is very widespread (this depressing survey suggests that 61% of the UK population think that all immigration should be halted immediately). But it's Miliband's concession to this narrative that's dispiriting: as if this view of immigration spontaneously arose out of people's experience, rather than as a consequence of a framing of experience which has been very deliberately constructed with the assistance of a popular media. Most of the alleged "concerns about immigration" could easily be reframed as anxieties about global capitalism or poor (and inadequately targeted) public services. Indeed, the "immigration" question assumes such importance because it allows global capital to remain obscured.


The Saturday after the election, with its outcome still in doubt, I spoke at an excellent event, The Geopolitical Turn: Art and the Contest of Globalisation, at Nottingham Contemporary, part of the Uneven Geographies: Art and Globalisation exhibition there (which I'd urge people to go to if they possibly can). One of the remarkable things about this event was the feeling that it dealt with so much that the tediously circumscribed 'reality' of the election excluded. What the exhibition and the conference were both about were forms of art which attempt to map the sublime Thing - the "(unrepresentable, imaginary) global social totality"(Jameson) that is capital. "Mapping" was not here used in its customary and boringly metaphorical sense. Nor was there the usual vacuous Nu-Language rhetoric of "engaging with ideas of ..." What we had instead were various forms of what Alfredo Cramerotti called "geo-poetics" or "aesthetic journalism", including Ursula Biemann's documentation of migration from the sub-Sahara into Europe, performance artists Goldin+Senneby’s semi-fictional, deeply Pynchonesque exploration of the labyrinths of acephalous offshore capital in their Headless project, and Bureau d’ Études' hyper-intricate "counter-geographic" diagrams of the incestuous infoldings of power systems. In all of these cases, painstaking documentation worthy of the most dedicated researcher or investigative reporter provided the substance of maps that were cognitive in precisely Jameson's sense that they went beyond individual experience. "Too rapidly we can say that, while in older societies and perhaps even in the early stages of market capital," Jameson wrote in the 1990 "Cognitive Mapping",

    the immediate and limited expenence of individuals is still able to encompass and coincide with the true economic and social form that governs that experience, in the next moment these two levels drift ever further apart and really begin to constitute themselves into that opposition the classical dialectic describes as Wesen and Erscheinung, essence and appearance, structure and lived experience.
    At this point the phenomenological experience of the individual subject traditionally, the supreme raw materials of the work of art becomes limited to a tiny corner of the social world, a fixed camera view of a certain section of London or the countryside or whatever. But the truth of that experience no longer coincides with the place in which it takes place. The truth of that limited daily experience of London lies, rather, in India or Jamaica or Hong Kong; it is bound up with the whole colonial system of the British Empire that determines the very quality of the individual's subjective life. Yet those structural coordinates are no longer accessible to immediate lived experience and are often not even conceptualizable for most people. There comes into being, then, a situation in which we can say that if individual experience is authentic, then it cannot be true; and that if a scientific or cognitive model of the same content is true, then it escapes individual experience.

Here -and as I further argue in my review of Valences Of The Dialectic for Mute - we see the affinities between Jameson's themes and those of speculative realism (and can perhaps begin to grasp some of the implications that speculative realism might have for politics, which I will explore at more length in a post that will respond to Necessary Agitation). The retreat of the cognitive estrangements of modernism and the return of an impoverished and attenuated sense of reality are the hallmarks of capitalist realism. And it is important at this point to stress the aesthetic dimension of capitalist realism, its echoes of socialist realism's disdain for abstraction and montage, and its similar preference for the homely, the populist, the familiar: that which pushes already-existing emotional triggers.

The "Cognitive Mapping"essay is prophetic in identifying problems that we seem to be no closer to solving twenty years on. "If ideology ... is a vision of the future that grips the masses," Jameson wrote, "we have to admit that, save in a few ongoing collective experiments, such as those in Cuba and in Yugoslavia, no Marxist or Socialist party or movement anywhere has the slightest conception of what socialism or communism as a social system ought to be and can be expected to look like. That vision will not be purely economic, although the Marxist economists are as deficient as the rest of us in their failure to address this Utopian problem in any serious way." These dilemmasa aren’t only practical, but are cognitive and transcendental, i.e. they involve some of the basic ways in which experience and thought are structured. That is why Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler's presentation at the Geopolitical Turn was so inspiring. Since Chavez came to power in 1999, they have made a number of films - Venezuela from Below (2004); 5 Factories – Worker Control in Venezuela, (2006); Comuna Under Construction (2010) - which show the "successful formation of consejos comunales (community councils) and the co- or self management of factory labour." Azzellini and Ressler's daring hypothesis is that Latin America is not some atavism, a residual space yet to be subsumed into global capital, but the vanguard - the first area of the world to adopt neoliberalism and the first to seriously propose an alternative to it. These experiments in collective management of factories prompted someone in the audience to pose the question about the relationship of all this to Cameron/ Blond's Big Society. But what Azzellini and Ressler were documenting was very much a moment in the development of utopian socialism. (I'd like to think that one of the reasons that the Big Society concept failed to resonate with the UK electorate was that its steampunk philanthropism amounted to a call to repeal modernity.) As they put it, such initiatives are responding to a situation in which it is now clear that socialism delivered exclusively through the state has failed, yet it is equally clear that socialism without the state cannot happen.

Necessary Agitation’s call for the left to make exorbitant, ’unrealistic’ demands makes sense - the neoliberal revolution has taught us that the formerly ’unrealistic’ can becomes today’s ’inevitable’. But it's the combination of the "unrealistic" with the pragmatic that is necessary at this point. Pragmatism without utopianism leads only to the resigned worldliness which characterised New Labour; but utopianism without pragmatism leaves us in the position of the beautiful soul, our hands clean but useless. In terms of pragmatism, now seems the time to get involved with something like this Compass initiative (even if the "hope" has already been soured by Cruddas refusing to stand for the Labour leadership, leaving the grim prospect of New Labour persisiting in undead form ...)

Posted by mark at May 18, 2010 05:50 PM | TrackBack