Problems from the Past (9/7)

Exemplary Failurepatten1.jpeg

The 1960s have been historicized to death. Out of that death came the "hidden 1970s" as historian Dan Berger has framed them. Lesser known and often more refined, while admiditly less popular, this time period involved a reorganization of leftist organizing to go along with the reorganization of the economy of the United States. Mary Patten is a veteran of this period of struggle and reorganization. She is also a visual artist, video-maker, writer, educator, occasional curator, and political activist (A bit more about Patten here).

Her book Revolution as an Eternal Dream: the Exemplary Failure of the Madame Binh Graphics Collective (Half Letter Press, 2011) is a significant contribution to the discussion about the “problems of the past.” It is all too rare to see social movement history interwoven with art history—so what a pleasure it is to read Mary Patten’s memoir, which does exactly that. Patten recounts, through short essays paired with full-color graphics reproductions, her days in the May 19th Communist organization, working with particular commitment in the graphics and propaganda subcommittee known as the Madame Binh Graphics Collective.

The text is sewn together with prose that critically comments on cadre activism from a mature, deeply honest, and self-reflexive position. Patten writes, “We were on the margins of the margins, the periphery of the periphery: far left or ‘ultra left’ in our intensely florid and dramatic politics." Later she introduces how art fit into these politics, elegantly explaining their approach to authorship and anonymity: “Those who choose this kind of political art practice find their lives intensely enriched and multiply connected to worlds beyond what they ever knew previously; worlds where possibilities beckon, and where ‘losing oneself’ also means sacrifice, sometimes to the point of self-obliteration.”

This book is unusual for a number of reasons. It is less a book than an essay, but an essay that is elaborated upon and contextualized by both a preface and an afterword. It is less a history than a memoir; a catalog, but without an accompanying exhibition. It is similar to a pamphlet, but with full color artwork never found in leftist propaganda.

I highly recommend this book to printmakers, politically motivated artists of any kind, and anyone interested in the way that art intersects with leftist history in general. Patten’s approach leaves many questions open concerning where these far left ideas went and what they mean today. But she reminds us that politics and art are ever-evolving outlets for our collective learning and dreaming—and in Patten’s case, despite let-downs, disagreements, and arrests, that remains eternal.

Posted by Daniel Tucker-

Letter from Luther:

Holy Situationist Afterlives


OK, Holmes wants me to write something about Guy Debord, which is hilarious since Guy-the-Bore has become the tarte à la crême of radical art theorists (not to mention even more "radical" architects). The Society of the Spectacle plagiarizes Marx on every page, a good thing if you ask me. Now it meets the same fate at the hands of New York academics like McKenzie Wark. Quite the decline! But there’s worse to come. Right here for instance.

Let’s take a little trip down Memory Highway. Try to imagine what the book could have meant when it was published in the ultramodern year of 1967. It’s not only that state-run TV in France at that time was practically the Voice of the General (de Gaulle I mean). The spectacle that Debord talks about is bigger than the little screen. In the very first chapter it says: “What the spectacle expresses is the total practice of one particular social and economic formation... It is the omnipresent celebration of a choice already made in the sphere of production... It governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself.”

What Debord's talking about is Fordism, the integrated system where workers are made to consume – and even dream of – the things they produce. Of course they got more wages to do it. That was part of the post-WWII deal, to hold off the roaming specter of godless communism. What they also got was publicity, advertising at unheard-of levels, delivered by teams of designers and marketers and media specialists on the basis of endless motivation studies, to make sure that whatever came rolling off the robotized assembly lines would be irresistible to the robotized consumers. The point was to maintain effective demand for industrial products, ‘cause it was lack of demand that led to the Great Depression and the war.

Under this postwar system, everything the industrialists couldn’t coordinate on their own would be orchestrated by the state: investment in infrastructure, military contracts for hi-tech gadgets and research, housing and education and medical care for the workers, tax breaks and unemployment money when the markets were headed south. In Europe they called it social democracy (I think you guys had something similar in America: the Great Society, no?). But the point was and here ‘ol Guy hit it right on the head the choice of a culture, the basic choice about the form of people's everyday lives, was already made in the sphere of production. The choice was that modern technology would be developed under a market system for the profit of the big bosses. And the culture, the way of living, was just a way of reinforcing that initial choice: continuous seduction for continuous consumption, i.e. the spectacle.

You could say, what’s the use of all this verbiage, since Marx had already analyzed commodity fetishism? Well, yeah, except Marx never saw the image entirely replace the thing, becoming a commodity in its own right with nothing solid behind it. He also never saw the total merger of the state with the image-production regime, so that all of daily life – and particularly, its urban environments – could be redesigned to bring the ethos of the commodity-image right into the gonads of an entire population. All this was figured out in Manhattan, chez vous OK, mainly by Viennese emigrés. Check out one of my favorite books, The Strategy of Desire by Ernst Dichter, which was a hit at the time, among certain circles at least.

The absolute denial of life, in the shape of a fallacious paradise, is no longer projected onto the heavens, but finds its place instead within material life itself. [Damn, it’s better than I remembered...] The spectacle is hence a technological version of the exiling of human powers in a “world beyond” – and the perfection of separation within human beings.

See, at the time you could still shock people with this kind of philosophy. They still resented it when you called them zombies beneath the deathless reign of capitalists chomping fat cigars. This whole thing about “separation perfected” was supposed to demonstrate something else Marx never saw, namely the sheer passivity of workers who were convinced they had been cut in on the better end of the deal. For Marx, workers’ alienation was obvious, and it was obvious to the workers first of all: you made printed cloth you could never afford, steam engines that would get you nowhere, telegraphs you would never tap and so on. The nineteenth-century proletariat made stuff for the bourgeoisie. Whereas after the war, the workers in a Citroën plant, or a few of them anyway, actually fulfilled Ford’s promise and bought a car from the company, or a cheap Renault, or a cheaper Fiat if they got lucky! But not only were they managed at work, and not only were they denied even the smallest decisions about how they would spend their shift on the factory floor. They were also managed at home, on their leisure time, by TV, by ads, by the radio, by product design, by urban atmospheres and ambiances, along with a little cold-war nationalism and the occasional hot war in the colonies for good measure. All that goes way beyond the nineteenth-century forms of alienation. Yet it maintained the basic premise of capitalist control over social development.

When Debord talks about a specialized power that is also archaic – as ancient as domination itself – this is what he means: it’s about the management of people by engineers, it's about cybernetics, it’s about administration. You know, in that sense he’s not so different from Adorno and the Frankfurt School: “If the administration of society and all contact between people now depends on the intervention of such ‘instant’ communication, it is because this ‘communication’ is essentially one-way; the concentration of the media thus amounts to the monopolization by the administrators of the existing system of the means to pursue their particular form of administration.” Separation perfected, right?

The amazing thing is that despite all the two-way network technologies that the current economic order depends on, neoliberalism has done this same thing even better in our time. In Europe they call it one-way thinking (la pensée unique).

A lot of people talk about alienation and I guess some of you guys in the university make your career out of it, but recently the only ones to have invented anything new in the shock-the-zombies department are the Tiqqun gang in their book about The Coming Insurrection. These guys aren’t great strategists (apparently they were followed around for an entire year by the secret police while they were planning their secret conspiracies). But hey, if you want a literary send-up of the young Parisian networked middle-classes, check it out while it’s still hot!

Obviously, Debord is totally different from the Frankfurt School and a lot more like today’s ultra-leftists, because he had an anarchist streak and he saw himself primarily as an activist. As the book drones on (the way all masterpieces do) a lot of it deals with the form of anarchism that could be most easily grasped by obdurate Marxists, namely so-called workers’ councils. This is exactly what a movement like Occupy loves, only they’re not workers and they finally know it, thank God, so they call it by another wrong name, which is direct democracy. Theory hasn’t gotten too much better since the Sixties! I’m not sure you can learn anything from Debord about workers’ councils – better try it in the street – and anyway, to get at the good stuff you would have to wade through an endless critique of Stalinism and what used to be called “really existing socialism.” That’s why nobody but the academics reads more than the first chapter...

That said, Debord and the Situationist International are still the patron saints of media activism. They saw that if state capitalism means total commodification of the imagination, then you have to bring the struggle onto the everyday terrain of sign-and-image culture. Which is the entire history of tactical media in the Nineties. It’s exactly what our holy roller wrote in his very first Report on the Construction of Situations. And here I’m gonna plagiarize myself plagiarizing him:

[snip] For which reasons and with a view on what did the SI get together? Few of those who shed words about "situationism" are actually able to answer the question. But it's very easy, it was all about CREATING SITUATIONS, i.e. "temporary settings of life, characterized by a superior emotional quality". The means to this aim were Unitarian Urbanism (an example of which is the "theory of mood-quarters, according to which each quarter of a town should tend to provoke a simple feeling, to which the subject would consciously expose himself"), a "new architecture" (which "shall play on the ambiance effects of rooms, colours, streets, an ambiance connected with the actions they contain") and the psychogeographical exploration of sites ("active observation of today's urban agglomerates and establishment of hypotheses on the structure of a situationist city"). The ultimate aim was "the invention of essentially new games [...] to increase the non-mediocre part of living and reduce null moments as much as possible [...] The situationist challenge to the elapsing of time and emotions would be the bet of being always in advance to changes, ever going further in the game and increasing the touching moments". It was necessary to challenge the capitalist way of life by fostering other desirable ways, "to destroy, by all the hyperpolitical means, the bourgeois ideal of happiness". This was the meaning of Debord's subtle plagiarisms of famous marxian phrases: "Emotions have been sufficiently interpretated: now it's question of finding new ones". This was connected with the outlook of a "quick, continuous increasing of free time, at the height of productive forces reached by our age". "Today the ruling class manages to use the free time won by the revolutionary proletariat, by developing a wide entertainment industry which is an incomparable mean of abasing the proletarians with by-products of ideology and the tastes of the bourgeoisie". Actually, the situationists' purpose was that of discovering new means of action "simply recognizable in the domain of culture and customs but applied in the perspective of an interaction of all the revolutionary changes." [snip]

Well, everybody knows they didn’t really do it, all the artists got kicked out of the SI, the administrators returned to the heart of the revolution and finally it’s just about one GUY and his inscrutable formulas: another religion for the leftist devotees. We always preferred to do stuff, experiment, play tricks and see what happens. The best place to do that, by the way, is definitely the media and the street – it’s got nothing to do with “unitary urbanism.” Architects who build real buildings in really-existing hypercapitalist societies are not capable of subversion, period. You wanna see a constructed situation in steel and glass and stone? Well, I was wandering around Chicago one day with nothing to doyou know, just drifting when I came upon the Student Center down at IIT, where Mies van der Rohe, the evil genius of alienating modern architecture, once built some cheap and elegant boxes. Ultramoderne, just like Paris in 1967. This student center, though, is not by Mies van der Rohe but by the uber-coolest of all contemporary starchitects, Rem Koolhaas himself. Have you ever been there? Check it out, it’s round, it's a labyrinth, everything slopes funny, it’s all full of different colors and atmospheres, it’s moody, it’s delirious, the kids are in there to work and consume and have fun. It's LSD-architecture, ultra-postmoderne. It's neoliberalism's answer to the New Babylon that Constant, a sometime situationist, never got to build, or maybe never really wanted to build.

OK, for sure, it’s friendly, I gotta admit, I even like it, it’s nice, it’s playful, it’s surprising, it’s creative. Great place for a Coca-Cola and some table tennis on a hot afternoon. But if you call that subversive, then I gotta say that everything, really everything, is a put-on, a masquerade, a con-job, a hoax in a mirror-world of illusions...


Luther Blissett


Solidarity Starts at Home

Looking under the hood of Godard & Miéville’s Here and Elsewhere


A raucous chorus of blaring horns and revving engines, an endless traveling shot along a long line of cars at a standstill in the countryside, stranded in frustration behind what proves to be a deadly crash – then onward in the raging black convertible, through an automobile graveyard engulfed by flocks of sheep, past a series of blazing wrecks with dead bodies littered on the ground and indecipherable dramas of the French Revolution amid the green forests and fields. Such was the “plot” of Weekend in 1967. It was Godard’s goodbye to the studio system or dream factory, where consciousness is pieced together according to the methods of assembly-line mass production.

Fast-forward to 1974, when Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville edit the film Here and Elsewhere. The film begins with the flashing words “sound image.” Yet as the rest of the title screen lets us know, the basic components of any audiovisual work are also “my, your, his or her image.” A voice-over (his voice) informs: “In 1970 this film was called Victory. In 1974 it is called Here and Elsewhere.”

Elsewhere: Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East. Here: a French working-class family seated before a TV. Her voice translates from the Arabic, over images introducing the struggle of the PLO. His voice recounts the journey: I, you, he, she traveled to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in February and July of 1970. Five images emerge from the flux, assembled into a chain of equivalences: “The people’s will plus the armed struggle equal the people’s war, plus the political work equal the people's education, plus the people's logic equal the prolonged popular war, prolonged until the victory of the Palestinian people.” Enchaining images, all the way to victory.

It was supposed to be a propaganda film, cinéma engagé. But there were problems, big problems. The first big problem was that the majority of the people in it were killed in Black September of 1970, when Jordanian forces moved on the PLO camps in a terrifying inter-Arab conflict. The second big problem was that workers’ movements around France, which for intellectuals were part of the worldwide uprising against capitalism, soon found themselves mired in defeat and confusion. The images, as they were organized, didn’t add up to the reality that could be seen with the eye. The film sets about deconstructing the assembly line, or chaîne de montage, of sound-and-image production in the Western societies.

Does vanguard filmmaking, with its non-linear editing, emerge from a breakdown in solidarity? Intriguingly in this case, it also emerges from a breakdown of the friend-enemy relation that defines the logic of vanguard politics. A desktop calculator appears and his voice says: “By mixing hopes with dreams, we probably made errors of addition.” Strangely, the “ands” that don’t add up (1798 + 1968, 1917 + 1936) shift suddenly into either/ors that hide a more complex reality (Brezhnev and Nixon appear together on TV). Who's the friend, who's the enemy?

At this point Godard adds the impersonal pronoun, pointing out the crucial thing that “one” didn’t want to see. But in French slang we don't just hear "what one did not want to see": we hear “what this jerk, this idiot didn't want to see.” The insult is clearly directed at the working-class father, but Godard includes himself in that same category: “What I, you, didn’t want to see, her either (the working-class mother), and what he didn’t want to see either, is that all his dreams are represented. He didn’t want to see that all his dreams are represented at a given moment, given and taken back again.” Now comes the bluish image of a burnt cadaver on a wavering TV screen (presumably from the PLO camps in Jordan). “A flood of images and sounds that hide silence,” reads a title text that appears several times and disappears (sometimes upside down) amid the flood of images.

What’s being critiqued here is on the one hand a philosophical banality about history: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Today’s would-be revolutionaries try to dress up in yesterday’s heroic costumes, but they fail when the deed is lost in its hackneyed re-presentation. The worker in the communist party wants desperately to be the Bolshevik internationalist of 1917, or the Cuban guerrillero of 1960. He wants to support poor and oppressed people everywhere, but his only guide is the partisan propaganda he absorbs at home, in between two commercials on the TV. He’s a dreamer, a “millionaire in images.” This is the bitterness of failed revolutions. But there’s something more interesting in the film about the abstraction of big numbers (the abstraction of accumulation): “Since our dreams are most of the time added as series of zeros, it has to be said that the images of the sum will have nothing to do with the sum of the images.” A society based on images necessarily falsifies itself.

Already in 1967, in The Society of the Spectacle, Debord had written this: “Since the spectacle's job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialized mediations, it is inevitable that it should elevate the human sense of sight to the special place once occupied by touch; the most abstract of the senses, and the most easily deceived, sight is naturally the most readily adaptable to present-day society's generalized abstraction.” This labor of abstraction also has its working class. Godard and Miéville know that they are (or at least have been) workers in the dream factory, charged with carrying out the “specialized mediations” that make technical abstractions pass for reality on a massive scale. If their re-editing is so interesting to artists and activists right now, in this age of networked communications and immaterial labor, it’s not because the film solves the problem of solidarity with distant equals. It’s because it seeks to break the chain, to take apart the “specialized mediations,” and maybe to begin doing away with specialization altogether. To allow common speech (words that are equally uncertain) to circulate around the different stations of the language game: I, me, you, he, she.

For Godard, propaganda is when you turn the sound up. Propaganda is a single sound that drowns out the others and keeps you from seeing (even when you are the one with your hand on the dial). Propaganda is essentially the radio: Hitler’s disembodied ghost. And it circulates. For leftists, the chorus of the International (the communist anthem) drowns out every singular event. But wait: notice that even while he explains this, he does most of the talking. He keeps telling you what to think. Notice how the vanguard sound blares out of every scene in a film like Weekend. Notice how many problems you would have to solve if you would really want to make film – or any other kind of media – politically.

Everyone says Here and Elsewhere is a film by Godard. Just as they say Number 2 (another great work in the disruptive sequence) is a film by Godard. But you’d have to be blind not to see how different these films are, since the arrival of Anne-Marie Miéville, who is their co-author. For one thing, children appear at the table, and later (in Number 2) they even peer into the bedroom. Did Godard decide all by himself to bring the politics of the family into the politics of filmmaking? Who makes the films that are made by Godard? The people who don’t see them?

Towards the end, the film becomes a dialogue. We don’t know if it worked out that way, if it was staged that way, what can or cannot be achieved through the process of representation. Increasingly, she says what she sees, she points out all the mistakes. There, in Beirut, a beautiful young woman is proud to give her yet unborn son to the revolution. But the most interesting thing, she says, is this: and it cuts to a black screen. We hear his voice, “"Can you say it one more time? Would you straighten your head a little? Yes, like that.” The off-screen voice is Jean-Luc directing his exotic witness.

She says: “There is another thing that doesn't fit. You chose for that take a young intellectual, sympathizing with the Palestinian cause, who is not pregnant but accepts to play the part. What's more, she's young and beautiful.”

The question of the film concerns the destiny of images resulting from such a choice. And it concerns the people who are shaped by such images. Here’s another way to say it: If, by a specialized mediation, the image of the other becomes myself, yourself, himself, herself, then solidarity will only be possible when the making of the image becomes a dialogue, an infinite conversation.

No wonder all the women artists I meet – I mean the activist ones – are so attached to this film.


posted by BH