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Communization is a theory of revolution primarily developed out of the French ultra-left during the mid-1970s. It poses the necessity for revolution as the immediate process of communist measures – communization – without transition. Here I want to talk about the aesthetics of communization in two senses. The first is to probe the kinds of aesthetic figures, tropes, and forms that communization theory uses to construct its own particular ‘problematic’. This is not, to be clear, to dismiss communization as ‘merely’ an aesthetic politics. Instead it is a way to grasp the form of communization, including the diversity of those forms. There are, as we will see, different communizations and different ways of posing the problem of communization. One way to grasp this plurality is to trace different aesthetic emphases and choices in the deployment and use of the key figures and tropes of communization. The second sense of the aesthetics of communization I will explore concerns the implications of communization theory for aesthetics and the contemporary practice of art. What would art after communization look (or sound, or read) like? Again, consideration of this sense will bring out tensions and differences in the forms of communization. Can we practice a communizing art? Is art impossible in the horizon of capital? If that’s the case can we practice the impossibility of art?
Figures of Communisation
The refiguration of communism as communization suggests the centrality of the figure of activity and process. ‘Communism’ is, precisely, an ‘ism’, a suffix forming the name of a system or school of thought, while ‘ization’ is a suffix denoting the act, process, or result of doing something. This activity or process is one that is apparently tautological: communization is the production of communism by communization: ‘[T]he communist production of communism’ (Anon 2011: 6); or ‘Communisation is not the struggle for communism; it is communism that constitutes itself against capital.’ (B.L. 2011: 148). There are no non-communist ways to communism; hence communization is communism is communization. We make communism by making communism. If this is the conditioning trope, I want to explore the tautological process of communization in the linked figures of immediacy, immanence, acceleration, and dispersion. In terms of their destination in a common fluidity it will be no surprise that we find these figures merging and flowing into each other.
The activity or process of communization is also immediate. While a process or activity suggests something which takes time, the time that communization takes can only be the immediate production of communist relations: ‘The revolution is communisation; communism is not its project or result.’ (Anon 2011: 6) There is no figure or problem of transition from capitalism to communism via socialism or, if we are more sceptical, we could say that transition is displaced or refused. So, there is no transition to a new communist state, but rather ‘the simultaneous disappearance of the social classes’ (de Mattis 2011: 24). If there is no need to build or make communism, then why is communization an activity? It is an immediate activity in the process of revolution itself, which refuses any non-communist measures (such as the seizure of the state, the retention of money, maintaining armies or other capitalist institutions, etc.). The qualitative leap to revolution (Hic Rhodus, hic Salta!) is the leap into communization.
This immediacy is linked with the trope of acceleration (which I will discuss separately later): ‘The revolution will be both geographic and without fronts: the starting points of communisation will always be local and undergo immediate and very rapid expansion, like the start of a fire.’ (B.L. 2011: 154; my italics) It used to be a ‘single spark’ that would start a ‘prairie fire’ and we don’t seem so far from this Maoist figure, except we now have the refusal of any slowing down in this incendiary process.
Of course the deferred question is when does this immediate process begin, or has it already begun? Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee, who make occasional use of the term (there are some brief mentions of communization in This is Not a Program (2011: 68), and at greater length in the Call), imply that communization has begun now with forms-of-life and communes that escape the net(work) of imperial capital. On the other hand, Theorié Communiste (TC) insist that it can only begin in the revolution and hence all that we can have is a negative prefiguration of the limits of capitalism and glimpses of this future moment. This also suggests how activity and immediacy interact: our activity is making communism immediately, but this can’t be done simply immediately. It will take time: either the time of struggles from now into communism, or the time of the revolution itself as we hit the limits of capitalism.
If the temporal figure is immediate we might say the ‘spatial’ figuration is immanence. We are drowning is the waters of capitalism and the advice, as in Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900), is not to struggle out of the water, which is to drown for sure, but to immerse in the destructive element. There is no outside, no cobblestones beneath the beach; we are subsumed by capitalist social relations horizontally, across the planet, and vertically, down into the very building-blocks of life. In Gilles Dauvé’s amusing characterization TC are accused of producing a ‘proletarian structuralism’ (Dauvé 2008: 93), in which capitalism dominates all. This characterization of immanence carries different inflections: from the extreme position of TC – in which capitalism is totality, but contradictory totality – to Tiqqun’s emphasis on forms-of-life that can traverse capitalism on its own ground, or to Dauvé and Nesic’s assertion of invariant communist struggle.
It is at these points of the inscription of struggle that we encounter the figure of acceleration. We have already seen how immediacy is linked to acceleration: ‘communisation will always be local and undergo immediate and very rapid expansion, like the start of a fire.’ The dominance of capitalism at all points implies the acceleration of struggle at all points: ‘[E]verything depends on the struggle against capital, which either deepens and extends itself or loses pace and perishes quickly.’ (B.L. 2011: 148; my italics) If ‘the movement [of communisation] decelerates’ (B.L. 2011: 150), then we fall back from communisation and into socialisation (a more ‘traditional’ process of the socialisation of the means of production). To force the immediate production of communization requires the speed to outpace the forces of reaction, which are seen as implanted largely within the process of revolution (another contention that could be debated).
This acceleration also relies on a dispersion of points of struggle, thanks to the loss of compactness of the proletarian condition. The end of what TC call ‘programmatism’ – the traditional forms of workers’ identity, affirmed in unions, parties, and states – produces a dispersion of the proletarian condition. Rather than dispersion indicating a weakening of energies, instead it is taken by communization as suggesting a pluralisation that requires no condenser (to borrow from Trotsky’s image of the party as piston and the proletariat as steam). These dispersed energies recompose, for TC, a new figure of the proletariat without party and formal organization. For Tiqqun they indicate a pluralisation of the struggles of forms-of-life which don’t simply cohere into the ‘proletarian’ as classically conceived.
These are all figures of fluidity: ‘Human activity as a flux is the only presupposition of its collective, that is to say individual, pursuit.’ (B.L. 2011: 152) This fluidity predicates on constant expansion: ‘communisation can only exist in a dynamic of endless enlargement.’ (de Mattis 2011: 25) This figural context, in which prefiguration lies unstably on either side, both here-and-now and in the process of revolution, seems to me the tension communization bequeaths to contemporary practice, and contemporary artistic practice. Do we have simply a negative prefiguration, which I’ll discuss shortly, or can something emerge that indicates a possible future?
The End of Programmatism
In terms of our second sense of the aesthetics of communization – what are the implications of communisation for the practice of art today? – I want to suggest we can draw on the notion of the end of programmatism proposed by TC, and the general agreement by communizers of all stripes that ‘traditional’ forms of workers’ organization are finished or empty. If we take the parallel Alain Badiou (2007) draws between the political avant-garde of the Leninist Party and the artistic avant-garde of the 1920s in The Century, we could suggest that both forms have been hollowed-out. The end of programmatism is also, we could say, the end of the programme of the avant-garde – attached to small groups, privileged artists, the manifesto, etc. Badiou, elsewhere, concludes on the need for a post-party politics, and so we could also suggest a ‘post-avant-garde art’. Of course, declaration of the death of the avant-garde and calls for reinvention of the avant-garde are commonplace to the point of banality; even the proposals of ‘relational’ or ‘post-production’ art by Nicholas Bourriaud, borrow this trope. What kind of precision, if any, can communization bring to this situation?
One way to answer this question is to consider the reflections of TC on the ‘avant-garde’ practice of the Situationists. Guy Debord, de facto ‘leader’ of the SI, was acutely conscious of the finitude of the avant-garde. In his last film In girum imus nocte et consimimur igni (1978) Debord stated that: ‘Avant-gardes have only one time; and the best thing that can happen to them is to have enlivened their time without outliving it.’ (2003: 182) Although they display this awareness TC argue that the SI remains in an equivocal position on the cusp of the end of programmatism, both artistically and politically. On the one hand, they are able to trace out the end of art and the end of work, the impossibility of proceeding in terms set even by an ultra-left programme. On the other hand, they have nothing to replace this programme with and so fall back on nostalgia or practices which invoke the old models they have ruled out.
While the SI aimed at a dialectical supersession of art through its suppression and realization in revolutionary practice they tended to remain split between the aesthetic, with most artists expelled in 1962, on the one hand, and the political termination of art, on the other, with art returning in nostalgia for past adventures and possibilities. In the first aesthetic moment the ‘constructed situations’ of the early SI presage revolution in the forms of enclaves or moments within the reign of the spectacle. They are affirmative counter-possibilities, and this belief in a counter-art remains close to the belief in an affirmative proletarian identity found in council communism by the SI. The aesthetic SI continues to make art as they continue to make revolution.
For Roland Simon it is the penetration of real subsumption – the dominance of capitalism that reworks the production process to capitalist ends – that signals the end of this possibility, along with the end of an alternative ‘working class’ identity; any such ‘moments’ or artworks cannot be realized under the dominance of capital. In contrast, following through on the rigorous negativity of revolution, Simon (2009) argues that the suppression of art and the ‘politicization’ of the SI indicates a recognition that ‘art’ can only take place within the revolutionary process – within communization. Therefore, ‘constructed situations’ might better describe the process of revolution – qua communization – than the pre-revolutionary and prefigurative process of ‘triggering’ revolution.
The rigorously negative formulation keeps dropping back into ambiguous gestures in the case of the SI. The so-called ‘pessimism’ of the later Debord can be seen as a sign of the difficulty in holding to this rigorous negative gesture and overcoming the desire for a ‘positive’ form of art now. This can be seen in his tendency to project back a nostalgic perception of the possibilities of the past that have become ‘lost’ in the present; whether a lost Paris, lost comrades, or the decline of the quality of alcohol, moments of the aesthetic recede into the past. Debord remains within, to use Marx’s words, ‘world-historical necromancy’ rather than the ‘poetry of the future’.
Burning Down the Gallery
The communizing position implies that with the evacuation of ‘proletarian identity’ and the ‘avant-garde’, and the evacuation of the potential fusion of both in some ‘passion for the real’, we must abandon any aestheticizing model of revolution and any aesthetic prefiguration of revolution. In these terms the ‘positive’ vision of the SI as regards aesthetics is not merely outdated but, strictly speaking, impossible. This bears some resemblance to the thesis of the ‘death of the avant-gardes’, but it does not imply a welcoming of this death as the opportunity for some new modes of practice or reinvention – from the relational to the reconfigurative, we might say. Instead, the TC critique implies, I think, the futility and necessary nullity of any affirmative revolutionary art. All that we can have is the rift that exists at the limit.
In the case of workers’ struggles this rift is indicated in suicidal struggles which register the limit that class identity forms. The result is the burning down of factories, attempts to claim as high a redundancy payment as possible, and other ‘exits’ from work (R.S. 2011: 119). Crashing against the limit that capitalism itself can no longer sustain the worker’s identity, the tragedy and possibility of struggle today lies in a rift from this identity and the confrontation with class as an exteriority. In this moment there can be a fleeting ‘de-essentialization’ of labour, and it is this negative moment that is prefigurative of a communizing process (R.S. 2011: 120). If I risk transferring these terms into art, we could say the identity of the avant-garde is the limit. Today, to continue to be an artist is the problem, an unsustainable identity. The rift would lie here with the ‘de-essentialization’ of art, posed as a limit we can no longer practice.
To take one, controversial, example we could say that this situation is already implicit in the practice of Andy Warhol. On the one hand, his work belongs to the moment of programmatism, with the discourse of the ‘Factory’ and the proliferating model of industrial and media proliferation and production. This renewed and estranged discourse of alienated labour is doubled by the nihilism that inhabits the practice of art as impossible. In his essay ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’, from 1970, Foucault registers this equivocally subversive function:
This is the greatness of Warhol with his canned foods, senseless accidents, and his series of advertising smiles: the oral and nutritional equivalence of those half-open lips, teeth, tomato sauce, that hygiene based on detergents; the equivalence of death in the cavity of an eviscerated car, at the top of a telephone pole and at the end of a wire, and between the glistening, steel blue arms of the electric chair. ‘It’s the same either way,’ stupidity says, while sinking into itself and infinitely extending its nature with the things it says of itself; ‘Here or there, it’s always the same thing; what difference if the colors vary, if they’re darker or lighter. It’s all so senseless-life, women, death! How stupid this stupidity!’ But, in concentrating on this boundless monotony, we find the sudden illumination of multiplicity itself – with nothing at its center, at its highest point, or beyond it – a flickering of light that travels even faster than the eyes and successively lights up the moving labels and the captive snapshots that refer to each other to eternity, without ever saying anything: suddenly, arising from the background of the old inertia of equivalences, the zebra stripe of the event tears through the darkness, and the eternal phantasm informs that soup can, that singular and depthless face.
Warhol’s stupidity registers the moment of exhaustion of the programme in advance and from within – a hollowing-out that would emerge in the 1970s and 1980s.
This ‘prefigurative’ negativity of the earlier ‘avant-garde’, or artists of the period of programmatism, seems to imply an odd temporality. Why should such negative gestures come in advance of the moment of the end of programmatism? Why should the most resonant artistic experiments in regard to communization (The Artists Placement Group, Duchamp, Warhol, etc.) come at the ‘wrong time’? We could hazard an interpretation from within the communzing problematic. While these ruptures with the regime of art and the artistic are chosen gestures, the end of programmatism might be said to make them necessary. If the end of art was an act, such as Duchamp’s giving-up of art for chess (equivocal as that was), now the artist faces the necessity of such gestures as they cannot self-reproduce as an artist. This does not, however, explain why all or most art of the present moment doesn’t seem to take this ‘negative’ form. In fact, as we will see, the present moment seems more dominated by the desire to turn the negative into new forms of ‘positivity’ – most notably new ‘objects’ and new ‘materialities’.
The emptying out of art, in its truly negative form, is, however, also registered by another strand of contemporary communization, which is pursued by the post-Tiqqun milieu. In ‘A Fine Hell’ (2013), ‘build the party’ argue that: ‘Aesthetics, therefore, is imperial neutralization, whenever direct recourse to the police is not possible.’ They unequivocally condemn aesthetics as originating as a counter-revolutionary strategy in Schiller, and they have no time for any ‘artistic communism’ out of the early Marx or the ‘Oldest Programme of German Idealism’. Instead aesthetics is synonymous with the aesthetic regime of Empire, with the aesthetic performing an ‘infernal synthesis’ on any antagonism. In common with their Agambenian roots, they regard aesthetics as a house to be burned down (Man without Content 115); or, in the case of Claire Fontaine, an art gallery to be burned down.
The alternative to the aesthetic is ‘the materialist obviousness of forms-of-life.’ The only art is the art of inhabiting our determinations rather than trying to escape them. In this traversal we must practice ‘an apprenticeship in the art of tying and unbinding.’ Art is impossible. Installation art can only make ‘little portable hell[s]’. Instead we have an (anti-) political practice that considers art as technique to form and find the dispersion or chaos of forms-of-life. This is a collective elaboration, a sharing or force they call ‘communism’. Here art seems to coincide with political practice as an unworking of the various imperial identities, including the identity of the artist.
Of course these are, more or less, rigorously negative programmes. The difficulty, which seems to me to afflict communization generally, is the uncomfortable tracing of limits and rifts. These rifts are at once prefigurative, but also not. In the case of TC the only prefiguration is negative. The crashing into the limit of class identity is all there is, and so the artist could only crash into the identity of ‘artist’ as well. For Tiqqun and others there is something of a traversal within these determinations that promises a reformulation of forms-of-life. This vitalist interpretation suggests an excess encrypted within and against (this is the modelling of communization recently proposed by Stephen Zepke).
What does this clarify about our situation? To return to the story of the SI one of the ironies is that this story is often told today as an aesthetic story. Communization suggests the necessary termination of this story, so why should it persist? Why, to use a phrase of Johanna Isaacson (2011), do we think the legacy of the SI has been thought in terms of ‘lineages of expressive negation’? That is to say, the SI has tended to be mined for aesthetic gestures of negation that would somehow express, here and now, precisely a sense of revolutionary possibility. An exhaustive account would be beyond the limits of time and patience. What I would suggest is that these ‘the lineages of expressive negation’ have dominated many of the receptions of the SI: from Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (1989), with its lineage of negation from the SI to punk, to McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street (2011), with its recovery of the ‘artistic SI’, the tendency has gone precisely in the other direction to that indicated by communization.
The difficulty then remains: how do we account for the ‘error’ of these readings? If Debord and the SI couldn’t hold on to a negative reading and persisted in nostalgia, we might say the limit of reading today turns the SI itself into an object of nostalgia. Marx’s ‘poetry of the future’ seems as distant as ever. We could argue that this is one sign of the current limit of class identity and the blockage which forces us back into nostalgia for ‘expressive negation’ at a moment that is, to say the least, unconducive to such forms. The additional irony is that such ‘negations’ are often justified and retained precisely because of their positive forms. It is the fact that they seem existent possibilities, rather the austere path of the resolutely negative, that lends them a certain heft in the ‘weightless’ experience of capitalism. I would suggest that it is precisely the paradoxical ‘positivity’ of these ‘expressive negations’ that exerts attraction and fascination in the present moment. In this way, and here I have some sympathy with the communizing critique, the risk is of a consolatory function of the aesthetic.
Making it with Communization
Can we then make anything out of communization? In a response to a questionnaire on Occupy sent by the journal October, Jaleh Mansoor, Daniel Marcus, and Daniel Spaulding argue that: ‘Art’s usefulness in these times is a matter less of its prefiguring a coming order, or even negating the present one, than of its openness to the materiality of our social existence and the means of proving for it.’ (2012: 48) This is a useful attempt to flesh out what art might do within the context of communization that suggests the absence of affirmative practice. Here it is a matter of the ‘materials’ we have to work with (and against), rather than some kind of guaranteed practice.
They go on to unpack this statement to argue that art registers the falsity of the capitalist universe and insist that bodies and things cannot be captured. The difficulty for me here is the modelling of capitalism as capture and the evasion of capital as totality. This ‘beneath’ the state of things, their metaphor, seems in danger of returning to the problematic metaphor of ‘beneath the cobblestones, the beach’. There is a tension of lurking vitalism, I find, which seems to fall away from the probing of art and labour, including the failure of labour. Perhaps this vitalism emerges from the very rigour of the negative, as its flipside and ‘affirmative’ moment. This returns us to the tensions and problems of the SI and suggests that the ‘end of programmatism’ or the cusp of that ‘end’, remains less clear cut than we might imagine.
I say this not to assert superiority, but rather to assess the difficult problematic communization poses to us. The rigour of its negative formulations leave us in what may seem the unsatisfactory position of merely exploring negative prefigurations: limits, ruptures, suicidal activities, identifications with capital, and aesthetic regressions. Of course working with negativity is one of the definitional traits of the avant-garde, so this is not so unfamiliar. That said, and in perhaps ironically Wittgensteinian fashion, I’d say the problematic of communization might be useful as a kind of therapy for our prefigurative and ruptural desires. Therapy is, or should be, painful; in Freud’s famous formulation we hope to pass from hysterical misery to everyday unhappiness. In the context of communization we could rework this to suggest moving from an oscillation of hysterical misery and elation to everyday misery. That’s to say, to begin from where we are.
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