Criticality as rearguard defense of capital – The “purity” of critique is the metaphysics of irrelevance

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/28/2013

Hal Foster’s Art and Architecture Complex – Stephen Horne

The Art – Architecture Complex is a book concerned with contemporary architecture and design, a subject I am vastly underqualified to critically pursue. How I could venture into this task without the requisite specialization is best explained by my conviction that marginality with respect to such specialization is sometimes preferable to expertise. And it may well be that both art and architecture are fields too important to be left to their professional defenders. And anyway, if Foster’s observations are accurate, architecture has itself been dissolved, our ways of building and dwelling transformed into cinematic encounters under consumer media’s management.

With this title, The Art – Architecture Complex, Foster invokes that sense of capitalist conspiracy first expressed in the 1960’s phrase, “military/industrial complex.” The book is massively informative but characterized by the author’s trademark polemic with regard to the pluralism that is post modernity in general. Foster has long made clear his preference for purity over plurality…

This metaphysics, the foundation for Foster’s criticism in general, is oppositional in form. He typically opposes resistance and transgression to complicity, outside to inside, the real to the illusory, and the virtual to the actual. This marks a limit to his analyses, and for some would render his conclusions helplessly conservative, even when his objections to “capital” might seem necessary. This is the crux of his situation; critical for his historical consciousness, conservative for the same, his oppositionality leaving him without traction with regard to a historicity of experience now re-composed by way of electronic “abstraction.” In this new situation, Foster refuses to acknowledge how antiquated his use of “the image” and “spectacle” has become, clinging as this does to some notion of an objective foundation, a reality that would offer an external standpoint from which critique proceeds. His fervent conviction that there is an “outside” from which criticism can orient itself and from which critical attacks may be mounted, that distance is definitive of criticality, fails to account for and integrate the pluralizing impact of electronic communications media with which the post modern is to be identified. Even a likely sympathizer such as Bruno Latour asks, “Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?”

…Baudrillard, informed by the media theory of Marshall McLuhan, developed a more “performative” vision of architecture’s relationship with new media. Although the literary character of his thought has often been anathema to traditionalists such as Foster, his observations are acute if expressed in apocalyptic language. His willingness to embrace the media as environment means he spends less time spinning his wheels on a positioning of critique now no longer available as it was in the nineteen eighties.

Perhaps what is needed, following Foster’s denunciations of design as mere consumerist manipulation in the service of greater efficiencies for capitalism, is recognition of a more general outline. That would be one that attributes the root of the problem more deeply in a description of the rationalist prejudices that dominate our thinking and being. For the style of critique demonstrated by Foster and his colleagues this would be bad news, leaving them revealed as a part of the problem in so far as their project is itself inextricably dedicated to the founding of criticality in a modernity already itself a practice of instrumental rationality. In this sense, the critique mounted from Foster’s “leftist” optimism has become a rearguard defence inevitably and finally supporting and requiring those elements of purification and linearity so essential to the drive of technics (including capital) for ever greater efficiency.

Burning cars – Toward an unproductive infinitude – Baudrillard on art “workers” and cultural “production”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/27/2013

Neither Marx nor Smith: Baudrillard’s Critique of Productivism – Frederick H. Pitts

Baudrillard’s account in The Mirror of Production is motivated primarily by a critique of Marx… Marx endowed production and labor with a “revolutionary title of nobility” that has paralyzed subsequent attempts to formulate a political program derived from Marx’s concepts. Thus, one naturalization was substituted for another (Baudrillard, 18–19).

According to Poster, Baudrillard sees production and labor as the “forms” that Marx used as a foundation for the critique of political economy. However, in so using these forms, a part of Marx’s critique was left incomplete, carrying over entirely uncritically two key concepts of political economy itself (Poster, 2). By basing his critique of political economy around production and labor, Marx retained the theoretical and ideological core of the object of that critique, which inhibited his ability to complete his critique and escape the constraints of classical political economy…

…Thus, Baudrillard goes further than merely associating Marx with an inability to overcome the status of labor in political economy. Marx’s productivism is not merely a humanistic fetishization of labor and those who perform it, but a means by which every aspect of life is seen through the prism of production…

“Something in all men profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn”: Pure Expenditure against Production – Frederick H. Pitts

…Rather than maintaining a narrow fixation on the condition of one’s exploitation as labor as the means by which this exploitation can be transcended, Baudrillard argues that workers must liberate themselves from the status of “labor-power,” and “think themselves under another sign than that of production” (Poster, 3).

Under capitalism, workers are exploited not only as a result of the machinations of the system, which dominates them, but also by the code, which co-opts and coerces them. The reinforcement and perpetuation of this code in traditional Marxism ironically services the needs of capitalism. It generates this effect by means of popularizing the myth that labor-power is each individual’s “fundamental human potential” rather than a capitalist social relation. As Baudrillard writes:

“And in this Marxism assists the cunning of capital. It convinces men that they are alienated by the sale of their labor power, thus censoring the much more radical hypothesis that they might be alienated as labor power, as the “inalienable” power of creating value by their labor.” (Baudrillard, 31)

The attachment of the sign of the economic to every spontaneous insurrection under the sun is a commonplace in the Marxist tradition. For Baudrillard, bursts of revolutionary activity governed by the “pleasure principle” and the “radicality of revolt”—such as that witnessed in “the destruction of machines, in pre-Marxist, utopian and libertarian discourse as well as in the ideas sustaining ‘the cursed poets or the sexual revolt”—sought a new and more radical “total symbolic configuration of life.” But under the spell of Marxism, these strands of rebellion are abstracted out of movements in political economy, and, at worst, sacrificed as less important moments of the unfolding of history through the “development of productive forces.” It is this sense of finality from which revolutionary activity must escape, of some end toward which our efforts are driven. The “here and now” of revolution must be reinstated. Against the “imposition” of the meaning of revolutionary finality, Baudrillard instead celebrates “the radicality of desire which, in its non-meaning, cuts through all finality” (Baudrillard, 154–55).

…The Marxist paradigm not only provides a poor apparatus through which to rethink class struggle, but also does not allow us to escape the subordination of desire to “productive” finality. As Baudrillard concludes, “[t]o enclose the ‘exploited’ within the single historical possibility of taking power has been the worst diversion the revolution has ever taken” (Baudrillard, 167). It is toward a desire that exceeds this finality that Baudrillard suggests we turn to discover an unproductive infinitude whereby events may satisfy that “[s]omething in all men” that “profoundly rejoices in seeing a car burn” (Baudrillard, 141).

This argument has implications for the way in which we conceive of anti-capitalist political action. Trade unions and labor parties must cede the oppositional ground to the demands of social movements composed of desires and symbolic expenditure that exceed and cannot be recouped within a discourse of either production or its flipside, non-production. Plainly, the whole ethico-poltical edifice of capitalism must be challenged. In part, then, Baudrillard comes to the conclusion that the productivist inadequacy of both political economy and its Marxist critique must be themselves be urgently critiqued on the symbolic level of the code. While Baudrillard champions the burning car as the pure expenditure of symbolic exchange par excellence, it is the immanent critique of political economy and its critical counterpart that may in fact mark the beginning of any symbolic attack of la parole against the code. Far from hitting the streets armed with signs and placards heralding the “the right to work” and “jobs, growth and justice,” perhaps the implication of Baudrillard’s thesis is “criticize first, and then do nothing”: that we should instead take to our desks and discussion groups. In other cases, we should do nothing at all, so as not to be put in the position whereby our actions can be put to productive ends.

I was not interested in art and it was not interested in me.

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/19/2013

‎[found the fragments of a talk I was going to give once and spent a little time editing it]

The arguments stopped when the bar cleared out. Ideas abandoned – crushed limes amid melting ice and chewed up thin red straws. One could’ve measured things by the ferocity of hangovers or the days upon days of jackets reeking of ash. I’ve got notes somewhere. I could title them “Minutes of the outside looking in committee,” but that might mislead.

In the early years it was pizza, wine, French feminists, Asian philosophy, salads with feta cheese, Donna Haraway (and plenty of other cyborgian stuff), southern folk art, Gregory Bateson, and oodles of continental thinkers. The Zapatistas were a frequent topic thanks to a history graduate student and member of the “band” Stool Sample Sandwich. He took so long in the pursuit of his degree that he ran out of time and never got the degree. At this time, I had a concealed weapons permit and there was a particularly heated exchange around the appropriateness, or lack thereof, of an armed left.

Influence is a funny thing. A comment made in passing by a professor from that era has gnawed at me in a pretty profound way – “Derrida is a great reader, but he ought to take up camping.”

Even though I had been camping all the time, camped my way across the country, and continued to do so upon moving to San Francisco, I still found myself in a Thousand Plateaus reading group. My heart just wasn’t in it any more. Somewhere, amid the fog and redwoods, my love affair with theory began to dwindle. Or maybe it was the gambling bus I used to take to Reno. After taking advantage of  the complimentary Heineken and casino credits, I would retreat to my hotel room and pull open the curtains for a view of the sun sinking behind the mountains. I would scribble away in my notebooks whose content slowly changed from extensive notes on books to something a more presumptuous person might call poems.

But there were still plenty of arguments to be had, only now the food was gone. It was gimlets, wet naps, and snack mix. Theory was fading fast. DJ Spooky played an important role. Funnily, it was at yet another casino that I saw him play a set followed by a really sad “mashup”  of theory. He also recounted his numerous art world accomplishments and I remember thinking that theory had jumped the shark. I went to find the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car and tried to goad Baudrillard into gambling with me (he declined).

Perhaps as penance for my blind devotion to theory (It might have been an attempt to impress a poet I had a crush on too) I read poems. That I wrote. Out loud. In public.

Shortly after this, I skipped town for Ohio in search of new arguments and a second grad degree amid football jerseys and chain restaurants. Actually, I was looking to “do nothing” which being the greatest of academic sins (apparently), brought judgment raining down on me. The bars, the flea markets, and a few key allies gave me cover, but I’m pretty sure that it condemned me to hell, or maybe just academic purgatory…Somehow I thought that it would be “refreshing” for a hiring committee to receive an application to teach in an art program from someone who was not an artist, critic, or curator,  and who had no portfolio, no publications, no exhibitions, someone who had an MFA in “nothing,” someone who survived (barely) on his wits alone…

My affinity for pancake breakfasts not in the gallery, but at the VFW post and for “installations” at thrift and antique stores did not win me any interviews. I was not interested in art and it was not interested in me.

So now I’m a cook.

[from the LeisureArts archive] – The “as art” gaze

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/22/2012

[I would obviously state some things differently and use some modified examples, but this post is still mostly on the mark and relevant to many ongoing conversations I’m currently having]

Baudrillard – “as art” relational art – Kaprow [September 2006]

In The Mirror of Production, Jean Baudrillard writes about the colonial intellectual impulses of the West. Concerning the criticality of Western culture he notes:

…it [Western culture] reflected on itself in the universal, and thus all other cultures were entered in its museum as vestiges of its own image. It ‘estheticized’ them, reinterpreted them on its own model, and thus precluded the radical interrogation these ‘different’ cultures implied for it.


Without bias, they have attempted to ‘relocate’ these ‘works’ [so called primitive art] into their magical and religious ‘context.’ In the kindest yet most radical way the world has ever seen, they have placed these objects in a museum by implanting them in an esthetic category. But these objects are not art at all [Emphasis ours]. And, precisely their non-esthetic character could at last have been the starting point for a radical perspective on (and not an internal critical perspective leading to a broadened reproduction of) Western culture.

This critique can easily be applied to the critical appropriation of any number of new “art” practices, most notably relational art. We see quite clearly how a variety of activities and modes of research that began to stray from the flock were quickly recuperated under the banner of “relational aesthetics.” This needn’t apply necessarily to the stars of the movement (Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija are obvious) as their work was never really intended to offer a radical perspective on anything, but Oda Projesi (who are not nearly as gallery friendly, and don’t engage in the same sort of faux art institutional critique) has certainly become a bit of a flashpoint. The debate surrounding them provides an interesting model as Claire Bishop begs to read their activities “as art,” making sure they are safely inscribed within the known parameters of self-criticality that the museum Baudrillard describes above tolerates. Maria Lind, however, prefers to read their actions without preemptively applying critical classifications.

Allan Kaprow in his essay “The Real Experiment”describes the “as art” impulse as well:

‘Look,’ I remember a critic exclaiming once as we walked by a vacant lot full of scattered rags and boxes, ‘how that extends the gestural painting of the fifties!’ He wanted to cart the whole mess to a museum. But life bracketed by the physical and cultural [emphasis ours] frames of art quickly becomes trivialized life at the service of high art’s presumed greater value. The critic wanted everyone to see the garbage as he did through art history, not as urban dirt, not as a playground for kids and home for rats, not as rags blowing about in the wind, boxes rotting in the rain.

We see here the application of the art historical gaze, the “as art” gaze. And not unlike the “male gaze” (although obviously the parallel is in how it operates, not in its social effects) it becomes a way of subjugating the world to a particular critical regime and seeks to infiltrate the self-perception of others, so that they see themselves and their activities through the “as art” lens.

We return in closing to Baudrillard’s critique of Marxist anthropology which can be seen to possess the same impulse to universalize its history, its criticality:

…because the system of political economy tends to project itself retrospectively as a model and subordinates everything else to the genealogy of this model…Thus in the strict sense, it analyzes only the conditions of the model’s reproduction, of its production as such: of the separation that establishes it…By presupposing the axiom of the economic, the Marxist critique perhaps deciphers the functioning of the system of political economy; but at the same time it reproduces it as a model.

It is evident that the “as art” perspective functions to accept as a given the art model, thus binding itself to merely reproducing the logic of art production rather than challenging it in any substantive way. It presupposes the axiom of the artistic, and shields itself from the messiness of rotting boxes, leaving us in the “internal critical” hall of mirrors, trapped in the “as art” aesthetic fun-house.

Steven Wright vs. Stephen Wright – Double Ontology, Escaping the Art World – Baudrillard & Kaprow and Abbott & Costello

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/23/2012


[Cue video to 7:06 – 7:32]

“But it is no longer a question of either maps or territory. Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference between them that was the abstraction’s charm. For it is the difference which forms the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real. This representational imaginary, which both culminates in and is engulfed by the cartographer’s mad project of an ideal coextensivity between the map and the territory, disappears with simulation, whose operation is nuclear and genetic, and no longer specular and discursive. With it goes all of metaphysics. No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept; no more imaginary coextensivity: rather, genetic miniaturization is the dimension of simulation.”

[From that other comedic genius, Jean Baudrillard]

“…the idea of art cannot easily be gotten rid of (even if one wisely never utter the word). But it is possible to slyly shift the whole un-artistic operation away from where the arts customarily congregate, to become, for instance, an account executive, an ecologist, a stunt rider, a politician, a beach bum. In these different capacities…[art] would operate indirectly as a stored code that, instead of programming a specific course of behavior, would facilitate an attitude of deliberate playfulness toward all professionalizing activities well beyond art. Signal scrambling, perhaps. Something like those venerable baseball aficionados in the vaudeville act that began, “Who’s on first?”

[Kaprow invoking comedy]


[signal scrambling]

“Use the country itself, as its own map”: operating on the 1:1 scale – Stephen Wright

…They seem to be seeking to escape performative and ontological capture as art altogether. It is certainly possible to describe them as having a double ontology; but it seems more closely in keeping with their self-understanding to argue that this is not an ontological issue at all, but rather a question of the extent to which they are informed by a certain coefficient of art. Informed by artistic self-understanding, not framed as art.

[see Kaprow’s “stored code” above]

This may be a way to renegotiate the asymmetrical relationship between art and memory. Though both are constructs, art long focused on shaping and reshaping memory’s matrix-like status — in other words, art stemmed from memory, yet somehow managed to scale memory down and thereby to hold it at a distance. The practices I have briefly described, and countless others today, have come to challenge this scalar bias and instead, increasingly, to operate on the 1:1 scale, no longer distinguishable from their object on the basis of scale and thus of use. Such full-scale aesthetics may make it possible to force memory to the fore as a dimension of the historical present, and as such, fully political.

[see Baudrillard’s “mad project” above]

I love Steven and Stephen (talk about double ontology!!!), but I think Steven’s distillation wins in this instance. I also think Stephen cites terribly insufficient examples of “escape.”  And the challenge to ontology itself offered by Baudrillard should at least, when talking of maps and territories, be addressed if only to engender the silly confusion of a theoretical vaudeville.