Intangible Economies: Forum Discussion
November 19, 2011
Respondent: Clint Burnham
Identified Speakers: Lorna Brown, Juan Gaitán, Melanie Gilligan, Richard Ibghy, Olaf Nicolai, Monika Szewczyk, and Jan Verwoert
Clint Burnham – What I will do here is sort of an inverse Bataillian economy of surplus or waste, where I had done all this work beforehand from looking at two of the papers, and then there was one paper from today that I had not yet seen, so I took more notes on that, but I have two points for each paper and then we can maybe get a discussion going.
I will start chronologically, with Melanie Gilligan.
There are two things I was thinking about around affect in particular, and around affect and the economic, and shared affect, and so on. I tweeted about this yesterday, because I have been thinking about barebacking and the economic. Barebacking, of course, is having sex without proper protection, and it especially refers to men having sex with each other without proper protection; it is a subculture that—at least according to Tim Dean, the queer theorist—has been around for the past ten or fifteen years, and, in his book Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (2009), Dean talks about barebacking as being much more common, say, in North America than in Berlin, apparently, where guys will use protection. Dean talks about this in terms of the death drive, and this kind of jouissance...or as my friend said, it is like “juggling with knives.”
Perhaps we can think about barebacking in terms of the subprime mortgage and volatility crisis since 2008. I bring this up in conjunction, in part, because I saw both the films Contagion (2011) and Margin Call (2011) in the same week. Margin Call is the film about the subprime mortgage crisis. To a degree, both films deal with the idea of how much you know about what you are transmitting, about how dangerous or toxic it is, and the way in which that knowledge is actually irrelevant in comparison to the affect that surrounds your actions. This would be an example of fetishistic disavowal—and I am going to talk about fetish in a little bit—that is to say, the people buying and selling subprime mortgages know very well that these things are toxic and yet they still buy and sell them, so knowledge is not educating, in the same way men barebacking know very well that it is a very dangerous thing to do, to have sex without protection because of the risk of HIV transmission, and yet they still do it. So education in terms of addressing our rational selves is not very effective.
But then I also wanted to address the relationship between affect or affect theory and psychoanalysis, because it is a very fraught relationship. In some aspects of affect theory, for example by Massumi and the Deleuzians, there is this notion of the poverty of psychoanalysis, and from a psychoanalytic perspective of things, critics, like for example Bruce Fink, argue that affect theory is a poor man’s psychoanalysis. This kind of debate is very productive and very useful, but when Melanie was talking about affect—and I cannot remember whether it was affect, feeling, or emotion...which is the membrane?
Melanie Gilligan – I called feeling a membrane.
Clint Burnham – Membrane—and we get back to barebacking—which is to say, affect would be the Real, feeling would be the Imaginary (that is, it is still personal), and emotion would be the Symbolic where things take on names and so on. Bruce Fink would argue that even affect is already Symbolic, it is already a language—you have to name things in some sort of way—that it is not before language. This is the critique of affect theory: affect theory proposes that affect is pre-individual or pre-language, whereas emotion, then, is social—it is shared in some kind of way, it is something in which we engage with the world.
Monika Szewczyk was talking about the Occupy movement earlier. When Antonia and I met earlier in the week, we were discussing the relation between this forum and Occupy. One interesting aspect of what Occupy is doing—which I think might be one of the most important legacies of the Occupy movement—is that it does not make demands. I presume everybody in this room has been in demonstrations where the problem is that you are asking the—whatever you want to call it—the “big Other,” or the government, or “The Man,” to do something, thereby giving them the ability to respond in a certain kind of way. In psychoanalytic terms, then, you are acting out as the hysteric. You are placing this demand onto the government or onto the private corporation or what have you. Whereas Occupy casts the media and the government in the role of the hysteric. It hysterizes the media and the government, causing them to ask: “What is your demand?” “What do you want?” The Occupy movement takes on the position of the analyst—to me, this is very interesting.
I also want to share three very quick little textual grabs, sound bites, about the fetish. From [Karl] Marx’s Capital (1867): “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use”—that is, use value—“there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table remains to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it changes into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was.” And of course you know, because you have read this, the footnote to this section of text [See footnote 26a in Karl Marx, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” part 1, chap. 1, section 4, of Capital, vol. 1, 1887, http://fillip.ca/yauo.] refers to the fascination with seances in 1850s Germany, so that is what is referred to by the “table-turning,” turning the table on its head.
And [Sigmund] Freud, from Fetishism (1927): “In later life, the fetishist feels that he enjoys yet another advantage from his substitute for a genital.”—I was really thinking about this in terms of art—“The meaning of the fetish is not known to other people, so the fetish is not withheld from him: it is easily accessible and he can readily obtain the sexual satisfaction attached to it. What other men have to woo and make exertions for can be had by the fetishist with no trouble at all.” So we will just say that in the art world, what was previously devalued takes on an interest for the artist or for the art world itself precisely because it was devalued, and is therefore more readily available.
And finally, this quote by [Slavoj] Žižek on fetishistic disavowal, from The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), about “the way we behave towards the materiality of money: we know very well that money, like all other material objects, suffers the effects of use, that its material body changes through time, but in the social effectivity of the market we none the less treat coins as if they consist ‘of an immutable substance...’” The structure “of fetishistic disavowal is therefore the following: ‘I know very well, but still...’”
Moving on, finally, to the discussion between Olaf and Antonia; there were two things I pulled out of there: one was that Olaf kept talking in this very interesting way about the trope of the mirror, as both a conceptual hook in his work and also embodied, as it were, in the work itself. On the one hand, you [Olaf] made the reference to [Jean] Baudrillard and the notion of the simulation or the simulacrum—which, as I always tell students, is a copy with no original. That is to say, the idea of the commodity itself is a simulacrum; you go into Toys ‘R’ Us and there are all the dolls, or the video games, and you say, “I want the fourth one from the left, that is the original.”
I want to think about simulacra in Lacanian terms in relationship to the mirror. There is the mirror stage: you look in there and you see yourself, or what you think is yourself—it is an image; it appears more coherent, more capable than you yourself are. You identify with this image, but you are alienated from it at the same time, because it is not you, it is something that is over there. So this is Imaginary identification, whereas Symbolic identification is identifying with the point of view that looks at you from the outside.
At the very beginning of your conversation, Olaf, you talked about how, in 1996, you did not want to talk about the Eastern bloc. You wanted to resist that Symbolic identification, a Westerner’s fetishization of, “Oh, what was it like in 1989? Tell me about Eastern Europe, tell me about...”—whether the person was from the left (“tell me about how wonderful socialism was”) or from the right (“tell me about the horrors of totalitarianism”). I saw this as, in a way, a reaction against a kind of Symbolic identification.
Then what was very useful for me was your discussion around [Georg] Lukács. On the one hand Lukács argued against identifying fascism as rationalism in the 1930s. There was the Brecht-Lukács debate around that topic—“better the bad new days, than the good old days,” as [Bertolt] Brecht put it. That debate was picked up again by Habermas—I do not want to do the obvious Marx quote of “first time tragedy, second time farce”—but [Jürgen] Habermas repeated that argument in the ’80s with his resistance to French theory, seeing it as irrational; and I think he perhaps also identified Nietzscheism as a problem with French theory—its lack of humanism.
Of course, I haven’t read [Walter] Benjamin in German, but to say that Benjamin knew nothing about art, this is something I just cannot accept. I certainly think he knew something about photography when he discusses mechanical reproducibility and aura. In talking about reproduction, to my mind, he addresses exactly your point about the attempt on the part of the GDR to break social class reproduction, by determining that if you were the son or the daughter of a doctor than you should become a bricklayer, but if you are the son or the daughter of a bricklayer, then you would go on to have a university education and so on. Which is almost like the cultural revolution in China, that notion that the intellectual or city people should leave the city, go to the country and work. And of course we still have, I think, that class competition. It is the dirty secret of the art world, right? The very lack of a representative class composition in terms of who ends up at these microphones—that is problematic. I think that it may have been this ham-fisted, bureaucratic, non-communist attempt to deal with what in the West is still a very real kind of problem. So that is where I am starting and we can see where it leads us...
Audience Member 1 – Thank you, Clint. I am just going to ask you first to explain what you just said at the end. I do get your point that the “dirty little secret” of the art world is that everybody is of a certain class, but then...I think you were trying to say more than just that.
Clint Burnham – I think in some ways the “dirty little secret” plays out as a fantasy of an identification with Occupy, with the people, or the masses or whatever—in a sort of fetishistic disavowal. With academics for example, it is a similar kind of situation where in the past couple of weeks we have been saying “We are the 99%,” and yet as an academic—I mean, I have a job and if I get tenure in a few years, I am making a, say, six figure salary—I may be part of the 99% strictly speaking, but I am also part of the, say, top 5% within North America. The reason why there is a fantasy of identification, I think, on the part of intellectuals, artists, or academics—and I realize that there is a different economic status in which a lot of artists and probably everyone in this room finds themselves in comparison—but that identification (and this is Bourdieu 101) comes from the fact that intellectuals, artists, academics, what have you, are the oppressed class of the oppressing class. They are the bottom of the top, and so therefore they identify with the bottom of the entire spectrum, because they have the feeling that “Oh, well, I’m not as rich as George Soros, therefore I have more in common with somebody on the Downtown Eastside [of Vancouver].” That may be true objectively, and yet that ignores the role of cultural capital, of being in places like this on a Saturday, and having the time and education to think about things, and so on.
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