By Bradley Tuck
The Ironist […] is a nominalist and a historicist. She thinks nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence. So she thinks that the occurrence of a term like “just” or “scientific” or “rational” in the final vocabulary of the day is no reason to think that Socratic inquiry into the essence of justice or science or rationality will take one much beyond the language games of one’s time. The ironist spends her time worrying about the possibility that she has been initiated into the wrong tribe, taught to play the wrong language game. She worries that the process of socialisation, which turned her into a human being by giving her a language may have given her the wrong language, and so turned her into the wrong kind of human being. But she cannot give a criterion of wrongness. So, the more she is driven to articulate her situation in philosophical terms, the more she reminds herself of her rootlessness by constantly using terms like “Weltanschauung,” “perspective,” “dialectic,” “conceptual framework,” “historical epoch,” “language game,” “redescription,” “vocabulary”, and “irony.”
– Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
[…] this universalized historicism has a strange ahistorical flavor: once we accept and practice the radical contingency of our identities, all authentic historical tension somehow evaporates in the endless performative games of an eternal present. There is a nice self-referential irony at work here: there is history only insofar as there persist remainders of “ahistorical” essentialism. This is why radical anti-essentialists have to deploy all their hermeneutic-deconstructive skills to detect hidden traces of “essentialism” in what appears to be a postmodern “risk society” of contingencies – were they to admit that we already live in an “anti-essentialist” society, they would have to confront the truly difficult question of the historical character of today’s predominant radical historicism itself, i.e., confront the topic of this historicism as the ideological form of “postmodern” global capitalism.
– Slavoj Žižek, quoted in Marc James Léger’s Neoliberal Undead
Contemporary art and radical politics appears caught between two conceptions of irony. Rortyan irony is deconstructive and particularist, it focuses on language in order to evade universal truths and grand narratives. For Rorty, there can be no final description and so every claim is a precarious one. The Rortyan uses “redecription rather than inference” because no statement can be said to be truer than another. Irony, for Rorty, persists because no statement can be fully meant and fully committed to. Žižekian irony turns this irony on its head. It notes the historical contingency of the post-modern deconstructive agenda and attempts to subvert it in order to reveal a universal, emancipatory grand narrative capable of combating global capitalism through a return to class struggles. Žižekian irony works by saying “you think it is like this, but it is really the opposite”. Žižekian irony addresses liberalism, postmodernism, democracy and identity politics and then tells us that what we originally though about them are wrong and what we have come to think of as radical, really isn’t. For Žižek, irony is used to change our perspective; to make us perceive in a new way that opens up the possibility of new universalist emancipatory struggles.
Some art would appear to function like Rortian irony, full of self-deprecation, pastiche avoiding any final thesis or by focusing on identity, plurality and cultural difference. What interests Marc James Léger however, is art with a radical flavour, which, like Žižek’s writings, challenge us to reconceive grand narratives, historical struggles and emancipatory politics. In contrast to deconstructive art and radical pluralism, Marc James Léger favours art that is closer to radical avant garde art of the past. This art would have been more suited to a time where politics and ideology was still on the agenda and where communism and other emancipatory projects had not yet been resigned to the dustbins of history. This art not only refuses to resign itself it parliamentary democracy and market economy, but is also one “which Alain Badiou associates with a ‘subtractive tendency,’ the willingness to sacrifice art, in the artistic gesture itself, rather than give up on the real.” (MJL – Brave New Avant Garde. p. 1) Marc James Léger’s first book, Brave New Avant Garde, is more a return to the radical and uncompromising twentieth century, than the compromising, tolerance based politics of the twenty-first. Just as Badiou calls for us to reinvent the communist hypothesis that was the driving force for many twentieth century struggles, Marc James Léger calls for us to reinvent the avant guard hypothesis. This, of course, is not a naive return to communism and avant gardism, but an attempt to revive and reinvent their radical core. Marc James Léger singles out a list of artists, who would today embody this renewed avant garde militancy.
REPOhistory, Group Material, Guerrilla Girls, WochenKlaussur, ACT UP, Critical Art Ensemble, the Institute for Applied Autonomy, the Laboratory for Inserrectionary Imagination, Bureau d’études, Ne Pas Plier, Temporary Service, HaHa, the Yes Men, Surveillance Camera Players, Ala Plastica, the Errorist International, Oda Projesi, PublixTheatreCaravan, ®TMark, Superflex, Yogango, Platform, Terra Cultural Research Society, ATSA, Collectivo Camblanche, Protoplast, The Art of Change, The Centre for Land Use Interpretation, Ultra Red, Radical Software Group, Park Fiction, Carbon Defence League, The Atlas Group, Infernal Noise Brigade, Visual Resistance, Toyshop Collective, N55, Instant Coffee, Raqs Media Collective, Paper Rad, Rude Mechanical Orchestra, It Can Change, Collective Jyrk, Chto Delat and Next Question (Leger, Brave New Avant Garde. p4-5)
This is a kind of art that transverses the fine line that separates art from activism. This avant garde hypothesis feels closer to the Situationist International’s political preoccupation with the critique of everyday life than to the surrealist preoccupation with dreams. Marc James Léger’s work develops a method of theorising and reporting which carves out a new avant garde within the blurred line between art practice, activism and the radical theories of thinkers like Žižek and Badiou.
Neoliberal Undead, which follows on from Brave New Avant Garde, is no exception. The book is comprised of a collection of essays concerning a multitude of topics from the use of the zombie metaphor in radical thought, the communist turn in radical political and cultural theory to the art of the Black Panthers and other activist groups. The book is an attempt to return to radical action that subverts and transcends the interplay of postmodern irony, identity politics and neoliberal hegemony.
The undead, to which the title of the book refers, is less a reference to “the last days of neoliberalism”, nor capitalism after the 2008 crash (although such themes do loom in the background) than it is about the ideological interplay between institutions, capitalism and their multiculturalist critics. Léger sites George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, as illuminating the zombie mind-set “What do the zombies want with a shopping mall, asks one of the last remaining humans. Another answers: “This was an important place in their lives.” (NU, p.10) The Zombies are neither neoliberals proper, nor outside of it. Whatever their destructive tendencies, the underlying, and maybe, subconscious, desire is to be part of it. Such zombies, despite their apparent threat to the neo-liberal order, are in fact its most genuine realisation. The neoliberal undead, therefore are not so much the economic and political elite, but those seeking representation within the system. Léger opens his exploration of this theme by turning to comments made by Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery of Canada.
Mayer’s comments to reporter Jelena Adzic can be summarized with the following quote: “Our real mandate is excellence. We do think about diversity, however… We put on what we find in the Canadian art scene that is excellent and we’re blind to colour or ethnic background, or even whether you were born in Canada, we don’t care. (…) We’re looking for excellent art. We don’t care who makes it.” Mayer’s words echo those of John Lydon in the 2008 Country Life butter television commercial: “Do I buy Country Life butter because it’s British? No. I buy Country Life because I think it tastes the best.” All the while Lydon is metaphorically wrapped in the British flag and is surrounded by the trappings of the stereotypical British upper class. (NU p.5)
Within the neoliberal order references to excellence act as a mere cypher disguising its underlying nationalist and capitalist agenda. These underlying agenda are not so much concerned with excellence, but “with performance indicators that directly link intellectual and creative production to a global marketplace within which national institutions operate as cultural brokers.” (NU, p.15) The excellence is not so much an excellence found in the intrinsic value of the artwork itself, but economic returns and ability to tick bureaucratic boxes. The justification for such institutions is further challenged in chapter 6, which is entitled “The Non-Productive Role of the Artist: Creative Industries in Canada.” In this Chapter, Marc Léger focuses on narratives concerning the cultural industries and the justification of art bases upon the industry model. Key to Léger s engagement in this debate is the question of whether economic growth really does serve the interest of social progress and as a result whether art, the art developed under the cultural industries rubric, serves any purpose outside transnational globalisation? The answer to the first question is no. There is nothing intrinsically progressive about economic growth. Despite the persistent political rhetoric declaring the need for economic growth, it often serves the most affluent and serves to increase the gulf between rich and poor. The problem with the cultural industries narrative is that it mainly focuses on making art economically productive. As a result, the cultural industries approach tends to underappreciate art’s non-productive and thus intrinsic worth (aesthetic, cultural, social, political). Art’s non-productive character might be “socially useful, contributing to social wealth, human development and well-being”, but the cultural industries instead focuses on its economic productiveness. As a result, the cultural industries approach tends to foster art that merely serves the interest of transnational globalisation. As Marc James Léger points out “Neoliberal sociologists, economists and politicians […] understand the intrinsic worth of cultural products strictly in terms of their relation to profit.” (NU p. 99)
The alternative, however, is not to be found by fleeing into the arms of pluralistic liberalism. Increasingly the neoliberal appraisal of art in term of profit is accompanied with a narrative of empowerment, identity politics and democracy (as if the cultural industries narrative needed something a little more cosy than mere profit in order for it to appear democratically accountable.) But much of what goes under the name of identity politics, is not so much a challenge to the economic and political system, but a transparent veneer which often find itself complicit in the very system it seems to criticise. As Marc Léger points out,
What is clear from this debate is that it is virtually impossible for any of Canada’s political party leaders to construct a view of art’s social function as being anything other than a gauge of economic productivity and competitiveness, on the one hand, or a cipher for liberal pluralism. The emphasis that they like to place on identity is more than a convenient alibi for economic restructuring, it is a direct indication of their inability or unwillingness to address art’s contribution to the reproduction of capitalist class relations. This failure indicates a further inability to conceive of a global social movement able to confront market logic with new models of social cooperation that link the conditions of work to social justice. (NU p.92-3)
If calls for excellence serve to merely reinforce a measure based on economic productivity and competitiveness, identity politics and liberal pluralism are easily decontaminated of any radical leanings and used as an alibi for economic restructuring. In this respect, the critique of excellence, from a liberal pluralistic perspective fails to actually challenge these institution and instead renders itself complicit in the very same society. Marc Léger uses the example of the multiculturalist response to Marc Meyer’s statements about the drive towards excellence in the national gallery: The response was presented in an open letter, which challenged Marc Meyer’s conception of excellence, claiming that excellence was culturally-conditioned and hegemonic pointing to the work of feminists and post-colonial writers. Léger compares these critics of the national gallery to the Romeroan Undead. Apparently attacking, but actually desiring to become a part of the very system they attack. For Léger these pluralistic postmodern narratives of anti-essentialism and difference mirror the very system they apparently oppose. The problem with such anti-essentialism is that, to quote Žižek, it “views every social-ideological entity as the product of a contingent struggle for hegemony”(NU p.7) By dispensing with grand narratives it increasingly seems to mirror Fukuyama’s thesis that the fall of the Berlin wall was the end of history, to which liberal democratic capitalism was the answer. Marc Léger asks
What is the link not only between the liberal technocracy of major cultural institutions like the National Gallery but between the identity politics proposed in the letter and today’s dominant ideological view that communism is no longer a pertinent tool of analysis, nor a viable political alternative, and that nothing should stand in the way of the emergence of a new global class of superrich who accept as a calculated risk the wild speculation that led from dotcom crash in the early 2000s to investments in mortgage schemes that were destined to fail? (NU p. 7)
What we have, Léger tells us, “is not the ideal of socialism or communism but the pragmatism of libertarianism and the populist pluralism of social democracy.” (NU, p.14) An alternative is to be found in art that challenges us to think beyond the pragmatism of libertarianism and the populist pluralism of social democracy. Marc James Léger focuses on the art of the Black Panthers, ATSA (Action Terroriste Socialement Acceptable/Socially, Acceptable Terrorist Action)’s State of Emergency event which addresses issues and themes of homelessness, Anarchist groups, like black bloc, that use violence (e.g. smashing shop windows) and the use of the red square in the Quebec Maple spring protests. What is interesting is that Marc Léger does not merely approach these political acts from the perspective of activism, but simultaneously from the perspective of an art critic. For example, whilst he acknowledges the political controversies and problems surrounding the Black Bloc tactics of smashing windows of places like McDonald’s and destroying corporate property, he also demonstrates the possibility of reading these actions in terms of art criticism and theory.
Such actions are not premised in their immediate fulfilment but in the communication that the desire to smash capitalism can never be satisfied with such limited gestures. What movement activists should do is look indirectly at the smashed windows, aesthetically perhaps, with an attitude that is supported by the desire for a reality that is possible and as though the smashed window does not exist in itself but only as the materialization of capitalist distortion. Direct action, we could say, and to paraphrase Žižek once again, gives positive existence to the unreality of the world, to its incompleteness. The disproportionate irrationality of tactics and play allows for a surplus of subjective dreaming that alters the coordinates of the situation. Social democrats and news media are thus not enemies of the movement but rather only some of the mediators of the symbolic universe and the guardians of our sleep. (NU p.136)
The actions attempt, more than genuinely transforming the system, to communicate an excess: a need to go beyond the confines of what, in that situation, is possible. If revolution is both a combination of making genuine pragmatic demands, but also keeping in sight the ultimate, almost utopian, ends to which the movement strives then the violent actions of the black bloc and the symbol of the red square do the latter. As Marc Léger points out,
Against the abstract background of debt and the threat of crippling fines for those who dared to pursue the strike, the red square has not only had a symbolic but an iconic value, one that promised and will continue to promise a revolutionary transformation of society. (NU p.143)
Such symbolic and iconic acts are less part of a postmodern pastiche, than a genuine attempt to recommit to a universal emancipatory narrative; a narrative that stretches beyond the pragmatic interplay of capitalism and parliamentary democracy and reminds us that there can still be transhistorical universal causes deserving of militant struggle and enduring passions.