Sunday, March 7, 2010

allegory and automaton (3)

Having put these two images together, what have I done?

This conjunction becomes an argument. The collision it stages forces these two images to do polemical work.

The two very different charges of these loaded images are each underwritten by overwriting: each includes its own legend or caption.

The staged encounter, then, of two visual scriptings: one, arch irony of a gate to hell (“Work sets you free”), bears a charge of utter repulsion; the other, meager chalk-trace of a rebellious intention (“Never work”), is charged with attraction.

One synecdochically cites a historical fragment (part for whole, part for whole, unfolding out all the way to capitalist modernity as such: gate for Auschwitz, Auschwitz for Nazi genocide, etc.), or, if not that far, then still to the limit, the outer threshold of spectatorial-historical consciousness, before perhaps collapsing back, whole mountains of corpses recorded in other photos, seen and remembered, volumes of horror and terror documented and catalogued, generating something like aura-in-reverse.

The other invokes as it condenses a whole history of avant-garde provocation in one three-word graffito. Scrawled on a Parisian wall by Debord in 1953 or 54, the imperative détourns Rimbaud (Letter to Izambard, 13 May 1871: “Travailler maintenant, jamais, jamais; je suis en grève.”) while echoing the blustering taunts of Berlin Dada and reasserting the active linkage of poetry and revolution that drove Surrealist program and praxis (Manifesto of the Dadaist Central Revolutionary Council, 1919, demanding “progressive unemployment”; cover of La Révolution surréaliste, No. 4, 1925: “WAR ON WORK!”; Ralentir travaux, poems from 1930, etc.). And on to the Lettristes – all refracted through Marx (Capital, vol. 3, reduction of the workday as the “basic condition” of freedom), Lafargue’s Right To Be Lazy (1883) and perhaps Luxemburg’s Mass Strike (1906).

Holding a place within the legend, for years hardly more than a rumor, of the Situationist International, these words then reappeared a decade and half later during another May. Absorbed into the history of 68, they were transfigured into a cipher of freedom, winging, all eros.

If these two visually impoverished images together generate a certain force of seduction, then this rhetorical effect derives from the apparent adequacy of the visual argument.

The linking juxtaposition becomes an immediate refutation: genocidal modernity is followed directly, as the eyes slip unhindered over the marginal gap, by the call to general strike promising a radical new form of labor and life.

Revolution appears to answer, visually does answer, the brutal datum of the pendant, a global regime of forced labor that in itself routinely and necessarily “murders” the freedom and happiness of those it exploits – and which, under the rule of enforcing exception, repeatedly becomes literally murderous on a global scale.

But in the skip across the seam of the montage, the instantaneous passage from image to image, contracting time and space and excluding reflective mediations, what falls out?

The steps of struggle – difficult processes of pedagogy, organizing, strategy – are jammed and compressed impatiently into the brilliant gesture of spontaneity, the quick clandestine performance of a sole agent.

Were it that easy!

What Marx actually writes in volume 3 (Chapter 48):

“The realm of freedom really begins only where labor determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper.”

But he continues: “Freedom [in the realm of irreducible “natural necessity”] can only consist in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its base. The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.”

This collective or socialized control (gemeinschaftliche Kontrolle), note, is over not nature but the metabolic interaction with nature. It is our relation to nature, Marx argues, that has to be mastered.

The lines bear an opening to a radically different relation with nature, internal and external. But the misrecognitions and false resolutions also latent in this promise helped to lead in twentieth-century practice to the reproduction of forced labor, a “socialist” extraction of surplus, episodic terror and the usual ecological abuse.

Everything at stake in processing the mirroring nightmares of “really existing socialism” unfolds from those lines – which should be read urgently together with Benjamin’s Thesis XI, along with all of Adorno’s and Marcuse’s glosses on it, already sampled in posts below.

Work to be reinvented, relations reorganized, so as to abolish structural domination between people and between people and nature: a potential social transformation the actualization of which remains a problematic in search of solutions.

If we are inclined to read this visual argument as a call to autonomist exodus à la Hardt, Negri and Virno, we would at least need to look the strategic problems of aim and agency in the eye: withholding labor-power from the wage relation is a means of struggle, not its end.

While it temporarily breaks the circuit of capital, the stoppage of production, even on a massive scale, does not necessarily break capitalist power. Persisted in, the general strike throws up new problems of scarcity. In itself it is not the needed reinvention of work and dissolvent of divisions of labor (not painters but people who sometimes paint, etc.).

Exemplary intransigence, as in Debord’s photo, promises happiness but doesn’t solve the problem. The solutions are yet to be found, although – of course – collective searching is the finest practice.

Clarified perhaps: Even when images appear to speak, they never say all that needs to be said. Images that “argue” by force can lose in reflective power what they gain by rhetorical assertion.

No image, any more than any concept, is identical to its referent. It takes the labor of critical interpretation and reflection to gauge the gaps between word, image and reality – and to draw (allegorically or in other words – and always in other words – by means of questions) the conclusions.

the debt to Benjamin
allegory and philosophy
allegory and automaton (1)
allegory and automaton (2)
dreaming naked
shudders of freedom?

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