Monday, September 17, 2012

overidentification and the greek crisis


Rethinking Overidentification:
On Some Activist Practices in the Greek Crisis.


by Kostis Stafylakis


Discussion about practices of ‘overidentification’ has to start by rejecting the idea that overidentification is, or can be, a concrete strategy for assaulting the forms of metapolitical and postdemocratic administration prevalent in today’s societies. Overidentification is not some full-on avant-garde attack on social systems of power and control. It is rather a ‘symptom’ of the ideological uncertainties and identity dislocations of late capitalism. That said, overidentification is a term for those impure moments within cultural practices when subjects can try out the consequences of their identifications, attachments and orientations of desire. The overidentifying subject embraces the risks involved in these games. To overidentify is to accept that one is fully imbricated in a social bond, in a field that does not pose neat and unproblematically clear choices between resistance and conformism. Overidentification is related to forms of critical cultural practices; its ‘criticality’ is generated when ‘subjects of overidentification’ begin to admit and embrace the fact that their subjectivity is deeply interwoven with and by social discourses, power, authority, heteronomy – and is structurally involved in their reproduction. In this respect, practices of overidentification can potentially foster a critical interrogation of current social dogmas to the extent that an unconscious part of one’s own attachment to the social apparatus is (re)enacted. In this gaming or acting out, the ‘over’ or surplus of overidentification is the movement beyond the safe, controlled, supervised representation of identity.

Since the late 1990s, significant theoretical approaches have contextualized the relation between cultural activism and grassroots social movements resisting the deregulation of societies and economies associated with globalization and neoliberal policies. In the late 1990s and early 2000s activist practices unwrapped an agenda of tactics and strategies against the neoliberal exploitation of public space, the waning of the welfare state, and the control of information and mass media by powerful corporations. Reclaim The Streets took back public spaces, the Yes Men tried to de-legitimize the politics of WTO and the managerial discourse of big corporations, and Critical Art Ensemble interrogated late capitalist eugenics and biopolitics. In a similar fashion, Geert Lovink and David Garcia coined the term ‘tactical media’ in 1997 to address the new nomadic and tactical zeitgeist of networked cultural resistance.

A new political challenge. Today, critical art practices – including art activism – must deal with a new ideological spectrum studded with numerous hidden traps. Critical anti-capitalism is faced with a wave of vague and aleatory discourses that have taken hold as a result of dislocations and unpredictable rearticulations on both the Left and Right. Across Europe, metapolitical and postdemocratic forms of administration have facilitated the rise of the populist Right by failing to appeal to low and middle class strata. National Fronts, conservative populists, Right-wing parliamentary coalitions, ideologues from the late 1970s cultural Right (leftovers of the Nouvelle Droite) are gaining hegemony by successfully addressing the ‘passions’ of recently proletarianized and even lumpenized social strata. The ongoing economic crisis is spreading misery and propelling reactionary discontent. In this context, ‘immanent anticapitalism’ (à la Hardt & Negri) simply won’t succeed in opposing the dogmas of the neoliberal bloc or countering calls for a ‘return to ethnic (common) roots’. This kind of resistance is usurped by conservative discourses. Camouflaged neoliberals are hiding a traditionalist agenda while, frequently, leftists and antiauthoritarians deploy a pluralist, multi-communal discourse that leads to naturalized idealizations of the ‘commons.’


Faced with the complexity of today’s ideological reifications, the idea of a benevolent humanist struggle against neoliberalism has to be challenged. Perhaps we should question the very idea that critically ‘exposing’ neoliberalism is an effective strategy for activist initiatives. This observation is not intended to dismiss all artistic critique of capitalism as useless. Rather, it emphasizes the need for reinventions adequate to today’s blockages and impasses. In a sense, the case of Anders Behring Breivik, responsible for the mass shooting of (Social Democratic) Workers’ Youth League members in Norway, is a challenge for every activist. Breivik undeniably accomplished what psychoanalysis would describe as a passage à l'acte. It that sense, is he not the activist par excellence? His paranoid dream of himself as a medieval regent launching a new crusade against Muslims was an efficient stimulus for his murderous act. He gave form to his mythological world in his manifesto, ‘2083 -A European Declaration of Independence’ – a pastiche of islamophobia, anti-globalism and anti-marxism. My point here is not to question what, specifically, led Breivik to become a mass murderer. I want to suggest we appropriate an Adornian perspective, in order to ask a more challenging critical question: what is activism after Breivik?


From threnody to… If we focus on the recent phenomenon of Los indignados, the participatory social movement that responded to crisis and austerity programs in Spain and Greece by occupying central squares and urban spaces, we will encounter a pattern of artistic commitment that remains largely unreflective and immediatist. The Greek example of activists and artists joining forces with the indignados is a typical form of subjugation to a ‘common sense’ notion of political involvement and social uprising. Activists restricted themselves to propagating the discourse of the uprising: in this case, the propagated content was mostly apolitical antiparliamentarism targeting the ‘corrupted political order of elites’. This discourse in many cases came from mass media populists who in the past had supported political parties and regimes now undergoing massive delegitimization. The general assembly of the concentrated indignados decided the formation of working groups such as the direct-democracy team, the technical support team, the composure team (tasked to safeguard the calm pursuit of collective procedures), the artists’ team, and so on. Some students of the Athens School of Fine Arts along with other art practitioners produced banners and posters with sarcastic slogans. Organized music events entertained those who had the endurance to camp in the square for days. The model here is ‘activism in the service of the uprising’ – the banners and posters often ridiculed Greek politicians and expressed widespread social despair by propagating moralistic anti-corruptionism.

It is here that another type of intentionality could be applied and tested. In this framework of dislocated social tension, ‘overidentification’ (rather than distanced critique or uncritical commitment) can reflect on the dangers involved in any totalizing fantasy and in this way help us to interrogate the established modes of engagement. In a sense, overidentification is effective only to the extent that it introduces a radical ambivalence capable of problematizing the prevailing currents among excited social agents. As Stevphen Shukaitis put it:  ‘The applicability of overidentification is not founded upon its straightforward and unproblematic nature, but precisely because of its very ambivalence. Overidentification becomes a way not to provide a completely worked out solution or direction to the problems posed by the current political situation, but rather works to refuse the closure enacted by the existence of roles and positions through which dissent is accepted and desired even if it is ultimately powerless to affect any significant change.’


In 2009, the first serious indications of the Greek debt crisis led to the government loosing a hurricane of economic attacks and austerity measures. When the serious condition of Greek economy was revealed, the various syndicates and unions warned the Socialist Party (PASOK) government to avoid measures that would cause further turmoil and injustice. But the ΣΕΒ (Syndicate of Corporations and Industries) demanded more flexible labor agreements in the private sector in order to ‘protect workers’ jobs’. This was the moment when a different group, also calling itself ΣΕΒ, appeared and began to organize public rallies. But their acronym now stood for the ‘Syndicate of Sincere Industry Owners’. In the manner of the Yes Men’s ‘Billionaires for Bush’, the leaders of the new ΣΕΒ put their hats on and marched through the Athenian streets like all the other unions do. They marched in protest to the National Bank of Greece, to the National Parliament, and so on. It was a group of young people, mostly students. On a banner above their marching bloc they had written: ‘In order to save the country from bankruptcy and hunger, abolish salaries now.’ Using loud speakers, they launched slogans such as: ‘Tax the poor, there are more of them anyway.’ ‘Individual contracts for everyone, because each person is different.’ ‘Abolish wages, apply compulsory labor in our corporations.’ ‘Enough with populism, the memorandum was, is and will be a blessing to this country.’ ‘Are you unemployed? That’s your problem.’ ‘We welcome the government’s decision to eliminate taxes on our properties – we offer the jobs, are we also going to offer the wages?’ This prankish act was indeed a sarcastic response to reigning political cynicisms, but beyond its subversive humor it generated a metaphorical but affective and uncanny feeling that traditional forms of social struggles and demands have become outmoded or outsmarted by the rhetoric of the economic elite. Whoever encountered this group of demonstrators was prompted to reflect on the deficiency of the traditional rounds of sloganized rallies.
    

Overidentifying as enacting the repulsive. In this type of activity, subjects are also called on to reflect on their own modalities of engagement and establish a disenchanted relation to ongoing collective processes. What is worth noticing here is the shift from political externalism to the intersubjective articulation of the ‘political’. But a more meticulous and inspired form of overidentification was employed by the Metexnio cooperativa, a collective of artists working outside the Greek gallery system and presenting their work mostly online. The title of one of their video-productions is poetically melodramatic undermining its own seriousness: Τόπων μύστες (‘Mystics of places’). The title points to deep, sacred relation between the video’s protagonists and their rural places of origin or life settings. Their lives are presented and narrated by a sentimentalizing TV-style journalist who attempts to portray the protagonists as authentic representatives of a bygone society and to give their language all the inflections of folklore. Those three persons share some shocking life experiences on camera. They have all been living in a profane and inauthentic way until an incident (or accident) changed their lives by prompting them to rediscover the Orthodox Church and Mother Mary. Interviewed by the reporter, the characters (an ex-soccer player, a raver and a ship-owner) describe their rediscovery of orthodox faith. Members of the cooperativa impersonating the three characters are filmed while they actually participate in traditional orthodox customs in villages. One of them carries the epitaph across the streets of his village during the Orthodox Easter. Another one crawls on hands and knees along the pathways of the island of Tinos during a pilgrimage to the church of Mother Mary. 


And, finally, the offspring of a family of ship-owners dives into the cold waters of a harbor to catch the crucifix during the orthodox celebration of Theofaneia. The discourse of these three characters epitomizes the ideological currents that plastered Greek social life from the 1980s to the ‘modernizing’ 1990s, to the cynical era of the present crisis: Defensive traditionalism, opportunism, economic speculation, yuppyism combined with new age gnosticism and the reactionary return to ‘popular religion’, racism against minorities and immigrants, an ambivalent and defensive orientation towards the European Other. The film palpated all the sore spots of this crucial substratum. Instead of offering some ephemeral disclaimer, the artists overidentified with some of the most repulsive utterances of social discourse in order to de-familiarize the embedded ethos of a subject in a critical condition.   


Kostis Stafylakis, an art theorist and visual artist, is Postdoctoral Researcher at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.
  

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