January 14, 2010

Selected Responses to 'For Art and the World'


There were a number of responses to my text For Art And The World:


I thought I would share just a few of them here.

Liv Sommerfelt wrote:

I will share this. This is a subject thar keeps nagging me. What is the sense in the fact that the time of a norwegian worker is so much more valuable than that of a congolese. First-worlders use this to exploit resources that should be shared. We abuse the globe because we can pay for it.
Yes, this is a subject for art.

Rosemary Heather wrote:

robert kennedy saw 'enjoy poverty' at TIFF and told me: "holy shit!" wish i could see it. maybe it will show up here again. it also reminded me about something elke said when she came back from burkina fasso (which is basically the world's most impoverished country). she thought the NGOs where just there to provide "jobs for Germans."

David Jhave Johnston wrote:

enjoyed yr polemic

resonated of course with "a simple truth:
that the first world achieves its wealth and comfort by ripping it violently off the backs of people in the
third world. And that our compassion for the malnourished in far away lands serves to mask the fact that
we are the ones economically benefi ting from their misery, which is in fact just a disguised form of slavery"

the first half of your statement is a truth i've often pondered
& i think most folks at some time (briefly, fleetingly) recognize it's validity
but it's like staring at the sun
hummans are not physiologically capable of calibrating each mouthful as a morsel of another's pain
(metabolic 'limits of empathy' meets the prevalence of carnivore activists)
while the second half of yr statement is challengable: compassion does not necessarily in and of itself 'mask the fact'
compassion may even occasionally, in rare instances of authentic altruism, be motivated by it

and since polemics are designed to provoke
yr final sentence works well: "Ignoring it should not be an option."
it provoked me to disagree: ignoring it (the complicit misery) is more than an option, it's an inevitable fact,
consciousness is disparate, diffused, multi-faceted, easily distracted and resolutely malleable
i for one find myself thinking about a lot of other stuff
i don't ignore it, i'm just incapable of always thinking about it

and compounding issue
i think distribution of wealth conforms to mathematical models of dynamic systems
it may have less to do with a failure of human empathy and political malevolence
than it is simply a structural feature of this bizarre existential field we inhabit

To which I responded:

Yes, it's true that at times compassion can lead to authentic acts altruism. However, I feel that when I see a photo of starving Africans, the compassion I feel has somehow become unlinked, disengaged, with the concrete reality of the situation. What I feel is: poor Africans, I want to help them. However, a more concrete response would be: capitalism is an untenably savage system, how can we think about starting to change it. This sympathy I feel serves to distract me from my role in the system that creates such injustices. It gives me a sense of emotional altruism which is in fact very much unearned.

However, maybe this way of putting things is overly influenced by the book I just finished reading; Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. Fisher uses the term Capitalist Realism to refer to the idea that capitalism is the only possible system and that there is no way to change it. When I see images of third world suffering I think capitalism - which I am complicit with on the level of my life and of my desire - must change, but of course have no idea how to open up this possibility even for myself.

Maybe I should have written 'completely ignoring it is not an option.' Of course if I think about these questions all the time I will drive myself insane. But at the same time I feel there must be ways to think about them.

All right, tomorrow I fly to Geneva (damaging the environment in the process, etc.) In one way, I feel all of this is just empty talk. But in this empty talk there is also a sincere desire to re-open questions which, in my daily life, seem far to closed and impermeable.


January 12, 2010

Anger can only be a matter of venting, directed at someone who is a fellow victim of the system but with whom there is no possibility of communality.


The closest that most of us come to direct experience of the centrelessness of capitalism is an encounter with the call centre. As a consumer in late capitalism, you increasingly exist in two, distinct realities: the one in which the services are provided without hitch, and another reality entirely, the crazed Kafkaesque labyrinth of call centres, a world without memory, where cause and effect connect together in mysterious, unfathomable ways, where it is a miracle that anything ever happens, and you lose hope of ever passing back over to the other side, where things seem to function smoothly. What exemplifies the failure of the neoliberal world to live up to its own PR better than the call centre? Even so, the universality of bad experiences with call centres does nothing to unsettle the operating assumption that capitalism is inherently efficient, as if the problems with call centres weren’t the systematic consequences of a logic of Capital which means organizations are so fixated on making profits that they can’t actually sell you anything.

The call centre experience distils the political phenomenology of late capitalism: the boredom and frustration punctuated by cheerily piped PR, the repeating of the same dreary details many times to different poorly trained and badly informed operatives, the building rage that must remain impotent because it can have no legitimate object, since – as is very quickly clear to the caller – there is no-one who knows, and no-one who could do anything even if they could. Anger can only be a matter of venting; it is aggression in a vacuum, directed at someone who is a fellow victim of the system but with whom there is no possibility of communality. Just as the anger has no proper object, it will have no effect. In this experience of a system that is unresponsive, impersonal, centreless, abstract and fragmentary, you are as close as you can be to confronting the artificial stupidity of Capital in itself.

- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism


January 11, 2010

Mark Fisher quote


The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness as an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.

- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism


January 10, 2010

Mark Fisher on the fight against Capitalist Realism


At one level, to be sure, it might look as if Green issues are very far from being ‘unrepresentable voids’ for capitalist culture. Climate change and the threat of resource-depletion are not being repressed so much as incorporated into advertising and marketing. What this treatment of environmental catastrophe illustrates is the fantasy structure on which capitalist realism depends: a presupposition that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market. […] Yet environmental catastrophe features in late capitalist culture only as a kind of simulacra, its real implications for capitalism too traumatic to be assimilated into the system. The significance of Green critiques is that they suggest that, far from being they only viable political-economic system, capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment. The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market,’ its ‘growth fetish’, means that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.

But Green issues are already a contested zone, already a site where politicization is being fought for. In what follows, I want to stress two other aporias in capitalist realism, which are not yet politicized to anything like the same degree. The first is mental health. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect.) In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS. In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many young people are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

The other phenomenon I want to highlight is bureaucracy. In making their case against socialism, neoliberal ideologues often excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional sclerosis and inefficiency in command economies. With the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life. Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy had changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.

- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism


January 9, 2010

What needs to be kept in mind is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our co-operation.


To reclaim real political agency means first of all accepting our insertion at the level of desire in the remorseless meat-grinder of Capital. What is being disavowed in the abjection of evil and ignorance onto the fantasmatic Others is our own complicity in planetary networks of oppression. What needs to be kept in mind is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our co-operation. The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us. There is a sense in which it simply is the case that the political elite are our servants; the miserable service they provide from us is to launder our libidos, to obligingly re-present for us our disavowed desires as if they had nothing to do with us.

- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism


January 3, 2010

For Art and the World


Download my text 'For Art and the World' here. It's part of the Valeveil polemics project:


(You can also find the other polemics here: http://www.valeveil.se/project/polemics)


January 1, 2010

Glad The CIA Is Immoral


[This text was originally published in C Magazine #99.]

Lene Berg’s artist book arrives in the mail in a zip lock bag. On the front of the bag is a large green sticker with a text in white letters. The heading reads INSTRUCTION MANUAL and it begins as follows:

Gentlemen & Arseholes consists of the first issue of the cultural journal Encounter from 1953, along with a series of supplementary materials that are inserted between the original pages. The inserts were collected over a long period, from books, newspapers, private albums, conversations, and so on, and thus vary in their character and form. What they all have in common is that they describe aspects of that which, for various reasons, was never mentioned in Encounter, nor in connection with any of the other undertakings of the sponsor and publisher, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (1950-1967).

The ‘aspects’ in question, which were never mentioned in any issue of Encounter but are documented extensively in it’s re-printing as Gentlemen & Arseholes (2006), concern the fact that the Congress for Cultural Freedom – which also organized international conferences, artist residencies and publications in other languages – was secretly funded by the CIA with the objective of turning the European intelligentsia away from Communism and Socialism and of ameliorating the image of the United States. For a long time these aspects have no longer been secret, and in fact now anyone can read about them on the CIA website.

The re-printed first issue of Encounter features beautiful literary texts and essays from Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Christopher Isherwood, the Japanese writer Dazai Osama and many others, all of whom apparently knew nothing about the CIA agenda of the publication (though as the years rolled on there would certainly be rumors.) Neither did editors such as Stephen Spender or ‘Honorary Chairmen’ such as Karl Jaspers and Bertrand Russell.

But one man definitely did know. In a sense Gentlemen & Arseholes is the story of Michael Josselson, founder and head of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Many of the inserts in Gentlemen & Arseholes tell the story of Josselson and the charm and persuasiveness with which he led his double life as both the head of a prestigious cultural foundation and a CIA agent. In Lene Berg’s accompanying video The Man In The Background (2006) his widow Diana Josselson is interviewed at length about their life together:

It was life pervasive. […] You couldn’t talk freely to anybody that was not a co-CIA person. And as I said: it comes at every turn. This was easy, because Michael was a charmer and he did it naturally. I followed as well as I could.

Later she goes on to defend him quite bluntly (and yet I also found this moment strangely touching):

It wasn’t a question of what these people in the books say, that he was a stooger for the CIA. He was an independent thinker and actor, and part of his problem was to keep the boss happy, and mostly he did that.

Berg focuses on Michael Josselson not only because he was in charge but also, more importantly, because when in May 1967 Thomas W. Braden (in fact one of the very bosses mentioned above) published the article I’m glad the CIA is ‘immoral’ in The Saturday Evening Post, an article which confirmed the link between the CIA and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Josselson almost exclusively took the fall. All of the other writers and thinkers associated with Encounter emerged from the scandal relatively unscathed, claiming they didn’t know a thing, continuing their prestigious careers in the arts and academy. But Josselson’s life was completely ruined. Braden’s article was apparently the CIA’s way to get rid of an organization that had become a burden. By 1967 speculations about the CIA link had grown pervasive, focusing on the fact that there had been no mention of Vietnam in any issue of Encounter. (What better way to ‘ameliorate the image of the United States’ than to act as if the Vietnam war simply didn’t exist.)

Thomas W. Braden – who was head of CIA’s international Organizations Division (IOD) from 1950-1954 – makes other appearances in the inserts of Gentlemen & Arseholes, including this quote from the Granada television program World in Action: The Rise and Fall of the CIA (1975):

It [CIA] never had to account for the money it spent except to the President… the funds were not only unaccountable, they were unvouchered, so there was really no means of checking them – ‘unvouchered funds’ meaning expenditures that don’t have to be accounted for… […] Since it was unaccountable, it could hire as many people as it wanted. It never had to say to any committee – no committee said to it – ‘You can only have so many men.’ It could do exactly as it pleased. It made preparations therefore for every contingency. It could hire armies; it could buy banks. There was simply no limit to the money it could spend and no limit to the people it could hire and no limit to the activities it could decide were necessary to conduct the war – the secret war… It was a multinational. Maybe it was one of the first.

This notion of the CIA as the first multinational strikes me as extremely resonant. For many years now I have often found myself thinking that the world we live in is so utterly influenced by CIA thinking, strategies and money. The more I learn about the extent of CIA activities since the end of World War Two the more I feel that other, more subtle, explanations for our current predicament – the startling rise of the right and concurrent decline of the left, the war on terrorism, the unfettered expansion of capital, etc. – are relatively unnecessary. The CIA of course cannot be held responsible for all of the world’s ills, but they worked really hard and did a lot. Definitely more than most people realize. And yet at the same time I am extremely careful who I say such things around. To be branded a ‘conspiracy theorist’ is a further marginalization I don’t exactly feel like I need in my already marginalized cultural existence. (Ironically, who else but the CIA could dream up a strategy as simple and effective as branding someone a conspiracy theorist.) So it is likely that before I had even opened the zip lock bag, Lene Berg had already found a true fan. But this work then went on to earn my love, speaking to my interests with an eloquence, perceptiveness and conceptual rigor that for me are the very essence of art.

There is no evidence that the CIA ever censored Encounter, or in any way told the editors or writers what they should write, think, or say. Judging by all available facts, the whole thing was based on a tacit agreement between what the people associated with Encounter wanted to do, and what the CIA wanted to fund.

Because Gentlemen & Arseholes is not only about the possibly CIA-influenced world in which we currently live. It is also, like all of Lene Berg’s work, about a more basic relationship between art and politics. The secret nature of the CIA funding makes it a particularly insidious example, but we can certainly find parallels for this ambiguous dynamic in all historical periods in which artists have received support, whether it be from the church, the king, the bourgeoisie, the state or the market. Artists always need money and, fiercely dedicated to artistic concerns, it might even seem natural not to question too much where the money comes from or why. Why not simply be grateful that it is possible to continue producing artistic works in (what are always for artists) difficult times?

It seems clear to me that Josselson believed he was doing the right thing and genuinely believed that he was taking government money and putting it towards a good cause. Of course he also believed in the fight against communism. Much like the fight against terrorism today, such battles are an excellent pretext for the re-distribution of priorities and the re-distribution of wealth. Give the money to artists and writers who are not communist, raise their profiles, build their careers and reputations. The writers and artists who are communist will take the hit indirectly, falling ever so slightly behind, with only unfounded suspicions as to the real reasons why. In The Man in the Background Berg questions the long-term effects of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, wondering if perhaps it is one of the reasons that today 90% of all cultural products in Europe are produced in America. Of course there is no way we can find out what the world would be like if Michael Josselson and the Congress for Cultural Freedom had never existed. But there is plenty of room to speculate.

There is much art today that gives lip service to being ‘political’ but it is rare for an artwork to ask difficult, compelling, real-world political questions in a manner that at the same time resonates so effortlessly with the dilemmas of artistic praxis. Such battles are political but they are also, on so many levels, deeply romantic: concerning the real questions of what we believe in, how much we believe in it, and whether or not we are willing to fight. It is rare I get to write about art that makes me think and feel as much as the work of Lene Berg. And therefore I would like to end with something that, like all romantic battles, goes a bit too far: far enough to take on the violence of the very rigged historical battle between the CIA and the left, to match Michael Josselson’s perhaps inevitable, yet somehow still tragic, fall from grace. But all I have come up with is this (and I write it here because it is true): Lene Berg is the artist I have been waiting for all of my life.