08.02.2004

Rene — Journalisms — Interview with Brian Holmes — The Flexible Personality

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Rene — Journalisms — Interview with Brian Holmes — The Flexible Personality
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Opening Remarks: These questions and answers gathered over a period of a few days via email, we have not had a chance to edit the material, nor finish the interview, but thought it would be useful in relation to this evening’s discussion to send out as is. –RG
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The Flexible Personality Interview
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Rene Gabri (RG): The question I am asking myself at the moment is exactly related to the value of returning to a text like Adorno’s “Commitment”.
I think first and foremost is the question of return here, I suppose, it may well be a question similar to the one Derrida raises in “Specters of Marx” which is linked intrinsically to inheritance (as well as
pre-inheritance) and also to revolution.
In “Specters of Marx”, there are a number of important questions raised, which include the choices involved in inheriting a legacy such as Marxism.
Of inheritance, Derrida writes, “there is always more than one spirit.
Whenever one speaks of spirit, one immediately evokes spirits, specters, and whoever inherits chooses one spirit over another. Inheritance for Derrida is something active, it implies “decision, responsibility, response, and consequently, critical selection, choice.”
Clearly, in arguing for a new cultural critique, your “Flexible
Personality” text needs to address and redress the questions raised by some seminal figures including Adorno. What is your relation to this notion of return or inheritance in considering this particular text as well as others you have written?
Brian Holmes (BH): Well, it seems that Derrida’s very interiorized reflections on inheritance and choice are more important to you than to me, or maybe it’s just a matter of priorities. For me, politics and therefore commitment starts outside, with social movements, it starts in the street, as a collective creation. What is created is, in fact, the outside itself, an embodied critical gap with the prevailing norms. And often in these circumstances, the inheritance chooses you, it takes hold of you (Colectivo Situaciones, in Argentina, speaks of “la toma”). You find yourself thrust into a collective attempt to rework the tools of previous struggles, previous generations. And then you begin moving through this collective effort, according to your understandings and predilections, but also according to what works, to what builds
solidarity, opens up new possibilities, permits concrete victories and gains. For me, that meant relinking with a Marxist economic analysis of globalization first of all; then trying to integrate anarchist, autonomist and differentialist variations, which lead away from reliance on state bureaucracies and correspond more closely to the way people experience themselves and their social relations. But in our societies of cultural or semiotic capitalism, all that can become quite complex: because everything the social movements manage to create is very rapidly reworked according to many many other priorities, often by organizations with far superior capacities for information gathering, analysis, modelization and the production of effective simulacra (by which I mean signs and images which can channel people’s behavior). So in The Flexible Personality, I tried to look at the way that the collective creations of the 60s and 70s had been analyzed, and how that analytic process – carried on by governments, human resources departments, advertisers, educators – had gradually resulted in the creation of new normative models which responded to certain aspects of former critiques, and flattered people’s aspirations to a certain kind of freedom or disalienation. In other words, how did a more-or-less
calculated response to the 60s’ anti-disciplinary, anti-authoritarian revolts finally produce the control societies of the 1990s?
Now, you may feel impatient, think that we’re still on too trivial or inessential a level here, that we haven’t yet begun talking about Adorno. But some kind of Marxism is almost necessary when you are trying to challenge the basic structures of capitalist society. And the brilliant thing about that tradition is its historicity. Marx helps one understand that we do not exactly write the philosophy of our choosing, much less carry out the struggles of our personal choice, because all that is conditioned by the antagonisms of the time we live in. I tried to look at the Frankfurt School – a collective psycho-sociological and philosophical effort – in its relation to an historical period, running from the 30s to the late 60s. I think it was a very successful effort, shared of course by other, similar strains on the Left. Adorno specifically was involved in the construction of the “ideal-type” called the authoritarian personality, which revealed much about the relation between the social order and the individual psyche of the time; and I think that his refusal of the disciplinary order of party politics, and his insistence on fragmentation, on non-totality, were extremely powerful tools in the attempt to dissolve that particular psycho-social relation. But there are real limits; and the history within which we think affects philosophy all the way to its core. The Frankfurt School basically retained the Enlightenment figure of the autonomous individual as its negative ideal, its unattainable ethical touchstone. The position of reserve that Adorno in particular adopted is a dead end: it has been thoroughly integrated by the academy (cf. many texts by Jameson, for instance), just as the expressive attacks on conformity and standardization have been integrated by the advertising industry. In the end, the second integration – the new, highly individualized
advertising, or the new finance-driven cultural capitalism – seemed to me to present the much greater challenge, the much more relevant framework within/against which to think, and I just dropped a lot of debates which seemed and still seem to me very academic. I also came to formulate what I think is a strong critique of what had been a very promising collective effort to interpret and change the world from a Leftist position: the Birmingham School of cultural Studies, which I really think was swallowed up and even functionalized, made productive, by the new semiotic
capitalism. What I have retained from Adorno and the Frankfurt School is a fantastic ambition: that of characterizing a system of domination in its economic and social materiality, and in all its psychic, cultural and scientific prolongations or intrications. The gesture of characterizing such a system is itself negative, even scandalously or savagely negative. But the difference is the position from which such a characterization is made; about which more below.
RG: If we were to continue a bit further on this question of a return. It seems that you may have a particular idea about which sorts of returns may be seen as useful and which may result in ‘dead ends’. These ‘dead ends’ may either be a result of HOW questions are revisited, but also WHICH questions? WHOSE questions?
I know there is no formula in this matter, but it would be helpful to know how you do approach this question of what, who, and how one returns to historical precedents. One point of departure here could be the Autonomia movement of the 70’s in Italy, which I know you are interested in forging a link with.
BH: In the course of the 90s, and ever more forcefully since the
publication of Empire and the beginnings of the journal Multitudes in France, the second Autonomia – the one that arose out of the defeat of the 80s, and in confrontation with the entirely new socioeconomic and
political conditions of the 80s – has emerged as a truly useful tool for collective struggles, and also for self-understanding. It’s really brilliant work, basically arising from repeated attempts to grasp social transformations, including the transformations of oppositional agency, the new possibilities opened up in and by the struggles, the gains, the inventive processes of exodus from the dominant systems. In fact, it’s a collective and embodied reflection on the relation between philosophical choices and creative possibilities, constructive dynamics. It tries to avoid the dead end of dialectical confrontation – party against party, army against army, bureaucracy against bureaucracy – which 20th century history has shown to be so sterile, always reproducing variations on the same. But instead of posing what’s ultimately an elite position of retreat, people in that current get really curious about how you can put social relations together differently. I want to take a very concrete example. What has been the major tool of working-class agency in the 20th century? Unions of course. What’s the most reactionary formation on the Left right now? Well, the entrenched unions, the ones that are involved in pure co-management with the state – and which thereby serve to maintain the system of inclusion/exclusion on which contemporary capitalism now depends, with all its appetites for flexible and undocumented labor. So what has autonomist thinking, broadly considered, produced in the past 3 or 4 years? The notion of a casualized rebellion, a political cooperation among the flexible workers, linking undocumented immigrants, part-time or short-contract chain store employees, the unemployed, the urban fringe dwellers, and the so-called “cognitariat” or free-lance intellectual workers. Check out the website chainworkers.org to get an idea, look at the Mayday parades, the new forms of strikes, the new expressive politics which has thoroughly analyzed both the logic of flexible exploitation and the techniques of cultural cooptation. You might also read the stuff on the latest Republicart series. Here you have the material embodiment of a Deleuzo-Guattarian philosophy of difference, of productive difference I mean. The difference that goes on differing, producing a heterogeneous world and not just a proliferating set of signs. Of course, these
processes haven’t yet made it to epoch-changing strength, and no one knows if they will. But for me, it’s already a good deal more interesting than deconstruction, without perhaps being entirely foreign to some of the formal patterns that you could find in Derrida. So if I had to choose…
RG:
We recently read “Interventionism and the historical uncanny: Or; can there be revolutionary art without the revolution?” by Greg Sholette, which is in “The Interventionists” catalogue
(http://www.16beavergroup.org/sholette/) . In it, Greg returns to another revolutionary spirit in the cultural field and attempts to draw points of resonance and difference with a diverse range of artists and groups who have been invited to the Interventionist exhibition at MASS MoCA, including some who you have engaged or related to in your writings including the Yes Men, Critical Art Ensemble, and Yo Mango.
Rather than just ask you about your thoughts on the Constructivists as another important art historical inheritance, I was curious if you might outline some other socio-politico-cultural precedents that you find interesting in relation to the type of work, critique, or activity you are currently interested in seeing.
BH: Well, I certainly can’t respond to Greg’s essay ’cause I haven’t read it, or only in an initial form which isn’t present to mind right now. But you know, a lot of people think that ’68 was a kind of missed opportunity. A new type of struggle arose which combined aesthetic expression with politics, difference and individuation with solidarity. This struggle came much closer to the aspirations of wide ranges of people, and was much more able to reflect on important but neglected aspects of domination,
involving the historical forms of group identity, ecology, and therefore the possibilities of alternative values, processes, alternative paths of development. But all that flowering was cloaked in the old
Marxist-Leninist language, and in France, for instance, the most tangible thing it produced was simply the biggest pay hike that unionized workers had ever received. Never mind that the bosses insured that the numbers of such workers would continuously decline, as they’re still doing today – never mind that, because it’s not the point. The point is that the inventive dynamics of ’68 did not find a way to inscribe themselves in society as structural change, and so they gradually became co-opted as productivism or reformism, until you got the situation of the 90s, where a kind of selective integration brought people like Clinton and Blair and Jospin into power, along with the corresponding elites, and gave us the New Economy. Superficially it might seem that the artists’ groups you have mentioned are a kind of return of certain movements of expressive
liberation – especially when you place those people in the ambiance of tactical media and what became the counter-globalization movement. And superficially, you could also think that the whole thing will meet the same destiny, it will be unable to find an articulation that will permit it to inscribe structural change. But I think the whole Left is now groping for a new articulating principle, beyond the industrial
construction of the proletarian movement. We are looking at the pressing need to cooperate across the world space, which means taking immensely more cultural questions on board. And we’re doing that within an economy whose leading edge is at least partially culturalized – the finance-driven informational economy being inseparable from a sort of semiotic cloud of governance, advertising, traditionalist populism or fundamentalism, artistic invention and immaterial revolt. It’s no accident that the whole thrust of the current, regressive phase of world culture is to make any cross-cultural cooperation impossible. But it’s not necessarily going to work. I would say there may be a very interesting future in a kind of dialogically expressive constructivism, one that can address both the material and the cultural-spiritual conditions of life at the same time. But if you don’t mind, I’ll leave that idea suspended, for now, just for now.
RG:
Leaving the dialogically expressive constructivism you allude to aside at your request … you just pointed to the necessity of taking more cultural questions on board if there is to be cooperation “across the world space”; yet you also seem to indicate in your “FP” text that one of the failures of Cultural Studies, or at least the branch inherited from the Birmingham School, occurred when the emphasis they placed on reception was detached from the “dynamics of class” … thereby, giving legitimacy to a new transnational consumer ideology (via an alienation “made one’s own”) and resulting in an absorption by contemporary capitalism.
Outside of the general question of an always impending absorption, is there anything in particular to learn from the experience and fate of British Cultural Studies as it pertains to this detachment “from dynamics of class” as alluded to in “FP”?
BH: First of all, I think there would be an awful lot to be learned from an attempt to seriously study and make public the geographical specifics of the new global division of labor. It’s difficult, because one would have to take into account not only localities on the macro-scale
(countries, regions), but also flows of populations and patterns of resettlement, and all of this without reifying or reducing anything, with a full understanding of the existing divisions of labor and hierarchies of class in societies and localities all around the planet. Formidable task! But not taking it on means not being able to even begin to understand how contemporary capitalism works, and who works for it, when, where, how, under what conditions. Cultural studies pretty much gave up that kind of ambition, after the initial studies which drew on an inherited
understanding of English working class conditions. A lot of it was sucked into “studies” of individual or peer-group reception: How I felt when I went dancing last night! And that’s what I call the personal twist that is given to the globalized media product.
Now, after that you’ll think I’m an ultra-Marxist. I will try to dispel that impression with two considerations. The first is that exploitation can no longer (if ever) be measured by salaried labor alone.
Unfortunately, practically every aspect of life is exploited today, from the environment to cultural identity and intimate desire. The semiotic economy piled on top of the industrial and extractive economies gives immense opportunities in that respect (while the ultra-Marxists still have a hard time realizing that housework is part of the division of labor!). And the second consideration is that the reasons people resist and invent new possibilities of cooperation are about as varied as the people who do it. The hope in cultural studies was that all this variety would be expressed through the variations in reception, which would eventually become a kind of signifying system allowing people to articulate their resistance. I just don’t see that happening. It was also a way to say, “Look, we’re actually winning – look at how much diverse resistance is hidden under the veil of seemingly homogeneous consumption.” Now we have found out that what Guattari used to call micro-fascism can be amazingly diverse! But in the last five or ten years we’ve also found out that conditions can become so bad for so many people, not only working
conditions but also cultural and ecological conditions, that they will rise up and they will look for ways to articulate their struggles, they are doing that, we are doing that. So I do think it’s time to begin new inquiries into culture, but dialogical ones rather than “studies.” People may have some examples from the Birmingham tradition where this has been and is being done; fantastic, I’m for it, I have no totalizing opposition to that, I appreciate a lot of work from that tradition. What I pointed to in FP was the way it could be and was absorbed, through the elision of any class considerations. And it must be said, that’s a lot easier to do outside Britain than inside it, where questions of class are tenacious.
RG:
If we stay within the question of absorption a bit further, I sense that within our contemporary social movements and within a category of cultural production that remains closely aligned with those movements, there is a predilection toward the (tactically) useful. In fact, in many respects the development of tools, ideas around usefulness and utility have played an important part in enabling new strains of resistance and possibilities for critique.
Reading Adorno’s “Commitment” text, although written within a different context and addressing a different set of concerns, does make me consider for example this question of usefulness, since it would appear to be one of the more palpable tenets of Capitalism (even if indeed it is a
fallacy). If Global Capitalism is the ideology that pretends not to be an ideology, cloaking itself in a professed pragmatism and efficiency, how could the cultural critique that you imagine avoid falling into a
reification of what does amount to a very powerful ideology? How does the cultural critique you propose in “FP” also guard itself against these types of absorptions?
BH: That’s an interesting comment… I think it was one of the big issues in the 60s and 70s. After all, this is where the whole question of jouissance came from. Did you know that the French expression, “avoir la jouissance de quelque chose,” means enjoying the use of something? Having its use value? I was talking with an Italian friend last night and he described the hilariously satirical phrase chanted in demos by feminists in the seventies, in a kind of parody of union slogans: “col dito, col dito, orgasmo garantito!” (Col dito means “with the finger.”) The whole unquestioned value of higher wages just disappears, immediately, in the jouissance of laughter! But what is use? What is usefulness? Asger Jorn had a pretty clear insight into consumerism in the fifties, when he wrote this: “For a man traveling through the desert, water is good. For a man who is tortured by filling him with water, water is bad.” The thing about use value is it still leaves you with the question, what for? And since I’m throwing phrases around, how about this one from the management guru Peter Drucker: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” But don’t most of the businesses he has counseled fall into that category? Once I wrote a text called “Face Value.” It was all about the paradoxes of money as the universal measure of the good (its multiple and often “fictitious” values) and it posed the need to confront the questions of value, what’s worth doing, what isn’t, how that can be discussed in society. Philosophy, or religion, or art, always come back in this respect. The only way to live consciously is to face the problem of value as one of the prime human questions. But I think they need to be discussed, debated, and shared against the horizon of a shared world, but without falling back on the imposition of universals which turn out to be the new masks of domination.
To return to the previous question, understanding the global division of labor is useless if you can’t answer the questions of human destination. And there, we would also get back to the dialogic inquiries that I was talking about before. Cross-cultural inquiries into value and its
measures, which the global extension of conflict, after September 11, has made more necessary and urgent than ever.
RG:
You noted in our earlier exchange that what is missing in your “FP” text is the exact opposite, which is an inventive or positive or affirmative critique. And that what you had imagined for some time was a book with two covers on opposite sides, one with this text, and another with one of your inventive texts. What is interesting is that in “the Flexible Personality” you posit that today we seem to have “lost a taste for the negative.” And you wonder out loud where the “negative” may have gone. Through your engagement with British Cultural Studies, you also examine how their affirmative critique, in some respects, went wrong. I was hoping you might be able to speak more about the respective roles and functions of the negative as well as affirmative or imaginative in your call for a new cultural critique.
BH: The Autonomia thinkers, and the social movements that have taken up and multiplied some of those ideas (or maybe actually produced them in the first place) have been extremely strong on affirmation, which they also call “exodus.” It means: “Who cares about the old paradigm? We start doing the new thing, what we want, right now.” It’s obviously a good foot to put forward. To affirm sounds a little flat, but to create is clearly very interesting. What I’ve observed (and some people close to me agree) is that creation doesn’t seem to happen without resistance. Why is that? I think, basically like Marcuse way back when, that our societies are really good at absorbing the affirmative. The best of all possible worlds is an old theme in cultural critique. What’s different today is that the semiotic economy and the techniques of co-optation have made it incredibly easy to take any simply affirmative gesture, indeed, any simply “creative” action, and repackage it for the economic and political profit of a directive force. So the negative becomes very appealing. In the Flexible Personality I wanted to be savagely negative. I didn’t want to be co-opted in five minutes. I think the negative is vitally important for social movements. You have to constitute the enemy, because in front of you they’re always saying “We’re your friends (this bazooka is only here for your safety).” But at the same time, the whole thing that we have learned from the movements of the 60s and 70s is that a specular face-off with the enemy will only lead to the reinstatement of the same, even if you supposedly win. So you also have to dissolve the enemy: exodus. It’s a paradox, but I believe it’s a real one. What’s more, I think there’s still quite a great need to talk and write about that particular paradox, because in the first flush of realization that the specular confrontation is a dead end, and that exodus exists, that jouissance exists, people tend to think that’s it, we’ve discovered the solution and in fact people are already practicing it all over. OK, great, so much the better. But I have an increasingly hard time believing that we’re living in the best of all possible worlds.
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