2.7 / Production and Value

The Circuit and the Singularity

By Matthew David Rana December 14, 2010

Image: Paul W.S. Anderson, Director. Event Horizon, 1997 (still). Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

“On the Conditions of Production” was a two-day workshop hosted by the International Artist Studio Program in Sweden (IASPIS) on November 27 and 28 in Stockholm. This open-call event was organized by Ontheconditionsofproduction, a research group composed of artists, critics, and curators Lisa Rosedahl, Fredrik Svensk, Mattin, Michele Masucci, Kaja Dahlberg, and Kim Einarson. The group’s research addresses concerns surrounding the current state of production and its artistic, economical, ideological, historical, material, and psychological effects. The group’s intention for the event was to open up its process to new input, voices, concerns, and avenues of research and thinking. The first day was reserved for a close reading of an interview between philosopher Alexei Penzin of the Russian platform Chto Delat?/What is to be Done? and Paolo Virno, the Italian political theorist associated with the Autonomia movement. The second day was devoted to twelve-minute presentations by workshop participants, followed by short discussion sessions. The guiding questions for the workshop were as follows:

1)  What are the conditions we live under?

2)  What does production mean today?

3)  How could we move towards real emancipatory conditions: What do we want? What would it require? What are we already doing? What is not enough? What should we stop doing?

Having organized a one-night exhibition and public reading of “Art Work: A National Conversation on Art, Labor and Economics,” the newspaper produced by the Chicago-based collective Temporary Services, last year in Oakland, I was eager to hear how similar concerns translated to a Scandinavian context. Swedish visual arts culture in particular is formed by an entirely different climate that involves state support for the arts, and the country has cultivated a general ethos wherein the arts are understood as necessary to the functioning of a progressive society. In the United States, Sweden is often invoked more broadly due to its Janus-face as an exemplary socialist state; on the one hand, it exists as the specter of the welfare-state that the right doesn’t want “us” to become, and on the other, it is fetishized as the last vestige of the socialist-democratic dream that the left apparently yearns for. In fact, it was this latter face that was invoked during the event in Oakland: Sweden happily provides a wealth of funding to its artists, whereas in the United States, this is mostly left up to the market (arbitrarily) and the private sector (begrudgingly).

It was particularly illuminating that the assembled artists and thinkers at the IASPIS workshop—many of whom were from Nordic countries but also included participants from the United States, Italy, and Russia—had concerns that were strikingly similar to those of the artists that participated in last year’s Art Work Reading Room. Although there was some lamentation that there is not enough money going around and some calls for the redistribution of the money that already circulates, the discussion primarily focused on practical issues facing artists and cultural producers today. This included lengthy discussions on the various processes by which value is generated in the arts, the role of criticism in developing a public, how to creatively negotiate the various reporting requirements of granting organizations, and the continued underrepresentation of women in the art world. This set of shared concerns not only indicates that the normalizing effects of late capitalism have reached full maturity in Sweden—in effect de-sanctifying the country in this American’s imagination—but it also serves as further evidence of the precarious situation of art-workers worldwide when faced with a market that is largely indifferent to issues of State and locality, except insofar as they produce regional variations on easily consumed styles. Simply put, the question is one of survival. One participant both summarized the challenge succinctly and illuminated the gap within the workshop itself between established players and individuals operating at the periphery of the Swedish art scene by asking, “How can you have a practice when you’re demoralized by your day-job as a dishwasher?”

Further echoing the Oakland event was the dominant notion that art workers have nothing left to lose by organizing and making concrete demands for reform within cultural institutions. However, infusing calls for general solidarity with all workers and exploited people throughout the world was a sharp nostalgia for reinvigorated historical models of resistance and ideological coherence. This actually blocked the opportunity to address issues outside of the already established and well-understood binaries of production and consumption, and by extension, socialism and capitalism. This somewhat melancholic historicism was especially apparent in a discussion on the ideological risks of using cooperative business models and counter-institutions to generate increased security for artists. Evidently, the assumption is that truly radical artists align themselves with socialism, while all the rest have sold out. This position is perhaps unsurprising given the fact that the political climate in Sweden is trending toward the right, with the arts now more than ever at risk of losing funding. Yet, one wonders what assumptions such as these might mean when coming from individuals who are already established within the art world.

At various points, however, the discussion did attempt to dislodge itself from well-worn binaries. A presentation by Namik Mackic, a member of the Norwegian research group SUBMISSIONS, which offered notions of the post-human as a potential approach to the soft-precarity of art workers who self-marginalize in the name of increased freedom, was one example. Despite these attempts to develop new ways of addressing the problem, or perhaps more accurately, as a result of them, the workshop concluded with a slight re-articulation of the guiding questions: Who are we and what do we want? As the discussion attested beforehand, the answers to these questions are confoundingly elusive; the diversity of artists and the complexity of the situation resist even the most tentative answer. In short, there is no single determinate pathway to the emancipation we seek.

I presented the following short text, The Circuit and the Singularity, during the second day of the workshop in Stockholm. I wrote it in response to the interview between philosopher Alexei Penzin and Paolo Virno that circulated in advance of the symposium, and took as my point of departure the following statement by Penzin:

In the contemporary “creative industry,” collective work often takes the paradigmatic form of “brainstorming.” It consists of the discussion and production of both ideas and solutions, even if a considerable part of them are rejected after critical examination, though this work sometimes opens the door for unexpected innovations. In the conditions of Fordism, massive collectivities—organized through a strict disciplinary division of labor—produced the well-known effect of the multiplication of separate productive forces of workers (“the whole is more than the sum of its parts”). Maybe it would be possible to make a (disputable) assumption: under the conditions of post-Fordism, collective work can be organized through “subtraction” when the result of the work is inferior to the sum of the collective effort. This becomes a sort of

exception, an unexpected innovation (“the whole is less than the sum of the parts”). On the other hand, if not considered in terms of products, such collective work produces a feeling of strong subjectivity and strength, valorizing each member of the collective.1

My text takes up Penzin’s aforementioned “disputable assumption” by way of a twofold meditation: considering notions of surplus put forth by Georges Bataille in conjunction with a dystopian “accelerationist” perspective with respect to the commoditization of language and artistic practice as a form of knowledge production.

The first of these notions suggests that economy ought not be understood through the needs or demands that it satisfies, but rather according to the surplus that it generates. For Bataille, the surpluses that are generated in any economic system must be sacrificed, whether literally or symbolically. On the one hand, the means by which a society expends its surplus, whether through nonproductive activity (eroticism) or destruction (death), can be considered as its defining characteristic. On the other hand, the expenditure of surplus at the level of the individual can be understood as an exercise of sovereignty.

The second notion of accelerationism follows from Deleuze and Guattari’s opposition to a strict Marxist paradigm of resistance, which consists of redeeming our authentic “species being” from the sophisticated forms of alienation and ideology that capitalism has produced in us. Instead, they suggest that we don’t withdraw from these processes or attempt to redeem them, but rather push them further, to accelerate the schizophrenic experiences that capitalism produces. 

In these ways, this text proposes that opening a space for non-discursive practices might provide an alternative organizing principle for collective activity. That is to say, if, as Virno suggests later on in the interview with Penzin, “language is the institution’s mother tongue,” then practices that are oriented away from language and discourse—or at least attempt to realize a possible space outside of it—may offer an alternative pathway for collective activity to respond to a post-Fordist context. Echoing notions of the post-human, this text was also very closely linked to two films that I recently watched: Event Horizon and Hellraiser, in which human beings transgress the “natural” limits of knowledge, culminating in a transition from subject to object, and vice versa (both the horror and the pleasure of these films, deriving from humanity’s struggle to save itself from what it has become). Finally, a word about the essay’s tone: it was an attempt to perform aspects of the “poetics” to which it refers, although it has been revised here for clarity. More than this however, it was intended as a kind of provocation, a polemic against notions of artistic practice or collective work as a redemptive project.

Image: Paul W.S. Anderson, Director. Event Horizon, 1997 (still). Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The Circuit and the Singularity

What I have to suggest today is mostly speculative, but at the same time, hopefully generative. As a constellation of thoughts, this essay arrives as points of connection, the fragments of the outline forming a proposition and a possible pathway. But to get there first, let’s take a slight detour and re-articulate the issues at hand by way of two simple metaphors: a circuit and a singularity.

We are told that our various inclinations as embodied social beings and terrestrial creatures have been subsumed by capital; on the backs of the biopolitically dominated, the figure of the knowledge producer in a state of reduction. If they’re lucky, today’s flexible worker—the artist-administrator-writer-critic-curator—gets caught up in the aggressive production cycle of the project: wherein the value of the work is measured according to the number of projects that it generates, according to the width and breadth of one’s networks.

Yet if knowledge is the project and product, then language is its vehicle. And no one is poorer than one who sees their capacity for language appropriated as surplus value. Within a discursive infinity, we can glimpse the terminal stage of the commodity—an all-purpose medium, a normalizing expression, produced and reproduced in endless supply. The final form of capture. We refuse this theft and reject our impoverished state: as language is found dying, it must be revivified, reanimated, redeemed and retrieved from within the densely packed cluster of signs. Thusly will the richness of human life be restored.

A short-circuit is to act as an interruption, a hatch through which excess energy can escape. An excess of production, an aggregation of knowledge and words, an expanding archive of unrealized proposals and projects, can therefore be envisioned as a short circuit. It is thought to escape the arbitrary traps of value. Collective activity is thought to constitute a situation in which the result of the work is inferior to the sum of the effort; the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The dazzling conflagration of cognitive surplus will deliver us, the astonishing power of loss, freed by the sum of parts.

Perhaps this spark is no kind of escape at all, but rather an “escapement,” a half-hearted resignation, a particular form of catch and release that synchronizes the movement of the machine. This is a way to keep the hands moving, so to speak, in accordance with the emergence of the ghostly surplus, at once intangible yet somehow available; the continued haunting of our accursed share, imminently recuperable and ambivalent in effect. After all, the development of the entire world demands that in an economy such as ours we lucidly grasp the necessity of having a margin of profitless operations.

To simply lay the corpus of excess knowledge upon the altar of economy—to envision it as a short circuit—corrupts basic principles of reversal and negation; the accumulation of the surplus blocking the circuitry of the exchange. Instead, let us offer a sacrifice of language, internally split and destroyed doubly so as to resolve the symbolic short-circuit: a zone where words have no content—neither use nor exchange value, where gratuitous multiplication leads, not to restricted use, but to symbolic destruction.

As the aggregation grows in mass, its density increases in proportion and its gravity creates a distortion. Drawn toward a point of infinite density, we arrive at an unstable curvature around which a threshold emerges. Here is where we reach our probable pathway: faced with the event horizon of the commodity, we appear suspended as we cross the boundary, shifting across the spectrum from blue to red. In reality however, there is no illumination, only interiority. Already inside the point of infinite excess, there is no escape velocity; there is no energy so great for us to leave its orbit. In short, there is no redemption, only aimless excess, gratuitous speech, and annihilation—the crushing weight of space and time collapsed, of matter and energy without identity, specific coherence, and form. What might lie beyond the destruction, itself conceived as a portal and dimensional gateway? The terror of non-knowledge: of object as subject, and subject as object, their respective properties exchanged. Immolated by a horrifying poetics, knowledge is sacrificed on the altar of economy. The symbolic circuit is closed. Standing at the gate? A demon to some, an angel to others, a word waiting to be destroyed.





1. The text was initially published earlier this year for the Manifesta 8 Journal.

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