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Shortly after a federal election was announced in March 2011 the Conservative Party of Canada put out a mean-spirited advertisement that stated that opposition parties were soft on immigration policy, a fact that ignores the immense wealth and potential that this North American territory holds for millions of emigrants and refugees that would like to make their home in Canada. The ad depicted the MV Sun Sea, a ship that brought 491 Tamil refugees to the shores of British Columbia in August 2010, and accused the refugees of criminally abusing the generosity of Canadians. Almost as if to make up for a bad start, Stephen Harper arranged for him and his spouse to meet with Maria Aragon, a ten-year old Filipino-Canadian whose cover of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" became something of a sensation on YouTube. In early April, a YouTube video was posted of Harper accompanying Aragon on the piano and singing with her John Lennon's "Imagine." According to Stefan Christoff, the lyrics of John Lennon's popular song are the exact opposite of Harper's "nationalist, war-driven foreign policy". Given that the Harper government's single solution to everything is to privatize, including culture, this follow-up to his 2009 performance of "With a Little Help From My Friends" merely indicates that his plan for culture has not changed since the last election. Culture, like everything else, is first of all an individual and private matter, which can then be harnessed through entrepreneurial zeal and transformed into a means to generate surplus capital. As Harper's government is economically despotic, militarily aggressive, politically oligarchic and ecologically maniacal, the content and social value of a song like "Imagine," which gives it more than just a certain popularity, has apparently no bearing on its manipulative appropriation. One might think so if Yoko Ono, the widow of John Lennon and trustee of Lenono Music had not requested that YouTube remove the video for copyright reasons. The fact that Lenono Music has not requested that thousands of other covers be removed, including one rendered by Bill Clinton, is a clear indication of a thumbs down for Harper's anti-democratic free market politics.
Although a great deal is made in contemporary critical art circles of the inherent restrictions of copyright, here is a case in which it is used not only to protect the economic interests of the producer, but also that of the common good. While one might very well wish to articulate an anti-capitalist politics and criticize accumulation regimes, there is very little hope on the horizon that one can indeed imagine a world without some kind of exchange relations. Imagining an end to war and the beginning of infrastructural investments in alternative sources of energy, even if these too are conditioned by what we understand by politics, is far more within our reach. And so here we have a case in which the contradictions of copyright within accumulation regimes can be seen to yield a social surplus in which not everything gets reduced to exchange. Leaving aside for the moment the problem of the communist transition, I want to consider this action by Yoko Ono as an instant in which the distinction between a tactic and a strategy momentarily breaks down. I wish to do so as part of a consideration of the potential uses of an avant garde politicization of culture in the context of an era in which the end of the avant garde is widely proclaimed but for different purposes.
A Discerning Sense of the Strategic
In his recent text on the "dark matter" of the art world – the makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist and self-organized practitioners who form the imperceptible 96% of the official art world – Gregory Sholette argues that today's activists emphasize flexible tactics that contrast with the committed radicalism of yesterday's avant gardes. Tactical media practices are "patently anti-ideological and decentralized," in direct opposition to earlier generations. Despite these assertions Sholette maintains that today's post-Marxist tactitians reiterate the view that labour processes generate their own forms of resistance. The redundant surplus population that is produced by neoliberal post-Fordism, he argues, increasingly asserts itself in the form of collectivism. We can contrast Sholette's more traditional view of artists as proletariat, however, with the more emphatically autonomist pronouncements of Stevphen Shukaitis. In "The Wisdom to Make Worlds: Strategic Reality & The Art of the Undercommons," Shukaitis addresses the practices of the autonomous, tactical media set from the point of view of strategy. As with the artists mentioned by Sholette, Shukaitis also narrativizes his difference from avant garde predecessors.
From the outset Shukaitis argues that strategy could easily be associated with a "moribund Leninism" that risks falling into "an older style of hierarchical politics." He reiterates the familiar schizo-anarchist distinction between constitutive power (living labour) and constituted power (labour alienated into a rigid hierarchical political form) by outlining a simple structural distinction between, on the one hand, forms of association that are static, old, stuffy and hierarchical, and, on the other, forms that are new, mobile, fresh and horizontal. The former are guilty by association with the Leninist past and communist party organizations, and the latter are simply innocent. Shukaitis, however, is not altogether satisfied with this from the point of view of a tactical autonomy that has no adequate theory of strategy. The crux of his solution derives from the tradition of avant garde contestation, which operates through the publication of manifestos and public declarations. Such interventions into politics are dedicated he says to the reshaping of art and life, art and knowledge on a mass scale. In doing so, he argues, "the avant garde has tended to give away too much, to let its hand be shown too early." The reason why this might be a problem derives directly from the theories of autonomous Marxism:
"If the tradition of autonomous politics and analysis shows us that it is working class insubordination and resistance to capital that is the driving factor shaping economic and social developments, then an autonomist understanding of the history of the avant-garde would show us something else. What an autonomist conceptualization of these histories would uncover, rather than a disconnected series of movements and formal relations, is how the avant-garde opens up new possibilities for reshaping social relations that is then seized upon by mechanisms of control and capital accumulation."
Based on the workerist idea that resistance is primary, we are made to envision the proletariat as its own gravedigger. The powers of domination allow people to resits only insofar as this speech is conditioned by dispossession. The condemned are allowed to have their say only before the gallows have been assembled and their lynchings assured. The structure of unfreedom is therefore the foundation of free speech. The notion that resistance is primary allows Shukaitis to reintroduce into tactical theorizing the terrain of strategy, which is evacuated from the spatial realm and reintroduced in that of the temporal. I will return to this problem below. Meanwhile, however, what is the avant garde to do? Shukaitis gives as a possible solution Guy Debord's gypsy motto that "within the enemy's language, the lie must reign." The lie takes the form of infrapolitical communication and subterfuge. Such strategically derived tactics are hardly those that one would associate with the actual successes of various revolutionary politics, unless one considers the actual historical and contemporary practices of vanguard cadres. Even where vanguard movements are in the minority, they are not considered powerless, and so their tactics cannot be said to be marked by an absence of power. The problem with such politics, according to Shukaitis, is that they cannot be strategies of resistance, but only of domination. The solution to this problem is precisely the formulation of strategy in terms of temporality rather than spatiality: "if resistance comes first and is a prior and determining factor of social development – then it operates on a strategic field."
As we have seen in the Harper case, the music of John Lennon was co-opted and exploited. This perhaps is what Konrad Becker (whose writings are the subject of Shukaitis' essay) referred to as a "mirroring of the symbolic language of opposition movements." Had Lennon delivered gypsy lies rather than a series of platitudes wrapped up in a lovely melody, the subterfuge of his music might have done more to reveal the absurdity of the spectacle. Rather than over-identify with the conditions of the spectacle, he and Yoko might have dis-identified and avoided public declarations such as "War Is Over – If You Want It." Such contextual "adaptations" to the situation, however, do exist and they are certainly part and parcel of avant-garde defamiliarization strategies and shock tactics. It's fairly obvious that Harper would not have attempted to sing the Plastic Ono Band's "Why"? And why not? Because the semiotics of such a song are obviously closer to the attitudes of the leftist radicals that he wishes to exclude from the sphere of legitimate culture and state funding, to say nothing of the political space in general. But this isn't the whole story. An equally simple tune like "Give Peace a Chance" would not have worked. Harper's petty bourgeois idea of culture does not make enough room for the kinds of contradictions and dissonance that are allowed by genuine bourgeois culture – at least not officially. In any case, regardless of Ono's gesture, Harper's singing of "Imagine" would have fallen flat with anyone who knows what John and Yoko stood for. The co-optation would not have and didn't work.
One of the problems with Shukaitis' use of this single Debordian idea is its avoidance of the concepts of alienation and reification – concepts that are part of a valuable tradition of dialectical criticism. Also, from the point of view of psychoanalysis it is not only the enemy's language that is alienating, but language as such – even the language shared among allies behind closed doors. The autonomists' rather linear and teleological model of resistance followed by territorialization is not just a bit formalistic and deterministic, much more so that any theory of dialectical materialism ever was. Against historical determinism, the avant garde should be freed from the burden of having to even be considered prophetic. It never was and never will be. The avant garde dream of a better future is a different matter than providential foreknowledge. In fact it is against such providential assurances – such as the Obama administration's recent slogans about winning the future – that the avant gardes have been most effective. Avant garde artists have been far more apt to register contradictions than determine what is to be done. It's in this sense that the historical avant gardes at least operated with a notion of subverting the bourgeois theory of art and its notion of purposiveness without purpose. Avant garde art did not so much suggest what needs to be done as what needs to be done to art in its reified form. In this it hoped to use art as a weapon of class struggle.
Everybody's Talking 'bout Bagism, This-ism, That-ism
One example of avant garde contradiction, also drawn from the Situationists, provides a different idea of the avoidance of manifest declarations as giving too much to the enemy. This example has more affinity with Žižek's theory of the retroactive effect of naming than with the warding off of uncontrollable and undesired responses. In 1962 the artist-philosopher Asger Jorn produced one of his finest overpaintings, titled L'avant-garde ne se rend pas. The title could be translated to mean, variously, the avant garde doesn't turn itself in, or the avant garde does not give up. It could also imply, more humourously, the avant garde doesn't show up, and more complexly, the avant garde doesn't make it, does not succeed – which could be interpreted in terms of art historical consecration or even in terms of some vain notion of historical victory – like the Nazis' projected thousand year reich. Clearly, today's rejection of the avant gardes is based on exaggerated notions of both their ambitions and their achievements.
Jorn was a communist who in the 1940s was associated with the Revolutionary Surrealists. As he became increasingly interested in libertarian principles he looked to magic, children's art, automatism, jazz music, and the cinema for spaces that offered collective forms of cultural activity that were not based on formal appreciation. The construction of new myths he believed allowed opposite forces to be simultaneously visible. For Jorn, as for the Lettrist and Situationist artists that he later came into contact with, the SI was an anti-avant garde avant garde. The point of the theory of the spectacle was not to avoid your work from being co-opted by the forces of the spectacle, but to operate inside it, much like John and Yoko did with their bed-ins and baggism press conferences. If play is pursued in accordance with one's desires and needs, he argued, then it has the content of ritual, which is oriented toward the needs of human life. But if play lacks this vital purpose, it loses what Georg Lukács referred to as its concrete potentiality and becomes trapped in the "bad infinity" of mere becoming. As Lukács wrote in "The Ideology of Modernism" (1957), the disintegration of reality, its reduction to capitalist abstraction, leads to the dissolution of personality and reality consequently becomes limited to subjectivization as a form of empty protest.
Jorn sought to counter abstraction through rituals of play. One such ritual was that of Situationist détournement, in which the images of the spectacle were modified, transcending the opposition between artwork and mass cultural entertainment. Rather than signaling bourgeois formalism, detachment and commodifiability, the space of autonomy opened up by modernist aesthetics could be used to counteract the alienating effects of enlightenment rationality. Rather than inert objects destined for a rarefied museum culture, the overpaintings were conceived as intersubjective communication – there to be read, to be listened to, there to help restore the spontaneity of subjectivity, to introduce communication in the dialectic of subject and object. L'avant-garde ne se rend pas makes an obvious reference to Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q, a postcard of Leonardo's Mona Lisa with a moustache painted over it. Jorn's overpainting is based on the purchase of a found painting, an anonymous kitsch object which he brought back into circulation through the gesture of the subjectivizing trace. In contrast to Pollock's drip paintings, which were essentially concerned with the imminent unfolding of events within the field of painting, the overpaintings could refer to the broader form of economic production and the possibility of manufacturing to fulfill human needs rather than for the sake of profit.
In Society of the Spectacle, Debord claimed that the spectacle represents the social organization of the paralysis of history and memory. History is built on historical time and consciousness is awareness of life as it is lived. The paradox of the society of the spectacle is that life could be lived immediately as memory, understood as a spatialization of time. Does the autonomist theory of strategy given by Shukaitis not represent just such a spatialization of time? What is lost in his theory of dis-identification, I would say, is precisely the realm of the everyday, the time of communication and of the work of art, the time of a popular political project, which may or may not pan out but which deserves a chance. What Harper's lacklustre YouTube performance may have done is make us aware of the prosaic happiness that maybe even he experienced when he learned to play piano. His cynical appropriation of Maria Aragon's moment in the sun, in contrast to Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. and Jorn's L'avant-garde ne se rend pas, however, is just so much political advertisement. This is in direct contrast to the kind of spectacular publicity that John and Yoko generated for their honeymoon bed-ins in Amsterdam and Montreal in 1969. The times may not be better today, and certainly the terms of future disaster as spelled out for us in grim prose, but we still remember the ballad of John and Yoko and hold it up against the forces of reification.
1. Stefan Christoff, "Imagine that, Yoko Ono nails Stephen Harper on Copyright Infringement," rabble.ca (April 7, 2011): http://www.rabble.ca/news/2011/04/imagine-yoko-ono-nails-stephen-harper-copyright-infringement.
2. "You Tube Pulls Harper Imagine Clip," CBC News (April 6, 2011): available at http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canadavotes2011/story/2011/04/06/cv-harper-imagine-youtube.html.
3. Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (London: Pluto Press, 2011) 34.
4. Sholette, 34-5.
5. Sholette, 16.
6. Stevphen Shukaitis, "The Wisdom to Make Worlds: Strategic Reality & The Art of the Undercommons," Transversal (February 2011): http://eipcp.net/transversal/0311/shukaitis/en.
7. Shukaitis, "The Wisdom to Make Worlds."
8. Shukaitis, "The Wisdom to Make Worlds."
9. Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (Paris: Gallimard,  1992).