There exists within culture an impossibility of thinking the political, an impossibilitiy which for some acts as a pretext for acting upon the world and upon others. Culture thereby becomes something that is subjected to a division of labour, to a divisiveness that many have come to consider political. Without a doubt, the requirements of human survival place upon us an ever greater pressure to overcome this division. The question remains, however, whether we have found the means to do so.
In 2009, the filmmaker Todd Solondz took the title of a Talking Heads song and turned it into a metaphor for the relation between subject formation and social formation. As he explained in interviews, Life During Wartime is about the U.S. being at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is also about war between people and within ourselves. As he put it:
"Post 9/11 is a different time in which this movie lives. I think in the writing of it, it was very much informed by that experience. Of that time when so many people were reaching out to say, 'What can I do? How can I help?' It was a unique moment. A very precious one. I felt it was squandered by Giulliani when he said to just continue shopping. It was such an obscenity. It was a slap to the face to the earnesty of so many people. We live in such an insulated world where, yes it's life during wartime, but you'd never know it. Because there is no draft. It is very discreet. It's limited sections of society that go off to war or are disenfranchised. (...) Of course, the title refers to the wars amongst our intimates and within ourselves." (ComingSoon.net)
"We all make mistakes. So why not admit them," sings Joy, the desperate character that provides the point of view of the film. This is most directly related to the relationship between Trish, Joy's sister, and her thirteen year-old son Timmy. Timmy's father has gone to prison for child molestation but Trish has told him that he died in combat defending the U.S. from terrorists. Timmy is consequently preparing a speech for his bar mitzvah about forgiveness. He asks his mother whether one should forgive terrorists. Her answer, indirectly, tells us about her relationship with Harvey, a man that she hopes will act as a father figure for Timmy. When she first meets Harvey, he tells her: "I can't talk about my sex life." She replies: "I can't talk about mine." Harvey: "There's so much I don't understand." Trish: "Sometimes, it's better not to understand." Harvey's dysfunction is reflected in his unflagging support for Israeli foreign policy, the reason he says he supported Bush and McCain. Timmy's brother Mark has no time for introspection. "I'm focused on China," he says, "everything else is history. Forgive and forget. It's like freedom and democracy. In the end, China will take over and none of this will matter."
The father figure in Life During Wartime is attempting to contact his estranged family. One of the posters for the film depicts Bill rather than Harvey as the real father for Timmy. As well, the ghostly figure of Andy is represented in this poster as the real candidate for Joy's masochistic affections - rather than her social work project Allen. The colours used in the poster are light blue and pink, placed squarely in a central frame with shattered glass. The colours of course refer to gender construction and by implication the shattering of gender ideology. The film therefore links sexual dysfunction with political alienation, with the themes of guilt and shame, on the one hand, contrasted with the possibility of forgiveness and happiness on the other. In another interview, Soldonz says that pedophilia, like al Qaeda, acts a metaphor for what is most demonized and loathed: "It's a crucible of what we're capable of accepting when we say we love all mankind. When we say we love humanity it's an abstraction, it doesn't mean anything. (...) It's a kind of exploration of our limits." (Chud.com) The last words of the film go to Timmy, who says: "I don't care about freedom and democracy. I just want my father."
In 2008 I staged a performance of Jacques Lacan's essay "The agency of the letter in the unconscious, or reason since Freud." I went to a bar called CaféO, chosen for the mathematical coordinates that operate in Lacan's theory, and went into the washroom, put on some lipstick, took a photograph of myself wearing a winter army coat, removed the lipstick and exited. I sent the image to a friend, who returned the image to me in the form of a book cover with the ironic title Postmodern Aesthetics.
In his essay Lacan considers the importance of the function of language for social theory. In contrast to the base and superstructure model of dialectics, he proposes that the emergence of modern linguistics is contained in the algorithm Signifier over signified. The signified is therefore "determinant in the last instance," a concept that Slavoj Žižek translated into the idea that meaning is retroactive. Although meaning comes in to suture the play of the signified, it operates as a fundamental misrecognition, as ideology or as denial.
Lacan famously illustrated his idea of the role of language in the unconscious with the fact of the subjection of men and women to urinary segregation. He explained this with an anecdote. As he put it: "A train arrives at a station. A little boy and a little girl, brother and sister, are seated in a compartment face to face next to the window through which the buildings along the station platform can be seen passing as the train pulls to a stop. 'Look,' says the brother, 'we're at Ladies!'; 'Idiot! replies his sister, 'Can't you see we're at Gentlemen.'" There's therefore much more involved in Lacan's screen theory than simply the matter of illusory captation; as with Saussure's idea of language as structure, an entire social world derives from it. The signifier, Lacan concludes, "sends forth its light into the shadow of incomplete significations." The law of the bar that separates S/s is that the split within subject and social formation must be articulated. The locus of articulation is the subject of the unconscious, or the subject in ideology.
We might think that the father that Timmy is looking for is precisely what he says, in Oedipal form, he is not looking for. Are not the parents of pink and light blue the primary colours red and blue? If this is the case then these colours could readily refer to the "freedom and democracy" he mentions, the red, white and blue of freedom, equality and brotherhood. What does today's democracy know of such things, especially when social intercourse if articulated in terms of the division between exchange value and human needs.
In Strangers to Ourselves Julia Kristeva attempted a rethinking of Revolutionary nationhood in terms of the notion of alterity. With the creation of nation states, she argues, the stranger becomes the enemy. In terms of economic and political global integration, how, she asks, can the question of the stranger be posed anew? How can we learn to live with foreigners without prejudice and ostracism? Her answer is that no code of nationalism is practicable if this question is to be taken seriously.
In the book Empire Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt proposed that contemporary capitalism contains all of the elements that are needed for a communist society. All that is needed is for the social consciousness that corresponds to global capitalism to shift from the "in itself" of alienated wage labour to the "for itself" of living labour. In the spirit of Hardt and Negri I created the website Immaterial Girl and some corresponding theses on immaterialism.
Immaterialism takes its name from the post-operaist theory of immaterial labour but uses it with a sense of wry irony to signal the relation of immaterialism as a political theory to the reality of global proletarianization, which increases along with global capitalism, neo-imperialism and climate change. Culture is by and large a product of the surplus value created by productive labour and although capitalization creates markets in other areas of the economy, one should not be blind to the conditions that allow artistic production to exist as it does.
Immaterialism is a product of the dead labour of the actually existing institution art and of its avant-garde predecessors. Immaterialism as such considers the ideas associated with the avant garde to be increasingly relevant, not less - the point is to understand them. These include: the theory of class analysis and the notion of class struggle; the theories associated with critical dialectical materialism; the labour theory of value and the concept of commodity fetishism; theories of totality and alienation; the theory of the revolutionary party as a mediating agent.
Immaterialism is a feeble response to the ideology of contemporary socially engaged art and tactical media. Its purpose is inherently didactic. Immaterialism does not propose a new aesthetic form, in the manner of relational aesthetics, dialogical aesthetics or even for that matter, a far more challenging but nevertheless limiting proposition like transversal practice. Immaterialism does not propose how it is that artists should carry out the business of art and/or social change.
Immaterialism considers that capitalist class relations define the categories of social experience and until social relations have altered considerably for the better, it is best to not engage in utopian fantasies but to work toward building leftist coalitions.
Immaterialism rejects cultural studies theories of signifying practice and cultural representation as an adequate approach to social, cultural and economic analysis. It also rejects along with it the historicism of post-structuralist notions of social constructedness, which operate as today's "false consciousness" thesis. Immaterialism demands that that which belongs to Marx be rendered to him.
Immaterialism expresses a deep-seated contempt for the petty-bourgeois postmodern culture of contemporary academia and cultural institutions while it simultaneously enjoys and benefits from its products - or not, as the case may be. Whereas the critique of institutions has benefitted from gender critique and other forms of social analysis, many of these forms today represent an obstacle to any radicalization of the field. Culture wars operate today as the means of perpetuating rather than challenging free market ideology. Wherever leftist claims are made, one automatically hears postmodernist reactions of all sorts. Immaterialism is thus not in the least interested in the academic dream of rebuilding the middle class. The middle class and its petty-bourgeois lapdog has done quite enough in the last thirty years to create a world of bourgeois restoration.
Immaterialism rejects the notion that today's artists no longer make objects but are manipulators of symbols. The relation between people, as Marx explained, is mediated through the relation between things, even and especially where the things in question become sociality itself. We should not ignore the fact that the products of immaterial and creative labour can become sources of surplus value, nor that the vast majority of producers are dependent on wages for their livelihood. The propensity of artists to dematerialize forms is coterminous with the extent to which the division of labour affects all facets of life in today's society. The immaterial artist is thus concerned with the socio-historical conditions of this process in contemporary society.
The Marxist analysis of the commodity stands in contrast to Marx's notion of the general intellect. In comparison with the latter, Marx specified the commodity form as a historically specific form of social relation in capitalist society. Immaterialism does not dispense with the notion of commodity fetishism in favour of an evanescent or simulationist theory of affect. It considers instead that social control operates through technocratic and state mechanisms that verify and validate the theories of dialectical materialism and the theory of the spectacle.
Symbols and economic production are coterminous only to the extent that production itself is formalized in a non-dialectical fashion.
Some of the implications of these theses, read retrospectively back onto the Immaterial Girl website means that the "parents" of pink and light blue would not be the primary colours of red and blue, plus white, but the radical colours of red and black, plus white. Either way, a battle for custody ensues. However, this struggle has more than two dimensions, as struggles based on gender and sexuality, as well as those based on race and ethnicity, complicate the set. We find this secret family history, for instance, inscribed in two recent posters, one that announces protests against the austerity politics of Toronto mayor Rob Ford and another for the 2011 Euro MayDay events. The implication, for me, as it was for Lacan, is that the movement is looking for a father. In case this nomination lead to the charge of "phallocentrism," let me just say that this is less a gender attribute than a trauma that cannot be properly articulated.
The question of parentage would be for Lacanians a problem of Master-Signifier rather than signified. The problem is that the MS has to in some way remain ambiguous. If we were to decide on reality, our symbolic reference points would suddenly disintegrate. This becomes not only a political challenge but a challenge for cultural representation as well. In this regard, the colours pink and light blue, and perhaps also the youthfulness of our movement, allows the Master to remain virtual and inconsistent, vacillating between the "in itself" and the promised "for itself." This ambiguity, however, is not an advantage and as Žižek says, "imposes on the subject an even more radical servitude than the traditional subordination to the full authority of the Master." (Plague of Fantasies) Trish's motherly advice that "it's better not to know" the frame that determines guilt, points to an endless deferral of responsibility. Appearances are kept, Žižek says, to prevent the Master's impotence from becoming visible. Pink and light blue are thus made to bear the burden of impotent leaders. One symbolic obstacle to radical politicization is therefore that, as things stand, subjects are called to sacrifice themselves but mostly to save appearances.