[Note: This is a short description of my dissertation project. The full version--too long to post--can be downloaded here. I'm happy to hear responses to either version]
There is no shortage of persuasive interpretation that correlates the cultural products of the last few decades with those signal economic and political restructurations that must run alongside them on any timeline, where the latter are placed, alternately, under the signs of postmodernity, the information age, neoliberalism, or the like. With a few exceptions, though, most of these critics do not attend to the significant transformations of labor and the labor process during this period—changes not only in what people do for work but in how they work—and as a result they remain unable to reflect in any sustained manner on the effect that these changes might have on the horizon of artistic or literary making. My dissertation, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization, descends into the “hidden abode of production,” as Marx calls the site of value-formation, in order to illuminate the “mutations in built space” (Fredric Jameson) and the changing “shape of the signifier” (Walter Benn Michaels) during this period. I read the sometimes antagonistic and sometimes complementary relationship between the work of art and work in capitalism as an important part of the interventions in the labor process with which capitalists respond to the economic crises of the 1960s and 1970s: deindustrialization and the rise of the service industry (as well as the turn to geographically-dispersed production), the informationalization of work and the concomitant attempts to make it more “flexible,” the increasing reliance on temporary, part-time contracts and the entry of large numbers of women into the workforce.
If we are to come to terms with these transitions, and understand them as integral to the dynamic of capitalism, the terms will be, by large measure, drawn from Marx. It is my view that while there has indeed been a great deal of very powerful Marxist-oriented criticism in the humanities in the last 30 years, too much of it begins and ends with Part One of Capital Vol. I—that is, with the commodity and money. While it is true that the entirety of Marx’s system is, in effect, contained within his reflections on the theological whims of the commodity, there are many useful (and, for scholars in the humanities, under-examined) terms and concepts elsewhere in Marx. I am at pains, therefore, to work out a phenomenology of labor that can be applied to literature and art, particularly through a reading of Marx’s analytic of capital and labor, with its dynamic ensemble of overlapping pairs: dead and living labor, fixed and circulating capital, constant and variable capital, formal and real subsumption, technical and value composition of capital, etc. I am particularly keen to route this reading of Marx—in which the Grundrisse, his notes for Capital from the 1850s, looms particularly large—through Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. I read Debord’s “spectacle” as a broadly applicable analytic term that also has a specific historical referent—in my view, spectacle is first and foremost an account of the regulatory mechanisms of the period dominated by the welfarist economics of John Maynard Keynes and the industrial organization of Henry Ford (mechanisms that persist in the logics of capital in the period after this, too): spectacle is a complex of apparatuses which bridle capitalism’s tendency toward economic and politic crisis. It is a machine which manages overaccumulation and rebellion through 1) an expanded reproduction of consumer demand, the creation of new “lines” for capital through the transformation, as Marx puts it, of desires into needs and 2) a mechanical (in other words, automatic) reproduction of social relations, where the administration of labor is partially internalized by a self-managing and therefore self-dominating class of workers, now “treated like grown-ups, with a great show of solicitude and politeness, in their new role as consumers” (Debord).
I focus on experimental writers (mostly poets) and conceptual, installation and performance artists because it is these figures who most explicitly address the rationalization (one might say Taylorization) of labor and society. The artists and writers in this study draw attention to the “administered life” of postwar American (and, in the case of Debord, European) culture, the subsumption under abstract labor time of more and more of the activities and faculties of the human organism. What these figures confront is something similar to Sartre’s practico-inert, a field of activity and matter that resists the agency of the subject. To use Marx’s terms, this period is marked by the conversion of more and more labor into the dead, inert form of fixed capital—dead labor that in its objectified form weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living, reifying and making rigid their activities. It is important to remember, of course, that Marx’s infamous argument about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall devolves upon his sense that with capital accumulation comes an increasing disproportion between dead and living labor, where the dead, in its way, squeezes out the living and with it the profitability of capital. In my reading, then, the figures in my study proffer alternatives to this reification, this fixity, alternatives that evoke, in opposition, forms of liquidity, dissipation, dematerialization, or free exchange. But as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have shown in their important study of French capitalism, through a kind of capitalist sublation the artistic critique of capitalism gets incorporated as part of the “new spirit” of capitalism, a spirit which stresses “creativity,” “innovation,” and non-hierarchical “networked” relations between “team” members working on “projects.” My goal here is not to wag my fingers at these writers and artists because of their participation, unwittingly, in the cunning of capitalist reason, but rather to understand precisely how such subsumption took place, and what parts of the art of that period still provide alternative forms of thinking and being in the world that might link up with an anti-capitalist politics. In other words, this study requires the patience of the dialectic: it proposes to understand these figures both in the positivity of the alternatives their work offers, and in the negativity of what actually results from it. Only then can we begin to imagine other forms of political and aesthetic mobilization.
My first chapter combines a study of a certain crucial period in the poetry of John Ashbery—from The Tennis Court Oath (1962) through to Three Poems (1972)—with a study of the theory and practice of the Situationist International: in particular the visual-verbal collage, Memoires (1957), which Asger Jorn and Debord produced together, and the theoretical architecture of Constant’s New Babylon. In brief, this chapter takes Ashbery’s self-positioning with respect to early 20th century modernism and aligns it with Debord’s Hegelian account of cultural “decomposition.” My basic claim with regard to Ashbery is that, whereas his predecessors such as Wallace Stevens figure the work of poetry as engaging with raw materials or elements and making from them, through a process of selection, abstraction and focalization, a sui generis product or artifact, Ashbery takes as his materials these pre-made or pre-given (“readymade”) artifacts that are the products of modernism. And while it is true that Ashbery’s practices do resemble the avant-garde practices of collage or appropriation from earlier in the century, for the most part, Ashbery does not mark such work, as did earlier figures, as a kind of negation of bourgeois values. Ashbery realizes, as did Debord, that this negation has already been accomplished and redirected by bourgeois society itself. If anything what remains to be done is to reassemble the fragments in a manner different from that proposed by the ruling order—for Debord this means art’s self-transcendence (“the negation of the negation”); for Ashbery a sense of the perpetually unfinished, protracted and yet at the same time foreclosed and preempted nature of the activity. I argue that this diagnosis on both Ashbery’s and Debord’s part hinges upon the transformed nature of the capitalist mode of production in the US and France (where Ashbery spent at least half of the years under consideration here)—that is, the retreat of art’s encounter with primary matters and elements and its acceptance of the prefabricated as its primary material parallels the incipient movement away from a manufacturing-intensive economy and toward a service-oriented one. In Ashbery and in the slim artistic output of the Situationist International, we find an aesthetic of distibution, circulation and exchange rather than one of extraction and production. And in both cases, this involves a reliance upon forms of free indirect discourse (in the sense to which Deleuze gives the term in his writings on cinema) which prefigure the form of unalienated life—what Marx calls the “social individual”—that the economic transformations of this period have as their repressed potential.
But “social individual” as a term remains ambiguous and could connect to any number of possible mergers between individual and collective, the great majority of which will not involve a “free association” of unalienated workers. In this light, my second chapter concerns the peculiar postwar discipline of cybernetics and the fate of some of its key conceptions—feedback, information entropy, system—as they are taken up by the artists and writers of the period. Emerging from Wiener’s work with automated anti-aircaft guns and self-guided missiles during WWII, the discipline is in many respects a science of management—Norbert Wiener coins the term cybernetics from the Greek kybernetes, for steersman or governor—and it was taken up immediately with great excitement by businesses and scholars of business, a fact which makes its deployment by artists and writers associated with the counterculture somewhat odd. On the one hand, the discourse of cybernetics allows the writers and artist I attend to in this chapter— the poets Hannah Weiner and Madeline Gins, the conceptual artists Dan Graham and Hans Haacke, among others—to reflect on “administered life,” the subsumption of the entire day (not just that part of it devoted to work) under capital and the application of forms of dominance developed in the workplace to the entirety of the social field. But at the same time many of the figures above, despite their alliance with the counterculture or left, see something different in this discourse. Because it is non-mechanistic or “organismic” and sees “environment” as a partial agent within the circuit of “systems,” cybernetics provides an ambiguous model: a picture of administered life in which, at the same time, people like Haacke or Graham also discern glimmerings of an organic, self-organizing and egalitarian sociality. I argue that this ambiguity is reflected in the uncertain meaning of the concepts of “information” (which refers to both the measure of “organization” and “uncertainty”) and entropy (which evokes both static homogeneity and volatility). In my reading, entropy is the ideologically-determined lens through which the crisis of postwar capitalism of this period comes into view.
The understanding of systems as adaptive and dynamic, non-equilibrated forms of self-organization connects, on many levels, to Marx’s understanding of the capital cycle, the passage from dead to living labor and back again under the terms of the dialectic between constant (non-wage) and variable (wage) capital. But cybernetics also mystifies this dialectic—therefore, my third chapter will pick up on such threads in examining Bernadette Mayer’s project-based writing (much of which could be hung under the sign of conceptual art) during the 1970s. In a certain respect, Mayer’s projects are models of systems—whether psychic (Memory) or personal (Midwinter Day)—but they are models that I think open up some of the blind spots and presuppositions of cybernetics, particularly its conflation of epistemology with praxis, a slippage that is foundational for the discipline (and that persists in latter-day systems theorists like Niklas Luhmann) and which ultimately belies its technocratic and bureaucratic disposition. If a certain version of cybernetics imagines itself answering Debord’s call for art’s self-transcendence through the complete subordination of artistic technique to the technocratic rationality of postwar capitalism, Mayer instead returns us to the real implications and consequences of Debord’s notion, and also highlights the perpetually vexed relationship between an art that wants to cancel its own separateness, and a life that, because of its division from art and the aesthetic, remains mere labor.
My final chapter will conclude the dissertation by looking at works by two poets (one of whom is also an installation and conceptual artist) that are themselves acts of conclusion and inconclusion, acts of restrospection that draw various conclusions from the failures and transformation of the 1960s and 1970s. Barrett Watten’s Progress (1985) is a meditation on the neutralization of the anticapitalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, one which continuously features scenes of repetitive labor and therefore mimes, in its formal structures, the recursive temporality of Taylorized labor. But because Watten identifies language with matter, and language work with industrial work, he ends up uneasily identified with both the technical-managerial class and proletarianized white-collar workers. The ambiguity of the class position here is part of what leads to this sense of suspended agency, the sense that a meaningful historical subject is missing. I argue that we can begin to locate such a meaningful actor within the poetry, performance and installation art of Cecilia Vicuña. In her reflection on the tragedies of the 1973 Pinochet coup and the subsequent massacre of the Chilean left, Vicuña elaborates a poetry and art based upon the indigenous weaving practices and the Incan language of knot-tying (quipu). Braiding together English, Spanish and Quechua, her poetry places labor and specifically feminine labor front and center within the work of poetry. Her poetry takes as its object forms of connection-making and relationality that can be made and broken in the service of oppression or made and broken in the service of emancipation. And by focusing on the fragile and precarious (or, alternately, chain-like) threads of social relations, her precarios, precarious objects, specifically foreground the historical subject missing in Watten, and begin to elaborate forms of social relationality and labor—and thus forms of value, since value is nothing but relation—that could replace the capitalist value-form and the forms of labor that it dictates.