Dan S. Wang on Mon, 21 Jul 2008 11:51:08 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Review of Raunig's Art and Revolution

Hi Nettime,

Thanks to one and all for the recent list traffic, it was kinda quiet there
for a while. Even the snippy exchanges, maybe I'm the only one, but I do
find them entertaining.

A book review for you, just out in print in SITE, no. 22-23 (Stockholm)

All best,

Dan w.
_ _ _ _ _ _

You Wanna Art?  I Give You Revolution.
Art and Revolution by Gerald Raunig

Since upon opening the book I skipped the question of whether I
agree with his ideas and went straight to the problem of how best
to apply them, I suppose you could call me a sympathetic reader of
Gerald Raunig's immodestly titled Art and Revolution, out in an
English translation from Semiotext(e). My expectations come from my
having heard the Vienna-based philosopher deliver a lecture several
summers ago, in which he awoke me to the idea of the transversal,
and the reality of all boundaries dividing cultural from political
work forever existing as porous and in flux. Those ideas had been
circulating in the political art scene for a while even then, but
he connected dots for me in a very clear way, and he did it by
emphasizing the practical experience of political action from recent
times. So did I set myself up for disappointment? Before I could
answer that question, I first had some unpacking to do. Applying the
ideas does require knowing what they are, and, as readable as Raunig's
language mostly is, this is not a casually absorbed book. There is a
density to the text that goes beyond the prose, and it is delivered in
three interwoven layers.
The base layer of argument is a reliance on the idea of concatenation.  The
phrase 'concatenation of art and revolution' takes up residence as a key
concept early in the book, and provides the frame within which Raunig
conducts his inquiry into the relationship between art and politics.  Raunig
accepts that art and politics exist as separate spheres most of the time,
but that they may under revolutionary conditions become linked, as if in a
chain, in time and space.  The recurrent metaphor makes me think of that
place where the links pull against one another, and, while suspended in
tension, become one.  Raunig mines the richness of the metaphor by examining
different aspects and kinds of concatenation.  He settles on the concept of
'machines' 'art machines, revolutionary machines' as the enlarged bodies of
concatenation, offering various and infinitely divisible zones of temporary
fusion, overlap, and commingling. 'The way and extent to which revolutionary
machines and art machines work as parts, cogs of one another is the most
important subject of investigation in this book.' [Raunig, 18]
It is in this layer of complexity which Raunig locates himself
intellectually and politically. He starts with an explanation of his
operational notion of revolution, against which he opposes the grand,
nameable ruptures:  'this study concentrates on the discursive and activist
lines that have regarded revolution as an uncompleted and uncompletable,
molecular process, which does not necessarily refer to the state as being
essential and universal, but rather emerges before the state, outside the
state.' [Raunig, 25-26]  In keeping with the anarchistic strains of the
political cultures that interest him, Raunig rejects the seizure of state
power as anything but a suspect aim.  From there, he goes on to outline his
theories of resistance, insurrection, and constituent power as the three
essential elements of revolutionary machines.
And with those three terms in play, we can shorten the description of the
theoretical orientation and say he takes a materialist analysis as a
given - minus the Hegelian, mixes in the Foucauldian concepts of power,
borrows confidently from Deleuze and Guattari, and ends up with something
resembling Empire in language and tone.  This is partisan resistance theory,
anti-capitalist to the core, and informed by the practical challenge of
political action. Like other texts of its kind, it is appropriately
stirring.  It is anchored to a particular tradition and vocabulary;  Raunig
hardly ever borrows from outside of a set of radical and/or neo-Marxist
continental writers.  This specificity is not necessarily a weakness.  On
the contrary, Raunig condenses key ideas from his source strains and
synthesizes effectively, providing a valuable service for non-specialists
like me.  His explanation of how Deleuze's theories of resistance work off
of and advance beyond that of Foucault is a good example, in which he
reduces into only several pages a rather remarkable turn in the analysis of
resistance, which the two philosophers molded over years of thought and
To guard against his text from reading as a series of excursions into
various theoretical minutiae, Raunig turns to the second layer under which
he presents his ideas, the 'long twentieth century' framework.  It is
through this framework by which he brings into conceptual proximity six
specific events, episodes, and moments from over a span of one hundred
thirty-one years.  Each is a case study in how an instructive turn in the
relationship between art and politics takes place under revolutionary
conditions, a different instantiation of the concatenation of art and
revolution.  The focus is on the direct involvement of a particular artist,
set of artists, or art group in a period of revolutionary activity. Two of
Raunig's case studies, well-related as capsule histories, Gustave Courbet's
contributions to the Paris Commune and the Situationists before and during
the Paris uprising of May '68, are known, if less than well understood, to
most art activists who have an interest in the ultraleft.
Considerably more obscure to today's socially-engaged art workers is an
episode from Germany in the 1910s, centered around Kurt Hiller's
pseudo-leftist literary circle known in its day as 'Activism.'  Raunig takes
as his point of entry Walter Benjamin's essay 'The Author as Producer,' in
which Benjamin attacks both Neue Sachlichkeit and 'Activism' (Raunig always
uses the quotation marks), and through which Benjamin establishes an
argument for formal innovation as revolutionary work, as opposed to the
conservative (or, at best, politically ineffectual) intellectual's role as
supplier of thematic content. Raunig's account and analysis of this
practically forgotten intellectual current reveals Hiller's 'Activism' as a
loose association of private, geist-philic artists dedicated to a largely
de-politicized articulation of the metaphysical.  Compared to the
politicized experiments in dissemination, funding structure, and social
organizing done by a parallel group centered around the publication Die
Aktion, and its editor Franz Pfemfert, 'Activism' is borderline reactionary.
By contrast, over the same period Hiller's one time associate Pfemfert
transforms Die Aktion from a journal of literati arts into an organ of fully
engaged council-communist and anti-militarist political action.  That
enterprise ends in rounds of dissociations and isolation comparable,
according to Raunig, to that of the latter-day Situationists.
The fact that the circles around Hiller's 'Activism' and Pfemfert's Die
Aktion in their early stages had some overlap in actors verifies the reality
of these seemingly divergent intellectual and political trajectories sharing
a common inception in the want for creativity.  This is where Raunig makes
his point, because the two paths represent, on the one hand, the falseness
of the universal intellectual and, on the other, the option of radical
refusal.  Hiller stands for the universal intellectual -- a figure properly
skewered by Benjamin as overdetermined by the production apparatuses to
which it is subject -- while Pfemfert ends his career in the obscurity reserved
for those who, through their refusal to supply prevailing cultural forms
with new contents, maintain a principled distance from the recuperative
processes of the culture industry.  Drawing on Benjamin's critique, Raunig
extends the example of Pfemfert and Die Aktion, seeing in it not only a
betrayal of the bourgeois intellectual's function, but the beginning of a
positive position, one which asks 'what it means today not only to not
supply the production apparatus, but also how it can be changed.' [3]  This
is good stuff, relevant to all politically-engaged artists, presented in
mostly tidy fashion.  My criticism here, such as it is, falls in the
'hoped-for' category.  I had hoped for some figures throughout the book, but
particularly in this chapter, knowing that Die Aktion had helped to bring
German Expressionist graphic work to a wider audience.  A reproduction of a
cover would have gone a long way towards substantiating the descriptions of
Die Aktion as an organ which struggled with the challenges of consistency in
politics, design, aesthetic, and economic base (Die Aktion aimed for zero
advertisements) -- all of which are familiar to those involved in contemporary
radical publishing.
The most provocative of Raunig's 'long twentieth century' episodes counts as
the third layer of complexity to his dense argument.  He delivers it in his
last chapters describing and analyzing the participation of a Vienna-based
radical activist performance troupe, the Volxtheatre (or
PublixTheatreCaravan), in the oppositional activities targeting the G8
summit in Genoa in July of 2001, and then the group's work with the activist
gathering at the Strasbourg noborder camp of 2002.  These are the most
recent episodes addressed, but far from marking the closing of a period,
they stand as keeping the long twentieth century open and present.  It is
not only that by any measure four years before the date of publication
counts as recent history, well within the scope of personal memory and
still-rough primary accounts.  More significant is that Raunig tells of the
PublixTheatreCaravan's activity following the events of Genoa, infamous for
the brutality of the police actions, and of how the group evolved in a
changed political climate.  The post-Genoa climate is essentially continuous
with the post-9/11 repressive media-saturated regime we in North America and
Europe experience today, sometimes violently, especially depending on your
color of skin and relative wealth.  We cannot exist apart from, outside of,
or beyond the long twentieth century of art and revolution, Raunig seems to
be saying.  We are in it, looking for ways to continue the task before us,
laid out in imaginary terms by Chernyshevsky nearly a decade before Courbet
served as Commune Councillor, that is,  What is to be done?
It is in Raunig's treatment of the recent, living, 'uncompleted and
uncompletable' history that his distinctive voice finally emerges in full,
drawing equally on his training in classical philology, his leftist social
theory idea-bank, and his practical experience in the activist milieu.  The
term 'border' proves ripe for philological dissection. In a helpful
rumination, Raunig explains that the three Latin terms corresponding to our
single modern term 'border,' (con-) finis, frons, and limes, open up
conceptions of borders not as lines, but as zones of adjacency and overlap.
Speaking as the classicist, he reminds us that back in the days of Roman
antiquity, whole provinces might exist as 'border.' [4]  The element of
activist experience, however, is what ultimately stamps the work with an
authenticity not wholly provided by academic firepower alone.  When Raunig
speaks with familiarity of the tactical discussions, internal
micro-political negotiations, and plain old interpersonal dramas that took
place within the social space of the noboder camp, he speaks of the social
dynamics that alternately energize and bedevil most all grassroots movements
as we know them. [5]  The service he provides is a necessary one, that is,
to link in a coherent analysis the action on the ground, in the talking
circles, and, in this case, in the plena of the noborder camps, to the
theories which often too-neatly accomodate in implicitly valorized terms
such messy and frustrating activist realities.  The point is, the
concatenation of art and revolution in the long twentieth century is
articulated not just in grand movements, but as well and perhaps even
primarily in the local actions, the rhizomatic discussions, the endless
arguments, the short-lived interventions of the everyday.
And here I can say I was not disappointed with the book.  Attempting to make
sense of the contradictions and blockages as experienced -- or rather,
produced -- in the concrete activist efforts of, for example, the noborder camp
is, I dare say, the only way to advance the theoretical understanding of our
condition as leftist cultural producers.  His attention to the inner
workings of the activist milieu distinguishes his analysis from other
movement-engaged works of theory which have reached a left-identified
readership in the last few years (such as Afflicted Powers), which tend to
float above the activist dysfunction.  On that level, Raunig finishes on a
courageous note.  If there is one weakness worth mentioning, it is the lack
of acknowledged specificity, especially in regards to the most recent
activism.  Other reviewers have questioned Raunig's selection of the
PublixTheatreCaravan as the one example from contemporary times. I have no
quarrel with his choice; from his descriptions, the group is indeed a fair
representative of a prevailing current on the leftist world stage, in
strategy, method, and aesthetic.  However, it is also true that it is a
current with a very Amer-European flavor, and that should not only be
acknowledged, but analyzed.  I have no interest in the morality of declaring
social position as an attempt to circumscribe privilege, but I am concerned
about how politically-engaged art workers might anticipate, manage, and
circumvent the inevitable limits of transferability of any given model in
our age of colliding identities.  Those limits are reached most quickly (but
nearly always in a distressingly surprising way) when cultural and/or
locational specificities are not straightforwardly declared.   While this
concern may fall outside the scope of the book, as long as Raunig's
ever-lengthening century remains provisionally open, the spectre of
difference versus commonality lurks.  Moreover, the operations of capital
depend on the selective effacement of differences.  In his closing thoughts
targeting the art world's assimilation of 'revolutionary' content, Raunig
says as much:  
The figure of instrumentalizing the concatenation to derive all kinds of
capital from it principally belongs to the current trend of fashionable
border-crossings:  When media intellectuals today. . . avail themselves of
the symbolic capital and scandal of revolution, or when actors in the art
field instrumentalize social transformations as spectacular conditions just
to finance their art, this is part of what has become a familiar arsenal of
aggressive publicity work and self-presentation. [6]
That, to me, is the issue.  I have already said that, in regards to
intellectual lineage, I see no weakness in specificity.  The same could be
said for the historical examples.  How can we preserve the symbols of the
past for a common revolutionary future when we have already seen the massive
mining of images associated with the Chinese Revolution by profit-driven
artists and style-makers, and Che exists only as an ennui-inducing
decoration, ubiquitous as a marker of staleness and virtual
de-politicization.  Far less heavily reproduced representations of
revolution litter the art and design worlds.  Any substantively
revolutionary episode, including all those named and examined by Raunig,
provide low-hanging fruit for the enterprising.  Raunig posits the
transversal -- the dual belonging of any action to spheres not limited only to
art or only to politics -- as antidote to static representations of consumable
revolution.  Upon finishing a reader may be forgiven for believing that
revolution, in some new-fangled form, is always possible, and at the micro
level, always happening.  But I must wonder, are these 'singular events'
actuated by the 'concatenation of revolutionary machines and art machines'
not equally due to the insistent particularities of a given social world in
time and place? That is to say, is the incipient creation of revolutionary
singularities due in part to the built-in limits of transferability of any
given concatenation?  Might that creativity be better served were the limits
of transferability made a focus of theoretical understanding, rather than
the afterthought it usually is?
1.  P. 18.
2.  Pp. 25-26.
3.  P. 127.
4.  P. 248.
5.  Pp. 257-258.
6.  P. 264


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