Ed Phillips on Fri, 9 May 1997 00:18:49 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Tenure as Asbestos, colonizing the Avant-Garde

Nettime Assay #1: Composting, Colonizing, and Criticism

	After reading Mckenzie Wark's review of the October issue on the 
Situationist movement, I went in search of the magazine. I finally 
found it in a bookstore.  Instead of stealing it as Mckenzie 
recommended, I  read it standing in the bookstore, downloaded it into 
my brain inbetween glances at the influx of browsing half-customers on 
random purchasing forays through the mall-bookstore stacks, all of us 
dancing on the limen between buying and stealing.
	I was sufficiently interested in the subject to ignore the manic 
movement, the floating world without inside our outside that some 
might call postmodern: the constant flow of shoppers, the panoptic 
vision of the ubiquitious surveillance cameras, the stares of the 
employees and lower management, and the sounds emitted by seamlessly 
rotating  stacks of cds.  
	I was struck by how boring the issue was.  No wonder Mckenzie was so 
disappointed.  The compost of an old radical movement was ready for 
use as PHD fertilizer.  Neat and clean nerds were parsing up the 
corpse of a recent guerilla art attack on sobriety and the "normal."
	My slightly different reaction (not disappointment), however, was the 
sneaking suspicion that these would-be scholars, although "breaking 
new ground" and colonizing the "altered," were not in any danger.  
Even though Mckenzie warned that these scholars were in danger, they 
are in no danger.  No matter that further downtown an avant-garde is 
still wildly flourishing.  Our contemporary avant-garde is as far away 
from our October "scholars" as late nineteenth century Paris.  The 
distance and the chasm between the space of our avante-garde and the 
advance guard of colonizing, straight scholars is as great in 
four-dimensional cultural space-time as the more commonly represented 
distance of a century.  I'll leave off conjecturing about what that 
distance "is" for another post.  Let me just propose here that it 
exists: a buffer, an asbestos, a handy side effect of the nominalism 
and atomisation of an accelerated, advanced money economy.
	If , in this cultural space-time, the distance between the composting 
of scholarship-criticism and the "oppositional" practices of radical 
movements is the invariant it seems to be, if the Academy is alway 
safe, then the most flamboyant and radical of academics and critics 
are just so many advance scouts for the culture industry.  This 
sneaking suspicion, which we'd like to not even give the dignity of 
calling a thought because it follows us like an afterimage left on our 
retinas as we move from one discrete domain to another, this suspicion 
is so familiar and so oft repeated that it would not deserve mention 
if we were not all frustrated rubes, dupes of the many ruses of the 
"cultural logic of late capitalism." And it would not deserve mention 
if the forms of this vicious logic did not forever take such 
underhanded, ever new and twisting, turns. An image for this "cultural 
logic:" Antonin Artaud's rubber band held at the throat and pulled 
out-away from the tender wind pipe only to come thwacking back with 
all the fury of a material existence. 
	I  bring up the hackneyed "ruse of history" because I want to mention 
T. J. Clark.  T. J. was one of the young radicals that Guy Debord 
kicked out of the Situationist movement.  Mckenzie mentions him.  
Kicked out of the avant-garde and into the Academy, T. J. has gone on 
to write some of the most provocative Art History  of the 80's and 
90's, provocative in a safe-for-scholars-and-Sotheby sort of way, but 
at least provocative enough for him to pull out and away from most of 
his colleagues. Watch for the returning thwack.  We can hear a dull 
thud coming from October.  
	This latest dupe of the "ruse" is quite a historian of the "cunning 
of history" himself.  T.J. writes some cunning prose, but not cunning 
enough to escape the logic of his "class" position as conference 
circuit star and compost turner; Mckenzie called him a corpse fucker, 
some would call him a leftist scholar. 
	At a star turn he made, along with Baudrillard, at a conference in 
Vancouver in September 1986 called "Hot Paint for Cold War," T. J. 
prodded his colleagues and the assorted aspiring leagues of wannabes 
with a story about cunning "cultural logic." The wearied 
dissappointment in his voice was muted by the pleasant afterglow of 
strolling around lovely Vancouver, a good night's rest in a fine 
hotel, a nice restaurant. Not suffering too badly, no longer 
scrambling like Guy and Co. to come up with enough money to stay fed 
on the squatting fringe, T.J. was ready to prod and provoke. All the 
cunning twists and tactical turns, the street ready adroitness of an 
"actual" leftist movement were still in his limbs and gestures, and 
his words and analyses, so much more daring and fearless than the 
assembled gaggle of scholars who have known nothing but grant money 
and class schedules, brought a frisson into the room
	T.J. stuck it to them.  Mentioning some Vogue photographs of fashion 
models taken in front of Jackson Pollock paintings, Clark says that 
"the Vogue photographs matter because they bring to mind the most 
depressing of all suspicions we might have about modern art: the bad 
dream of modernism, I shall call it.  The modernist exploration of the 
Other to bourgeois experience--its dream of discovering the 
'outside'--more and more seems a part of a general policing of spaces 
hitherto useless, and therefore uncharted, but which capital now 
thinks it can profit from and wants brought into the realm of 
representation." Frisson.  "A kind of softening-up process: art 
prepares the ground for the real, ruthless appropriation of all those 
marginal and underdeveloped states which was to be effected, in the 
end, by the central organs of bourgeois culture itself." Drum roll.
	What we might call the bad dream of postmodernism: criticism and 
theory now prepare the ground.  It might be as depressing Clark says 
it is if it weren't so obvious and so irrelevant.  So what if T.J. is 
an advance scout for the culture industry, training his finest 
students to be clever compost turners and the lesser lights to be 
Sotheby's worker bees?  T.J. is not my quarry, this latest dupe of the 
ruse, nor am I angry at October magazine.  I want to ask what the use 
value might be of this latest example of "cultural logic."  What is 
our particular, contemporary cultural moment; who and what is leftist 
criticism today?
	Can a street savvy, squatting on the fringe, subsistence scrabbler, 
net criticism return a favor or two to the upper-middle class, Lingua 
Franca reading, University as Mall, contemporary leftist scholar?  
T.J. has gone from one discrete domain to another and brought 
something of use from the other side.  Can I reverse his trajectory? 
In this post at least?
	In his Vancouver talk he said that the "search for an 'outside' of 
bourgeois consciousness has sometimes gone hand in hand with an 
immanent critique of established forms of representation, and has been 
effective in a limited way."  Flash forward to the latest October.  No 
immanent critique of established forms here; the journal is laid out 
like a financial or a foreign policy quarterly, no squatting graphics, 
no riotous typefaces, nor even odd sentences.  Solid, boring 
tenure-seeking missile prose.  Cut and paste boilerplate to add to a 
cv pumping list of publications, they'll call it cutting edge and 
raise enough grant money to create a conference.
	Enough with October. If you want an interesting historical write-up 
on the Situationists, a street-ready one, ask Mckenzie to write one. 
And if you want a criticism that includes an innovation on and a 
critique of established forms of discourse, don't look to your friends 
in the tenured big house to do it for you, do it yourself.  They  are 
in no danger, they are light years away, in a safely sealed if 
cynically disappointed place.
	One more thing about T.J. which will lead into my next post: Mckenzie 
mentioned that Clark wrote some interesting stuff on late nineteenth 
century Paris and painting; he made his name as a writer, in fact, 
from this work.  I think it would be worthwhile to reverse his 
trajectory again and make a tour of his writing on Paris, taking note 
of Benjamin's edgier forays into a history of Baudelaire and 
Haussmann's Paris.  On Modernism and Scholarship, On Flatness and 
Representation,  From Melancholy to Mania.  

--another subsistence scrabbler on the squatting fringe.
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