Event and retreat: on the autonomy of the Cuban contemporary art scene. by Gerardo Muñoz

Event and the problem of sequence. According to Carlo Diano some historical epochs are prone to being inclined towards events rather than forms; that is, they allow the proliferation of states in the world rather than allocating forms to make sense of what has taken place [1]. Since 1959 – but also before this historical demarcation if one considers the failure of the bourgeois Republic and the apparatus of transculturation – the Cuban Revolution was poor in both form and events. Indeed, the institutionalization of the revolution has attempted at all costs to police the excess of both of these poles of world-making. On the one hand, the historical development of 59 secured an event that translated itself as historical and national necessity to legitimatize the production of a new “revolutionary subject” (el Hombre Nuevo); and, on the other, it assigned the supreme form of political unity in the charismatic authority of the Fidel Castro as the principle of a new political legitimacy [2]. It is against this historical frame that the event of 27N that gathered young artists, intellectuals, and writers at the doors of the Ministry of Culture should be measured up: the November gathering was an exodus from the total narrative of the revolution by insisting on the contingency of an event that affirmed a relative autonomy from the state as well as a separation between state and civil society. More than a set of clear demands at the level of objectives, political calculation, and cultural reabsorption to the logistics of the state; the 27N event in its outermost radiant potentiality was a breakthrough as a vital discontent of the youth that attuned itself to an experiential politics that have characterized the cycle of recent revolts of the past five years or so from Paris to Santiago de Chile and Quito, to the hinterlands of United States that no longer seek a modification of the social, but more fundamentally a thorough exodus from it.

I am not saying that they all recent revolts are homologous processes (or events of the same intensity or destructive vocation), but they do share the ecstatic vitality that posits experience over the technified and well-organized planning proper to the vanguard artist invested in mass conduction. Of course, giving primacy to the force of the event raises the question about both temporal and spatial sequence: in what way could those fragments, affects, and gestures transformed by the event mitigate their swerve without succumbing to the re-totalization of political recognition? There is no doubt that this has happened to the 27 Movement by virtue of the actualization of the phantasy of a movement. But a movement is the force that unifies political will, concentrates degrees of intentionality, and crafts a specific subjective discipline against any deviation from its rectilinear force [2]. We can call the phase of the “movement” a mediatized sequence that limits the possibilities of autonomous forms to effectively renounce the limits of totalization. Rather, given the experiential dimension of the contemporary events, it seems to me that the emphasis today should be placed at the level of genesis of forms, which implies connecting rhythmically the fragments within a sequence as a response to the metaphorical articulation of parts into a ‘movement’. In this sense, the sequence in the aftermath of an event must rethought against the grain of the category of ‘movement’, which in political modernity dialeticized the parts into in a temporal suspension unto the homogenous field of historical reabsorption. The force of the event, on the contrary, is what can render destitute the seduction of historical narrativization; or, for that matter, the assumption that political action still has transformative capacities within the set of developmental strategies of subjection, sacrifice, and voluntarism, all elements at the service of the metaphysical grid that constitutes the infrastructure of the philosophy of History. 

The hypothesis of the artistic legal turn. It should not come as a surprise that the limits of the movement demands that we raise questions about the functionalization of the militant in contemporary artistic practice. We should be willing and able to abandon the figure of the militant as always already positioned as a reactionary subject, which transfers military force to unified energies of the cause established by the movement [3]. It should be remembered here that the theoretical grounds of “activist” relational aesthetic was rooted in the transposition of the post-foundational theory of hegemony in Laclau & Mouffe’s theorization as a regulatory principle in the field of artistic practices [4]. But the price to be paid here is enormous, given that the artistic gesture and the possibilities of imagination are now folded unto the ground of “political action” recasting the old semblance of vanguard to achieve cultural domination. But since no cultural hegemony is ever fulfilled, it follows that political hegemony becomes a vector for the valorization of available strategies. It is no surprise, then, that artistic practice, once it turns to activism, becomes a pedagogical tool for and by militant subjects to stabilize the ascesis of self-consciousness. In sacrificing the autonomy of forms, militant subjectivity mirrors an intra-communitarian domination premised on policy and calculation to the idea. In other words, situating the set of strategies at the level of hegemony means necessarily that we have to accept the conditions already in place. What really changes is merely the site of subjection. It seems to me that this same issue is behind a nascent “legal turn” by which the artistic practice centers around drafting, contesting, and exercising pressure against the state by means of its own legal pathways. The problem with this strategy is that, as any jurist knows well, law is constituted of the pole of legality the pole of legitimacy. The turn towards legality becomes accepts the pragmatic conditions of norms and rules but leaves untouched the crisis of legitimacy that it seeks to transform.

In other words, whereas artistic imagination should be able to destitute the objective conditions of any given reality to new set of operations of transformation; the strife over legality ends up, at times counter-intentionally (and in a preserve way, generating unintended consequences), those very goals that it wants to endorse. In the Cuban case this is even more so, given that “fidelismo” far from being a set of original ideological principles or an unambiguous political philosophy guided by principles, has morphed into an all-encompassing institutional fabric that sustains the total state vis-à-vis a juristocratic operation of the legal order. Borrowing the terms from the discussions about the limits of constitutional transformation in Chile in the wake of the post-dictatorship transition to democracy, one could argue that the performance of the legal operation becomes the juristocratic tool to transform the relations between political life and imagination within the framework of given social relations [5]. Hence, if the artist pretends to incarnate a new version of the old paradigm of the “artist as jurist” soliciting the sovereignty of the creator over the vocation of the politician, one should expect the boundaries of the legal dominium of the state to expand, as it has happened with the reiterated executive administrative decrees deployed to normalize the rule of the state of exception. To break this cycle of legal administration, the artistic practice must affirm a disjointed zone between life and artistic autonomy over the excessive boundaries of the law. In fact, legality and policing should be understood as the two poles of the optimization of control once legitimacy no longer works to bind a political community. 

Retreat and obstruction. The minimal condition of any sequence in the aftermath of the event resides in how we protect the surround against the logistics of state policy, cultural administration, and political militancy [6]. These three vectors are the agents of hegemonic intervention against the unregulated proliferation of forms in the wake of the event. Recently, I have called this autonomous self-defense of forms a diagonal that moves against and outside the political demand [7]. The failure of not retreating from the foreclosure of subjective politics (of reducing a form of life to a subject of the political) entails that action will always be on the side of reaction. As Elena V. Molina has brought to attention on several occasions, the reactive action is so not because of ideological color or political affinity, but rather because it remains inscribed within the coordinates that the state has assigned it in order to generate responsive relays or bring to exhaustion the emergence of a new sequence. Rather, in the gesture of retreat (which can be read in the works of Camila Lobón’s infantile books, the opaque graphism of Esequiel Suarez, the sensible violence of Raychel Carrión’s drawings, or the youthful vitalism of the Mujercitos Collective), the possibilities lay on the side de-subjection against both the movement and the state in favor of an infinite practice of autonomy driven by the turbulence of the imagination. What is at stake is a radical abandonment of the historiographical machine that delimits and polices the mediations between culture and state in order to open up a new reservoir of existential gestures in order to break from the previous historical epoch.

The growing autonomy of the contemporary visual arts scene announces this oblique passage from willful political dissent across ideological lines proper of the Cold War to a play of gestures that unleash a new vitality capable of defictionalizing the historical process of the state and its moral demands. Contrary to the notion of action, the gesture does not seek mimetic repetition and reproduction, but rather the preparation of an experience here and now. In a society that is subsidiary on moral conducts and expectations; the gesture, in the words of contemporary Cuban artist Claudia Patricia Pérez, becomes a way to obstruct the efficacy of power relations [8]. There is no doubt that the force of the gesture is a nascent strategy for transforming contemporary Cuba, but the scene of the visual arts is the vital field where the storming of the imagination can unclutter a hastened path outside the ruins of the civilization of the state and the stagnant epochality of the revolutionary process.  

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Notes

1. Carlo Diano. Form and Event: Principles for an Interpretation of the Greek World (Fordham University Press, 2020).

2. Nelson Valdés. “El contenido revolucionario y político de la autoridad carismática de Fidel Castro”, Revista Temas, N.55, 4-17, septiembre de 2008.

3. Giorgio Cesarano wrote in Chronicle of a masked ball (1975): “Neo-Leninists perceive the disintegration of the capitalist system as if they could anticipate, in their methods, their role as true inheritors of power…the distance between militants and militarists is only expressed as a transfer of force.”

4. This was Claire Bishop’s argument in her essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, October, 110, Fall 2004, 51-79.

5. On the notion on the “crítica de la operación efectiva del derecho”, see my conversation with Chilean philosopher Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott, “Soberanía, acumulación, infrapolítica”, Lobo Suelto, 2015: http://anarquiacoronada.blogspot.com/2015/04/soberania-acumulacion-infrapolitica.html  

6. Stefano Harney & Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Autonomedia, 2013).

7. Gerardo Muñoz. “La diagonal que nos separa de la política”, Columna Cultural, mayo de 2021: https://in-cubadora.org/2021/06/02/gerardo-munoz-·la-diagonal-que-nos-separa-de-la-politica-un-comentario-a-la-conversacion-con-leandro-feal

8. Personal communication with the artist, June 2021.

  • This text was written as an intervention in the panel “The Art of Protest” organized by the Biennial of the Americas, Denver, June 24, 2021. Image: Collage by Claudia Patrica Pérez.

Going nowhere: on Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work (2020). by Gerardo Muñoz

Jason Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work (Reaktion Books, 2020) provides us with a renewed cartography of the labor transformations in the wake of automation and the cybernetic revolution, which has ultimately created a “vast service sector” (9). Although at first sight Smith’s book seems to be preoccupied with questions of technology innovation in the post-fordist epoch, the central vortex of the book sheds light on the notion of “servant economy” that has become the fast-evolving segment of today’s job-market. Smith notes that the expansion of the servant economy propelled by automation “poses special obstacles to organization and action in a fragmented workforce. The rise of the “servant economy”, increasingly forces workers into smaller, spatially dispersed workplaces, where they carry out labor-intensified production processes…. deemed low-skill occupations and therefore poorly paid” (14). The new region of the service economy is an effect of the exceptionality of capital form self-abdication where unemployment becomes an existential problem for the social fabric. 

The nuanced analysis undertaken by Smith shows how the fragmented spatialization of labor has become the byproduct of the automation in which control, optimization, and feedback ensemble a new regime of total calculation. Already in 1956, Friedrich Pollock warned of a potential “totalitarian government” that could lead to mass unemployment. Pollock’s Cold War predicament was not off target: the fear of totalitarian unemployment (Habermas would call it crisis of legitimation) was answered with a total (service) economy that compensated for the paradox of stagnation of profit growth. The encompassing force of real subsumption through compartmentalization of services rendered effective James Boggs’ “nowhere to go” in the final dispensation of historical capitalism.

The phase of stagnation announces the “productivity paradox”. Smith writes glossing Mason: “If ours is an age defined by monopolies, cheap credit, rent-seeking and asset bubbles, it is not due to the concerted efforts of elites keen to forestall or smother in the cradle a new, sustained period of productivity gains….despite claims to the contrary, the weather of stagnation and drift that has settle over the advanced capitalist economies since the 1970s, and special since the turn of the century is attributable in no small part technological inertia” (41). The boom of “diversionary gadgets” are on the side of unproductiveness; and, as Ure argues, “do nothing towards the supply of the physical necessities of society” (43). But perhaps diversion usage accounts for the mobilization of the medium of the new phase of automated capitalism. In other words, precisely because traditional form of political legitimacy has crumbled, zero value technology becomes the compensatory psychic equilibrium within the process of abstraction of profit. The subjective dimension of the “medium” in the new phase of automation operates to drive dynamism in the “historic low” of labor productivity growth and the disjointed structural relation between economic growth and rise in wages (64, 69).

One of the conclusions that one can derive from Smith’s rich political economy empirical analysis is that the expansion of the service economy is fundamentally an anti-institutional phenomenon, both at the level of social forms (unions, movements, legal grounds for disputes) as well as in terms of mediations of exchange (intellectual labor, shadow-work, spatial relations to urban centers, etc.). In this sense, the absolutization of the regional “service economy” is the reallocation of reduced labor. In the same way that all ‘originary accumulation’ is an ‘onging accumulation’; the “crisis” of the economy is always already the recurrent stagnation of growth. But Smith notes with precision: “services therefore appear to obscure more than it clarifies” (80). This new process of rationalization mobilizes the valorization of the outside, that is, of every non-market sphere. This process draws a specific ordo rationality: “The true “advances” such as they are, have been in the domination of the labor process by employers: their ability to coerce more labor out of a given hour by means of refinement in supervision, oversight, and workplace discipline” (112). 

Mirroring the optimal logistics of cybernetic and automation processes, one could claim that the expansion of the service economy initiates a regime of governmentality that allows for the attenuation and cost-benefit management of flows. Now I think one can clearly see that “service” is not just an avatar to formal processes of value, but also, as Ivan Illich showed, a secularized theological concept of the Christian notion of hospitality. According to Illich, hospitality was transformed into a use of power and money to provide services and needs [1]. For the ex-Catholic priest, this meant nothing less than the corruption of human freedom, which became tied to the logistics of equivalence. This is why, more than an economic theory, neoliberalism needs to defend an ever-expanding freedom of the subject. In the context of deep social atomization, the service economy self-legitimizes itself as absolute freedom in the social (141). 

At the end of the book, Smith notes that in the wake of automation the relation between political struggles and the new economic composition begin to diverge. There is on one side the model of the teachers and that of the expendables (146-147). In a sense, the “nowhere land” registered by Boggs in the 60s has only intensified, as modern politics forms no longer seem up to the task in the face of total extraction and exclusion. If we think of arguably the most successful leftist political strategy in the last decade or so (the strongest cases have been in Latin America and Spain), the left populism rooted in the theory of hegemony; it becomes clear that after the empirical analysis of Smart Machines, any set of ‘equivalential demands’ is already a demand for exploitation within the regime of the service economy. During this months of pandemic the right has been calling for the immediate reintegration into the economy, bring to bear the internal production at the heart of the project of hegemony. Rather than thinking about a new multitude or unified subject of class, the expendables that Smith situates at the outskirts of the metropolis (the ‘hinterland’), constitute perhaps a new experiential texture of life that is no longer moved by representation but rather expression; it is no longer defined by class, but consumption; it is not interested in negation, but rather in “discovery” (148). Indeed, the new marginalized surplus population does not constitute a new “subject”, but an energy that seeks an exodus from the ruins of the political given the collapse of the whole framework of leftist hegemony [2]. It seem reasonable to think that it is precisely in the threshold of Boggs’ call for a “discovery” (a movement of anabasis), devoid of place and time, where the unfathomable stagnation of our epoch is defied.

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Notes

1. Ivan Illich. The Rivers North of the Future (Anansis, 2005). 

2. “Onwards Barbarians”, Endnotes, December 2020: https://endnotes.org.uk/other_texts/en/endnotes-onward-barbarians

On Jesuit militancy: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (IV). by Gerardo Muñoz

As I continue the systematic reading of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, one can finally provide substance to the thesis that gramscianism amounts to a sort of new priesthood of the political. The question here is about the specific substance and form of the theological. Most definitely, Gramsci is pursuing a strong theological position that is not reducible to monasticism, nor his he interested in subscribing a counter-modern Christian ethos against the modern “gentleman”. In this sense, Gramsci is a modernist tout court. Now, it seems to me that underneath the secularization of his political subjectivation is Jesuitism. This makes sense for at least two reasons. First, Jesuitism is a modern attempt of deification in this world through discipline. But, secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Jesuitism is a practice that serves to expand the energy of political militancy. As Alberto Moreiras suggested a while ago in an essay on the onto-theology of militancy, the reduction of the subjection into action has an important point of inflection in the Jesuitical practice. 

So, what would happen if we read Gramsci when he claims that he prefers a politician that “knows everything” and that is the most “knowledgeable” not as a Machiavellian strategy, but rather as a Jesuitical exercise? Leaving aside the paradoxical instrumentalization of Machiavelli’s political lesson (paradoxical because if political virtue is about keeping the arcana of power at a distance, then why reveal it?), one could very well say that Jesuitism is not just about the management of contingent events, but rather about the administration of habits and practices of the subject in order to reduce any interference of the event. Jesuitism, then, is an instrument to block and reduce all exterior turbulence vis-à-vis the very capture of the heteronomic intrusion. This capture accomplishes two things at once: from the outside it initiates a process of controlling the irruption of heterogeneity; from the inside, it is a technique of subjective militant discipline. It seems to me that Gramsci was not unaware of this theological apparatus when, in the third notebook, he writes the following: 

“New orders which have grown up since then have very little religious significance but a great “disciplinary” significance for the mass of the faithful. They are, or have become, ramifications and tentacles of the Society of Jesus, instruments of “resistance” to preserve political positions that have been gained, not forces of renovation and development. Catholicism has become “Jesuitism”. Modernism has not created “religious orders”, but a political party – Christian Democracy”.  (332)

Now we are in a better position to state that Gramsci’s political theology is compartmentalized in the specificity of Jesuitism. Indeed, he himself reads the transformation of the Church into Jesuitical practice of resistance as parallel to the bourgeois Christian democratic party formation. Does not Gramscianism amount to the same, that is, a combination of party formation and disciplinary militant form? Indeed, Jesuitical practice contains the production of form. Here we see the dimension of Gramsci’s anti-populism, since the main strategy is not to “construct a people”, but rather to build an army of militant community of believers. Any study of Gramscian political theology has to begin by displacing the veneer of political Machiavellism to the concrete practices propelled by theological Jesuitism.

Thus, the gestalt of the “new priest” is profoundly Jesuitical. As Walter Benjamin noted in the fragment “Zu Ignatius von Loyola” (1920), the practice of “consciousness transformation” becomes the way to submit to the spiritual authority. This mechanic domestication of habits becomes the sacrament that regulates the interior life of the militant. A question emerges from all of this: is there a counter-figure to sacramental militancy?