Monday, October 22, 2007

reification, counterforces and other boatloads of laughs

I began Counterforces and Other Little Jokes with the notion of filling in the gaps in Atlanta art criticism (for one) and using the blog as a platform for launching a magazine that would address all the issues in global art that the global art world is not addressing. (A tall order, but I would have settled for a tiny fraction of all the unaddressed issues, at least for the first year or so.)

But I find I don’t have the emotional and physical energy to do the problems of Atlanta adequately, never mind keeping up with the problems of getting Moldova straightened out and set before the world. (I did find a Moldovan coin lying on the exit ramp of one of my recent flights; it was a small, weightless piece of aluminum such as I hadn’t seen since the German Democratic Republic put itself out of business in 1990.)

I have always used Moldova as an incidental example because it is one of those post-Soviet states that is an accident of World War II compounded by the accidents of the USSR’s abrupt breakup; its frontiers are the result of a forcible Russian-Romanian border adjustment, and its turmoils of identity would provide subject matter for a hundred artists. But I don’t know even one of them, though I probably would if I had the catalogues for all of the world’s biennials.

In any case, it seems like I should devote Counterforces to an occasional digging myself out of the holes into which I have gotten myself on geographically specialized ground, while leaving joculum as the blog that circles round the big issues of interpretation, cross-cultural theory, and topics of imagination and fantasy, and what may or may not be fantasy even though it seems fantastic. In practice, this just means that both blogs are going to be impossibly idiosyncratic, like the art shows I curate, and polluted with self-absorbed side comments. (The late feminist artist and critic Thomasine Bradford remarked that she was satisfied if critics acknowledged their subject position in passing, i.e. this is being written by a heterosexual male somewhere past the middle of middle age, but she died before blogs made the establishment of the position of the subject into the writing’s main subject.)

When I wrote in the Deconform post that Ezra Pound was at what some would call the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Situationists, I was being exceptionally mischievous. Pound was an irascible, nasty bit of business given to singular self-deception; If the boy from Hailey, Idaho could be so taken with Renaissance Italy that he was taken in by Mussolini’s claim to be providing harmony and universal social welfare through the corporate state, if he could admire the macho authoritarianism of the Renaissance prince to the point of confusing Fascist pomposity with auctoritas, if he thought he could mend Fascism’s remaining flaws by convincing the dictator to read Confucius…well, what more need I say about that?

A lot, actually. Pound’s bitter exclamation regarding the First World War “There died a myriad, and of the best among them, for an old bitch gone in the teeth, for a botched civilization, for a few hundred broken statues, for a few thousand battered books” does not sound like the words of a man who wanted to modify rather than topple. But would-be remakers of the State have often been convinced that it all went wrong some centuries back and can be set right if people stop clinging to the ossified social order that worships the books and the statues instead of the energies and insights that gave birth to the society in the first place.

And this is part of what the various left-oriented theories mean by “reification”…the solidification into immutable laws of nature, into things, of what are really flexible human relations of power and cooperation that can be changed. (Actually, that isn’t what reification means to most of the theorists, but as Humpty Dumpty said, meaning is a question of who is to be master, after all, the words or the writer.)

Pound eventually figured out that his obnoxious personality and his blinkered anti-Semitism and his misreading of the soruces of power had made the Cantos into something of a mess, but what it is of interest is that the prewar aesthetic revolutionary, finding the onward march of reform blocked by the catastrophe of the Great War (as they called World War I before there was a second one to give the first one a number), decided that a new politics was needed to undergird the reformation of the aesthetic order.

Guy Debord, having read the same books as Pound in the course of his classical education, incorporated certain historic energies and attitudes into his not completely different agenda, as did Pound. The Futurists of Pound’s generation, who really did want to blow up the museums, ended up celebrating Mussolini’s high-tech bombing runs rather than his efforts to reformulate a static social order. (How the various twentieth century dictators muddled up people’s responses to technology and their own local history would be a topic for a separate post. Someday.)

Whittaker Chambers, who became the darling of the American conservative movement for having outed the urbane Alger Hiss’s spying on behalf of Stalin’s boys (which, depending on which recent book you read, is either proven definitively or not documented at all in the surviving files of Soviet intelligence services), baffled them by declaring himself a man of the Right and saying that capitalism was inherently anti-conservative. This is, of course, exactly what the Communist Manifesto says, that capitalism has dissolved all historic social relations and turned every human interaction into a cash transaction in which the only value is defined by money. Chambers began his autobiography with an account of the life-endangering jobs in which he was a helpless pawn paid a pittance to act as a readily replacement unit of labor. He renounced the revolution when it became evident to him that it, too, treated human beings as readily replaceable units of labor, but provided a theory for why someday this was all going to pay off in social betterment. Chambers’ real heroes were the anarchists who wanted the social betterment here and now, in mutual aid, and would not put up with the brutalization of yet another generation of workers even for the sake of the radiant future. He ended up backing the world of Eisenhower’s America because it seemed to him like the better of two bad choices. In the same years, the writers of the Beat Generation were trying to navigate past Scylla and Charybdis with a mutually incompatible mixture of drugs, alcohol and Buddhism, while Kenneth Rexroth gamely argued that it was possible to embrace progressive values without going to work for someone else’s foreign office.

All of the confusions and tensions I’ve laid out thus far are illustrated in a hilariously oblique parody video, called Revolution, by Shiqiang Gao, a young artist who lives in Shanghai and whose work was shown in the Shanghai and Beijing Biennials. This video is currently on view through November 1 at the Granite Room in Atlanta’s Castleberry arts district, for those of you readers within driving distance.

The video presents a misery-ridden slum society on a city rooftop. Wrapping himself in a red cloak, a man declares himself king of the revolution and, accompanied by his “running dogs” (as the quirky subtitles have it), sets out to fulfill the people’s unmet desires for food and sex and leisure. In fact, he forbids them to work, and eventually forbids them to wash their own feet, reserving that task for himself and his running dogs.

Pretty soon the people are groaning in misery at being forced to eat more food than anyone can possibly consume, at being commanded to show up at the palace to have their feet washed even after their skin has been rubbed raw, and at being ordered to achieve climax with an ever greater number of sexual partners. Would-be rebels against this society organized for the people’s benefit are punished by being compelled to eat and have sex and have their feet washed completely beyond human capacity.

The malcontents among the people grumble that the king is keeping all the work for himself and they should be allowed to share in the work, too. Instead of making love, they would be making business deals, like the people in the rich, busy world they can see down there below their rooftop. Come the revolution, all the people could work and sweat and make business deals, instead of spending their days in an enforced round of food and sex and idleness on a miserable rooftop.

So the leaders of the new revolution depose the king who worked for the people’s benefit and forbade the people to work. But as soon as the people begin cheering at the prospect of being able to work and make business deals, a phalanx of police officers shows up and orders everyone off the rooftop, saying, “Rooftops are not for living on! Clean out all this trash! Everyone out!”

The video arrived in Atlanta with image and sound separately encrypted, requiring some technical wizardry in order to screen it for an audience that may or may not understand the allegory.

1 comment:

littlejoke said...

As always, I am my own sole commentator. Of course I saw Pavel Braila's "Shoes for Europe," a video about the incompatible width of Moldovan ex-Soviet and European railway gauges, at Documenta 11 in 2002. But I can't name a single Moldovan painter or sculptor or installation artist. My bad.