The “academic” and the “spontaneous” subject – part 1

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Mercer Street, NYC, July 2013

The other day an artist acquaintance of my generation sent me the following email: “Your blog interests me, although it’s hard for me to see how it’s not academic. As always though, what you think interests me.” By academic, I suppose he meant something like intellectual, discursive, or involving theory and historical texts – modalities that many think should be left to scholars.

For a few years I’ve been considering the term “academic” in relation to understanding certain art practices. The term has had pejorative connotations ever since the reign of the normative art academy was actively discredited or fell by the wayside. An art historian friend noted – when I complained to him a few years ago that quite a lot of “critical” artwork today seems academic – that historians themselves are fundamentally academic by definition, in that the historical field, the university itself, arises out of a desire to conserve knowledge, as well as to legitimate. There are many notable variations, but I saw his basic point. As an artist, I don’t have to spar with any mandate for factual preservation, as historians do even in the context of breaking from a norm.

For me, the “critical” art that I define as academic has certain qualities. It takes aesthetic modalities that were seen as rupturing earlier normative practices and by dropping these aesthetic modalities into the present, repeats them as empty formulas. It’s not the repetition of the formula per se that renders these artworks academic; nor is it solely the fact that these practices are not currently capable of rupture. Rupture may not even be a desirable, let alone feasible, operation at this moment. What makes the work academic is the hollow rendering into the present of an earlier modality inextricably bound to its time. Current art that can be called academic is an empty husk, even if it strives to appear contemporary by attaching timely codes of one sort or another. I think this is why contemporary art of the academic mode depends so heavily on the press release and the wall label, or the public explanation.

This is not to celebrate rupture for rupture’s sake, not spectacle or newness for the frisson they provide. PR experts already take care of that. But academic “critical” art may be faulted for its paucity of meaningful cultural intervention. At the risk of sounding vulgar, I think art should have a “sell by” date. That’s not to say it couldn’t be meaningful in the future. But at that point, the press release and wall label can legitimately come into play, as well as the history book.

Political context has been a degraded concept for those art historians who have focused on art that critiques art institutions. In fact, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, “context” was skirted in some art historical circles, although in other circles it was perhaps validated but under-theorized. I understood the focus on the politics of art institutions, rather than on what might be called a politics of extension – for example, looking at how museums are themselves creators of ideology, and leaving the connection to, say, a contemporaneous war and its resistors to specialized historians.

That said, as an artist I read, I watch, I think, and I analyze material that is not narrowly contained.

It may seem odd, but these thoughts arose again in the weeks of thinking about the drama playing out over Edward Snowden’s revelations of the U.S. surveillance state, and the media’s treatment of the event. The petty personalization in the U.S. of his whistleblower acts and his subsequent stateless suspension, by television, radio, newspapers, some blogs, as well as by the White House and some elected officials, was no surprise. It was the creation of profitable entertainment and political deflection at once. But I found myself disagreeing with aspects of otherwise crucial and brilliant analyses, such as legal scholar Richard Falk’s on his blog, or even journalist Glenn Greenwald’s. The one argument they made repeatedly that I found problematic was one that I think derived from relating to historical precedent in either a scholarly or empirical journalistic manner. Here is an excerpt of an important Falk post of the other day:

“Beyond the legal guidelines on extradition and asylum that are applicable, there are considerations of world order: protecting dissent and pluralism in a global setting in which the principal political actors are sovereign states that increasingly rely on secrecy and security rationales to constrain democratic open spaces. What Snowden did was to expose this dynamic of constraint in relation to secret surveillance programs administered by private, for profit, contractors Falk’s recent assessment. Also exposed was the ‘Global Big Brother’ implications of extending surveillance to foreign societies and their governments. It is these questions that should receive our attention, and the Hollywood circus chase of Edward Snowden should cease for humanitarian and political reasons.”

One can see why Falk and Greenwald would, while always mindful of speaking up for Snowden’s personal safety, criticize the media’s and the U.S. government’s personalization of the issues Snowden raised and try to leave Snowden and his personal predicament out of the equation. Snowden himself has been contemptuous of that personalization, has asked to be ignored as an individual. But I think the focus on his predicament has been essential. For me, one of the most radical aspects of the Snowden “affair” is the global political chess game that he set in motion, specifically because of his personal predicament. By placing himself on the world stage (to mix my metaphors), Snowden is enacting a testing of the aporia of international law, revealing the arbitrary conditions of national sovereignty, displaying the farce that is currently American democracy, etc. As Falk points out, by (illegally) invalidating Snowden’s passport, the White House rendered moot the legal safeguards of international asylum. Snowden thus exposes the readiness of the U.S. state to resort to authoritarian illegality. He is not the only one functioning in this way today, although he has created the most visible platform for such exposures, exposures that in a sense result from the marooning of his individual and particular body.

In significant ways, Snowden is the Virno-esque subject of this moment of Capitalism – the self-precarious subject par excellence. Have virtuoso knowledge, will travel. But Snowden is displaying more than self-precarity.

In my next post I’ll try to explain why I think that Snowden could be seen to embody – by analogy – Rosa Luxemburg’s somewhat discredited 1906 theory of spontaneous revolution.

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