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


Mercer Street, NYC, July 2013

For a few years, the term “academic” has cropped up in my thoughts about some current art practices. The term “academic” has had pejorative connotations ever since the reign of the normative art academy was 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, arise out of a desire to conserve knowledge, as well as to legitimate. There are notable exceptions, and academic work is not art, but I saw his point. As an artist, I don’t have to contend with any mandate for factual preservation, as historians do even in the context of breaking from a norm.

An academic approach takes shape in different ways for different types of art. The recent “critical” art practices that I define as academic take aesthetic modalities that were seen as rupturing earlier normative practices and by dropping these aesthetic modalities into the present, repeat 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 the ruptures have already taken place. What makes the work academic is the hollow rendering into the present of an earlier modality that remains bound to another moment. 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. And rupture may not be the most critical aesthetic methodology at certain moments. Instead, academic “critical” art may be faulted for its paucity of meaningful cultural intervention. And by intervention I mean even that of the most subtle or indirect kind.

For a couple of decades, political context has been a degraded consideration for those art historians who have lauded art that critiques art institutions (I.e. Institutional Critique as a genre). In fact, in the ‘80s and ‘90s,contemporaneous political and social “context” was skirted in some art historical circles, although in other circles – those makers and supporters of art of the agit-prop type – it was perhaps validated but under-theorized.

These thoughts arose again in the past 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. Cubby-holing political thought blinds one to the expansive political dimensions of representational phenomena.  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 empirically 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. 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, Snowden enacts 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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