Hinting at ways to work in current contexts; an interview with Brian Holmes

Robby Herbst

This fourth issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest has been the most difficult to put together. We conceived this project in Los Angeles when all things here felt possible: just a few years back the Bush Administration was impotent, everyone was high on Hardt and Negri, and activists were the force of grassroots globalization infecting everything with “possibility.” Insurgent action, theory and creativity was metastasizing into a holy universal of Zapatista inspired world dance revolution party. Activism en-masse seemed like it was beginning to affect policy, locally, nationally, and internationally. Our Second issue came together as the “world united, saying no to war” and we were touching on concepts of the grassroots as “second superpower.” Our third issue developed along similar lines, high on radical democracies developing in Argentina and secretly buoyed by the explosion of political counter-expression in the States; we were able to ignore the realty of this war and that president. But now we are unable to hide behind dreams of possibility – there simply is no sublime to buoy our relationship with the current US regime. What moments ago seemed achievable now feels impossible: currently it seems that the strongest counter-cultural force is not collective anarchist action but Bush’s policies. These feelings of loss, anger, guilt and frustration hit me as I was introduced to the writing of Brian Holmes.

In piecing this issue together we looked at several contemporary models of resistant practices from the United States and abroad. From the States, it was difficult to find anything that was not developed in relationship to the recent presidential elections – replaying themes of carnival, intervention, or pop-culture models of dissent. Many of these models are inspiring and locally effective, but very few of them leave hints of how to work broadly in the current political context. While actions in the States seemed to be evincing some form of shell shock, I suddenly (through my work editing Aviv K’s article in this issue) was made aware of the powerful, yet entirely foreign, discourses and practices being developed in Europe around notions of precarity. From my outsider's perspective, this discourse seems to be incredibly lively, inspiring cultural and theoretical production, as well as encouraging powerful cross-border and discipline relationships. In the unique European context, this discourse seems to be able to meet the needs of its producers by articulating large themes, as well as make vital connections to the ongoing crisis of human rights within the EU – and back into the other nationalities that Western Capitalism effects.

As artists, we are crucially aware of how different nations and their economies produce different forms of culture; yet there is no guide-book to interpret the global reception of “international” art. It struck me that Brian Holmes might be such an interpreter. As a theorist, his writing is extremely influential – his voice is contemporary, extraordinarily cross-discipline, and above all else, concerned with exploring methodologies of engaged resistance. Rather than getting into a semantic conversation of who influences whom, his critical practice seems to be arm and arm with some of the most forward-reaching activist/artists practices. Finally what marks Holmes as a unique voice is his own trans-nationalism: born in California, he moved to Paris in 1990 where he collaborates on the journal Multitudes. As he says “I can speak French, Spanish and Italian, plus a bit of German, which allows me to indulge my curiosity on a lot of different issues!” Fortunately we were able to put together a last-minute interview with Holmes. The conversation started with a discussion of his piece “The Flexible Personality” (available online at www.journalofaestheticsandprotest.org along with a “dark-history” of contemporary collectivist actions entitled Do-It-Yourself Geopolitics) – a piece of writing whose macro perspective is definitive. More than an interpretation, we feel that the conversation may do the job of hinting at ways to work within current contexts. 

1) In your article "The Flexible Personality," written in 2001, you conceive of individuals within cultures as empowered monads, freed from older constraints of labor, able to choose creative paths and ways of being within society – able to dream beyond the limitations of a vaguely compliant state. When I read this piece, it struck me that I was reading an economic/social/cultural analysis that described a way of being that typified the characteristics of the insurgent globalization movement from the early mid-nineties through 2001. I encountered the piece right after the November elections here in the US, and was hit with the sudden realization that the social/political contexts you were describing no longer exist in the United States, as the neo-liberal regime of Clinton has now been firmly replaced with the neo-fascist (conservative) regime of Bush. You are read internationally, but I was wondering if you could comment on how you perceive your texts being received in different national contexts? Also, how would you respond to the statement that the political situation here in the US is such that the very existence of the "flexible individual" is very much, consciously, under attack in the United States?

– First, the notion of the flexible personality is a little more complex than you make it out. What is at stake is a mode of capitalist social regulation or indeed of social control that no longer appeals to raw obedience and direct corporeal discipline (as under the authoritarian industrial model associated with the Second World War and its aftermath), but instead, that functions via the continuous stimulation and guidance of the opportunistic individual, notably through highly individualized electronic signals. I wanted to demonstrate that the flextime casual labor system, with its short-term contracts and precarious working conditions, is piloted by a "lean and mean" middle-manager class that exercises the kind of cruelty required to hire and fire with no concern for the needs of the workers, but that at the same time is itself ideologically manipulated, sold down the river to an attractive ideal of nomadism and spontaneity that represents a very cheap and tawdry cooptation of much more vigorous counter-cultural experiments. One of the issues in the essay was showing how the middle-class professional cadres were seduced into their new functions, after the widespread alienation of the late sixties and early seventies, when the legitimacy of Fordist industrial discipline had been severely challenged. Of course, having just been through the Clinton years and the social-democratic wave of late-nineties Europe, I emphasized the "soft power" side of the paradigm, which provided a cultural justification for the new system, particularly by ridiculing authoritarian mentalities and rote-learning schemas, and exalting creativity, improvisation and relational fluidity in their place. Since then, what we have seen throughout the world is a full implementation of the flextime system; that is, of a labor regime in which worker mobility and variable hours are accompanied by continuous electronic surveillance and managerial analysis of performance. To observe this, it is not sufficient to watch the corporados strutting around airports with their portable telephones, wireless PCs and PDAs; you also have to look more deeply into all the instrumentation of the workplace, such as biometric identification devices, keystroke counting programs, electronic tracking badges that follow people around a factory floor, GPS sensors for the control of vehicle fleets, etc. All of these technological systems involve people in a new relation between controller and controlled. In reality, despite the stock-market crash that ostensibly put an end to the "new economy," what we have seen is an enduring change in the way that work is managed and waged, and in the social psychology that accompanies it; whether for the worker or the manager. These transformations are now being extended to the control of population flows across national borders, where it is also a matter of the continuous identification and tracking of mobile individuals. But similar considerations apply to consumer profiling in the interests of targeted advertising and high-performance seduction. In all these respects, the only thing that has changed since I wrote that essay is the intensification of the processes that are described in it.

That said, there is no doubt that the political trends in the USA and Europe have parted ways since September 11, 2001, and the American situation has changed dramatically. What I see in the United States is a desperate authoritarian reaction to all the social instability unleashed by the effectuation of neo-liberal economic theory. The problem is that an entire society cannot be controlled by individualized stimulation and surveillance – much less an entire world. But neo-liberalism recognizes only the individual. Rather than attempting to achieve optimal social balances that take a wide range of existential and cultural aspirations into account, neo-liberalism addresses each problem in the terms of the material interest for you. Do the "right thing" and a reward will be meted out to your particular measure; do the "wrong thing" and you'll get exactly what's coming to you. So what happens under this kind of hyper-individualized system? All kinds of collective rebellion.

One such rebellion, the anti-globalization movement, looked tremendously hopeful to many of us; another kind, the Islamic fundamentalist reaction, looks tremendously dangerous and irrational. However, both arise against the background of total disdain that neo-liberalism has shown for any consideration of society as a whole, with its different temporalities (childhood, youth, maturity, old age) and its different fields of experience (play, discovery, construction, wisdom, affectivity, sensuality, sociability), as well as its different rationalities (empirical, sentimental, spiritual, ecological). Neo-liberalism wanted to make everything calculable and controllable at the point of application; i.e. the individual employee whose time was money. No consideration would be allotted to any experience or relation outside the immediate economic function. But this kind of social management leaves too many factors out of the equation, as Karl Polanyi showed in The Great Transformation, which was a diagnosis of the first great crisis of laissez-faire capitalism, from 1914 to 1945. Alas, the present period in the US resembles the 30’s in Europe, just before the culmination of that last great crisis.

The result of capitalism's totalitarian demand to individualize everything is a predictable breakdown of social relations, which manifested itself in the US as a triple crisis: the anti-globalization movement, the stock-market crash and the attack on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. Bush's authoritarianism and his appeal to religion are a desperate attempt to manage this triple crisis. In that sense, I don't think that neo-fascism has replaced neo-liberalism. I think neo-fascism is the logical consequence of the continuing existence of neo-liberalism.

            Beyond all that, is there any chance to recover the counter-cultural ideal of existential improvisation, adaptability to otherness, flexibility in a word? I think there is. What is called "co-optation" is simply the semantic version of social struggle. It's a question of who owns the words: who will get to use them, and for what. The effect of neo-authoritarianism in the US is to drop the mask: now we know what the capitalist version of "flexibility" really means. It means cybernetic control over mobility, backed up by violence if need be. What the Left needs to recover is the ideal of a flexibility that can move fluidly between the different temporalities, fields of experience and forms of reason that I mentioned above. That's the full spectrum of humanity, far wider than the straightjacket of homo economicus. And that kind of existential fluidity is what the Right is really attacking. Not neo-liberalism and its phony idea of free markets which in practice are always rigged and controlled; not the flexibility of a working-class that has been forced into synch with just-in-time production; but instead, the ability to open oneself up to the time of the other, the culture and the affects of the other. That's what seems to bother them.

2) I've been reading a lot of discourse, and seeing a lot of creative production coming out of Europe in relationship to theories of precarity, and it strikes me that the individual practicing these Precarious actions in Europe are your "flexible individuals." How do you imagine readers in the United States relating to or receiving conceptual methods that, while extremely vibrant in certain contexts, may not resonate with situation on the ground here in the United States? Where I find precarity theories' insistence on solidarity with immigrant classes and the "developing world" very relevant, I am not so sure if the actions and happenings developing in Europe, making these solidarities visible, are very transferable to the US. As a side note, I am very aware of both the resonances and open antagonisms that existed in the sixties between European political/cultural avant-gardes and the American political/cultural avant-gardes, and conversely the productive resonances that developed globally from RTS actions in England and Zapatismo in Mexico and beyond.

– You're certainly right that a real communication problem is developing between two continental systems that have become quite different, even though they are constantly exchanging with each other. In this respect, I think your earlier question about whether I'm conscious of being read in different national contexts is spot on. The thing is that nowadays, one has to be aware that an effective globalization – that is, the constitution of a truly global marketplace – is taking place at the same time as the formation of three distinct continental blocs (the US, the EU and the uncertain Asian bloc that has not yet fully emerged). The existence of the global market makes some things comparable across the world. But others are not. The theorist Bob Jessop has argued, in his great book The Future of the Capitalist State, that the Anglo-Saxon countries – essentially the UK and the US – have opted for neo-liberal regime shift; meaning that the Welfare State is entirely dismantled, border regimes are opened to trade and currency fluctuation, and the state preoccupies itself above all with legal, police and military functions. Meanwhile, the countries of Western Europe have merely opted for adjustment to neo-liberalism, meaning that despite the relative opening of the border regimes, there is still a role for the state in the provision of social welfare. The difference is decisive – even though, given the neo-liberal orientation of the Treaty for a European Constitution, that difference may not last too long. Today, Europeans can protest against precarious working and living conditions, under the assumption that the state must intervene to right wrongs and redress imbalances. Such an expectation has vanished in the US. The stark fact, for Americans, is that there is no more social democracy, there is no more reformist element within the political establishment. Clinton proved that by failing to establish national health coverage, and by doing away with yet more of the remnants of welfare. In this sense, the simple adoption of European demands and gestures around the questions of precarity would be foolish and misguided in the United States. And yet that shouldn't prevent American activists from analyzing their labor and living conditions as the Europeanss have done, and using that analysis as a tool to raise questions about the evolution of the society and who it benefits, or who it could benefit.

            The wider issue is how to conceive solidarities across the global space, despite the significant differences between the continental blocs (and between their peripheries). In former times, Americans could just assume that their problems were the real ones, and backward regions of the world would soon catch up. This is no longer entirely certain. The US may prove to have specific problems, which the rest of the world will gladly ignore. That will be the case if the American dollar continues to depreciate, and finally loses the de facto world-currency status that it has enjoyed up till now. At that point, everything will become truly relative, because the US will have essentially lost control over the other socio-economic systems that it now dominates. From my viewpoint, that would be a good thing. In any case, the illusion that a single, globalized or "networked" logic could account for the diversity of conditions across the world has come to its close. We must go back to making careful judgments that assess our own local situation with respect to very different ones. This is something that matters directly to me, as my mixed condition of being born and socialized in the US but living in Europe tends to promote all kinds of confusion. For many years it was possible to describe American conditions and use them as a kind of warning to the Europeans, concerning what might happen soon on the Continent, if we don't resist it. That's still a valid strategy, in fact. But the forms of resistance, in America and Europe, have become very different, precisely because of the extent to which European countries have held off the supposed destiny of neo-liberalism – particularly by building very large and active social movements. And then September 11 came to dramatize the gap, thrusting Americans into a regressive military posture that Europe has largely and rightly avoided.

At this point, I guess we all need to take such differences fully into account, while still supporting alternatives wherever they arise. The positive effects of Zapatismo are a great example: they didn't necessarily entail any illusion that we are all Mayan villagers. One of the functions of intellectuals in the era of globalization should be to make the differences between countries and regions explicit, while also suggesting what might be shared, so that everyone can come to their own informed assessments and decisions. I will certainly be more circumspect about such questions in my future texts, now that it seems they are being read in the USA.

3) I am wondering if you can comment directly on the art that develops within European vs. US economies? Here in particular I am thinking directly about discourses around "relational aesthetics," "collective practices," "cultural work" or "social practices," and how these (differing) terms and methodologies of production may or may not be applied.

– So-called "relational aesthetics," promoted by the French critic Nicolas Bourriaud, seemed to me to be a hoax from the very start, as you can see by reading my texts On Interaction in Contemporary Art and Reflecting Museums (both available at www.u-tangente.org). Basically, there has been a reification of social interactions to fit the specific ideological and functional demands of the French institutions; and then, through the "magic of the marketplace," those curious products have been foisted off on the global idea-consumer. But relational aesthetics, however distorted it may be, does in a way reflect to the basic reality of cooperative practices in the cultural-informational economy. The thing is that such an economy has put a high value on invention; and invention, as it happens, is most often a social event, something that springs up in the creative flux of interchange and cooperation. This economic reality of the social character of invention has been used by the Italian autonomists to point to aspects of economic relations that are unquantifiable, irreducible to the great motivator and controller, which is money.

I think it's quite natural that artists should insist on these unquantifiable aspects of life, and particularly, on the way that invention springs from them. Here I don't see that much difference between the US and Europe. In both places, the capitalist economy simultaneously recognizes the productive value of cooperation, and yet calculates everything in terms of the individual. It's great for artists to expose this contradiction, not by making new products to exhibit in the gallery-magazine-museum system, but by testing out experimental processes in urban space particularly, but not only, in the contexts of protest and resistance. Of course, there is much more cultural support in Europe for experiments with collectivist processes and values, and cooperative art practices end up getting a lot of attention from post-communist types who want to renew the aesthetics of the Left by looking again to production and productivity as something fundamentally human; the place where artistic experimentation can affect the very basis of life in common. Certainly I have written many things along those lines, particularly in a text like “The Revenge of the Concept,” which was published in the States in the second edition of the book Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement. You might find some of the Marxist references in those kinds of arguments to be not very credible here, because of the lack of any institutional or political relays for Marxist thought. But the US over the last ten or fifteen years has seen the rise of an anarchist movement and sensibility that can do even more interesting things, both practically and theoretically, with the same kinds of aesthetic experiments. And even if these things appear to touch only a tiny minority, it is important to continue. Because there may come a day when the range of participants suddenly expands.

4) Now that I have asked you to reflect about what you have written in the past, and how it plays out in differing national contexts, I was wondering if there are any appropriate critical/creative routes that you find especially relevant to the immediate situation within the United States?

– Coming to grips with what Antonio Negri has called "imperial subjectivity" seems extremely important. By this I mean, exploring the structures of perception and affect that have grown up along with the American attempt to run the world; to inject the dollar everywhere, to install the internet everywhere, to base the army everywhere. What, for instance, are the common links between the unlimited technological optimism of the average computer geek, and the volunteer enthusiasm of Minutemen out patrolling the US-Mexican border? Why has the entire world become a frontier to be simultaneously pushed back, opened up to American colonization, and at the same time sealed off, guarded against foreign incursion? It's no longer possible to simply critique the actions of the Right, as though "they" were obviously sick and deranged, and "we" just needed to expose that.

I would say that Americans could gain a lot by deeply exploring the drives that have made the people of this country into the spearheads of capitalist globalization. It's no longer a matter of wishing there was a different path, of thinking you could just turn the civilization around, disarm, demobilize, de-nuclearize, etc. It's a matter of finding and building an ethics for the unlimited conquest of space. This means taking stock, not only of the relentless progress of technology, but also of the ways that techno-economic power has radically shifted people's psychic orientation. Dreams of ubiquity, immortality and genetic perfection are part of the new mindset. Today, under the grip of the neo-cons, these changes effectively manifest themselves as a disease, a pathology of power and greed and the will to believe.  But that pathology can only be faced and stabilized by people who have taken up the full dimensions of the problem, who have gone to the bottom of what is almost an anthropological transformation.

It's relatively easy to criticize the figure of the Rambo soldier-man, the rugged individualist with a gun. And much more difficult to imagine the opposite figures; the collectivities that do not shirk away from the complexity of 21st-century society, but do not give themselves up to its prefabricated categories either. I think visual art, literature, social theory and activism are all places to explore this deep change in the American psyche, and the possibility of a new ethics that could accompany it, temper it, give some necessary limits to its narcissistic expansionism and delirium of grandeur.

5) One of the things I really appreciate about your writing is your dual use of Situationist theory as well as the German theorist Herbert Marcuse. I live here in California, Marcuse’s adopted home. California in the late sixties and seventies was also a place that really seemed to adopt Marcuse – in its multiple experiments in escape and counter-cultural formations. As an artist, I often find myself drawn back to Marcuse, both aesthetically and politically, but he is someone that I really had to come upon myself, as he is rarely discussed nor taken seriously (his sexual politics strike many as an archaic joke). I am wondering if you could give me your two-cents on Marcuse, especially in light of discourses that proclaim that concepts of marginality are irrelevant (or in light of current framings of "culture-war" in the US or Europe). And finally, what do you see as the role of Critical Theory today?

– Recently while walking around Rio de Janeiro I saw an amazing graffiti-type painting on a city wall, which showed three rappers from the favelas. One was wearing a Joy Division tee-shirt and clasping a bright red book with the word "Filosofia" written along the spine, and the name "Marcuse" emblazoned on the cover. Those guys seemed to know exactly what they were doing! I don't think marginality has gone away as a social force, far from it. After all, most of the radical protest culture in Europe today is articulated out of squats, and the demonstrations use organizational forms that have evolved out of the underground side of the techno movements. The whole effort to link the struggles of precarious workers to those of paperless immigrants is part of a desire to expand the margins, to experiment on the edges of capitalist normalcy, to construct dissenting and subversive situations. And I think everyone knows, or feels, that this is a path towards understanding the latent force of rebellion and revolution that is gathering in the world's massive slums, for instance in South America.

All that is not necessarily a romanticization: it can be a very real choice, a will to undermine the norms, to choose different ways of living and relating, without denying that ethics of complexity which I mentioned before. That aspect of Marcuse seems quite alive to me: alliances between the alienated middle classes and the lumpen outcasts of technocratic society can still serve as detonators of insurrection. But it's very clear that in the US, a huge effort has been made to control and channel all the potentially alienated groups in society, particularly through the commodification of cultural practices like music, so as to keep such alliances from ever happening again. I discuss these processes of co-optation and channeling in the “Flexible Personality” text. I think it's vitally important to be aware of how they work. Today, radical movements on the margins are much less likely to be fooled by the cooptation and commodification of their styles and attitudes. That's why a counter-cultural movement has been able to spring up again, particularly around the direct-action protests, where out-and-out illegality has been a guarantee against integration into the cultural fashion system.

            As for Critical Theory in the larger sense – embracing the work of the entire Frankfurt School – what impresses me is the ambition to draw the correlations between social and psychic structures, and to see aesthetics as a contested bridge between the two. Critical Theory was an interdisciplinary project, attempting to bring the specialized knowledge of economics, sociology, depth psychology, political science, aesthetics and philosophy to bear on the conditions of everyday life. I like that ambition, and even more, the concerted effort that made it a reality. But like most other varieties of 20th-century cultural critique, Critical Theory was a textual thing. It rested on the idea that a directive, technocratic class – those in charge of the modernizing process – could be enlightened by the critical texts and convinced to do their job better; particularly if they were revolutionary Communists or had some kind of Marxist basis to their action. Vanguard art appeared as a great force for shaping the subjectivity of those potentially enlightened directive classes. Nowadays one cannot have any such confidence in the ability of an intellectual critique to reach the decision-makers. Indeed, Critical Theory ended up in a melancholic position of bootless cultural authority over a rapidly shrinking public, as everyone knows. Today, the guys on the graffiti in Rio probably have a more powerful project. They are visibly aiming to combine social theory, aesthetics and activism, as a way to root analysis in everyday sensibility, and then to make it directly transformative by doing something right now. That's what interests me. I think that intellectual critique has to be embodied. Which doesn't mean there isn't a tremendous need for a better analysis of the way society is changing! Or for a better philosophy of how to reorient life on this earth. You just always have to find a way to make the ideas tangible, and effective. And that tends to transform the ideas along the way.

6) In an earlier correspondence, you mentioned that you were in the process of "peripherializing" (my phrase) your work. In particular, you mention an interest in writing about Latin America and you have been spending time in Argentina. I hear and see this concern echoed with other theorists, Naomi Klein and Eddie Yuen come to mind. Can you explain this interest as well as tell us about some projects you might be working on to these ends?

– For the past few years, it seems that hardly a month goes by without an uprising or a change of government somewhere in Latin America. And almost all these events are Leftist in orientation. This is quite impressive when you consider that the "manifest destiny" of all the Latin American nations, from a Clintonian point of view, was to become part of the FTAA, which was essentially the corporate plan for hemispheric integration. Why do the Latin Americans resist, how do they do so, and what kinds of alternatives do they put into place? It's only natural to be extremely curious. Particularly in my case, because what I am trying to study and understand now are precisely the processes of continental integration represented by NAFTA and the EU. In each of the two different cases, I am interested in seeing how the dominant model is constituted, technologically, economically, socially, psychically, politically etc.; then what kinds of tensions it produces when it is applied on the peripheries or the margins, and what kinds of resistant subjectivities and systems arise against it. This means examining the border regions, traveling to the peripheries, but also seeing how these transformations play out in the capitalist metropolises; because as the search for markets projects the centers to the peripheries, so the flow of migrants brings the peripheries to the center.

Ultimately what's at stake in all this is understanding the global division of labor, which has been the great enigma since postmodernization began in the eighties. Who works, at what kind of production, under which financial system, for whose consumption – and who doesn't even get the chance to work, whose territory remains tragically undeveloped and destitute, or is destroyed by invasive technologies and pollutants? Again, there is a great role for art to play in these kinds of investigations. Why do people desire certain kinds of production? What do they imagine as a better future? How do they build their solidarities? What are their poetics of the other, how do they communicate beyond their own frameworks? Only when these kinds of questions are answered in such a way as to enter the field of common sense and of the common senses, will we be able to generate the kind of activism that I think is really needed. The kind of activism that can stand up, by the strength of numbers and will and by the quality of imagination and desire, to the machinery of continental integration that is now being driven by the predatory rationality of globalizing capital.