Can artistic practices still play a critical role in a society where the difference between art and advertizing have become blurred and where artists and cultural workers have become a necessary part of capitalist production? Scrutinizing the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have shown how the demands for autonomy of the new movements of the 1960’s had been harnessed in the development of the post-Fordist networked economy and transformed in new forms of control. The aesthetic strategies of the counter-culture: the search for authenticity, the ideal of self-management, the anti-hierarchical exigency, are now used in order to promote the conditions required by the current mode of capitalist regulation, replacing the disciplinary framework characteristic of the Fordist period. Nowadays artistic and cultural production play a central role in the process of capital valorization and, through ‘neo-management’, artistic critique has become an important element of capitalist productivity.
This has led some people to claim that art had lost its critical power because any form of critique is automatically recuperated and neutralized by capitalism. Others, however, offer a different view and see the new situation as opening the way for different strategies of opposition. Such a view can be supported by insights from Andre Gorz for whom ‘When self-exploitation acquires a central role in the process of valorization, the production of subjectivity becomes a terrain of the central conflict… Social relations that elude the grasp of value, competitive individualism and market exchange make the latter appear by contrast in their political dimension, as extensions of the power of capital. A front of total resistance to this power is made possible. It necessarily overflows the terrain of production of knowledge towards new practices of living, consuming and collective appropriation of common spaces and everyday culture.’
To be sure the modernist idea of the avant-garde has to be abandoned, but that does not mean that any form of critique has become impossible. What is needed is widening the field of artistic intervention, by intervening directly in a multiplicity of social spaces in order to oppose the program of total social mobilization of capitalism. The objective should be to undermine the imaginary environment necessary for its reproduction. As Brian Holmes puts it, ‘Art can offer a chance for society to collectively reflect on the imaginary figures it depends upon for its very consistency, its self-understanding.’
I agree that artistic practices could contribute to the struggle against capitalist domination but this requires a proper understanding of the dynamics of democratic politics; an understanding which I contend can only be obtained by acknowledging the political in its antagonistic dimension as well as the contingent nature of any type of social order. It is only within such a perspective that one can grasp the hegemonic struggle which characterizes democratic politics, hegemonic struggle in which artistic practices can play a crucial role.
The political as antagonism
The point of departure of the theoretical reflections that I will propose in this piece is the difficulty that we currently have for envisaging the problems facing our societies in a political way. Contrary to what neo-liberal ideologists would like us to believe, political questions are not mere technical issues to be solved by experts. Properly political questions always involve decisions which require us to make a choice between conflicting alternatives. This incapacity to think politically, is to a great extent due to the uncontested hegemony of liberalism. ‘Liberalism’, in the way I use the term in the present context, refers to a philosophical discourse with many variants, united not by a common essence but by a multiplicity of what Wittgenstein calls ‘family resemblances’. There are to be sure many liberalisms, some more progressive than others but, save a few exceptions, the dominant tendency in liberal thought is characterized by a rationalist and individualist approach which is unable to grasp adequately the pluralistic nature of the social world, with the conflicts that pluralism entails; conflicts for which no rational solution could ever exist, hence the dimension of antagonism that characterizes human societies. The typical liberal understanding of pluralism is that we live in a world in which there are indeed many perspectives and values and that, due to empirical limitations, we will never be able to adopt them all, but that, when put together, they constitute an harmonious ensemble. This is why this type of liberalism must negate the political in its antagonistic dimension. Indeed, one of the main tenets of this liberalism is the rationalist belief in the availability of a universal consensus based on reason. No wonder that the political constitutes its blind spot. Liberalism has to negate antagonism since, by bringing to the fore the inescapable moment of decision – in the strong sense of having to decide in an undecidable terrain – antagonism reveals the very limit of any rational consensus.
Politics as Hegemony
Next to antagonism, the concept of hegemony is, in my approach, the other key notion for addressing the question of ‘the political’. To acknowledge the dimension of the political as the ever present possibility of antagonism requires coming to terms with the lack of a final ground and the undecidability which pervades every order. It requires in other words recognizing the hegemonic nature of every kind of social order and the fact that every society is the product of a series of practices attempting at establishing order in a context of contingency. The political is linked to the acts of hegemonic institution. It is in this sense that one has to differentiate the social from the political. The social is the realm of sedimented practices, that is, practices that conceal the originary acts of their contingent political institution and which are taken for granted, as if they were self-grounded. Sedimented social practices are a constitutive part of any possible society; not all social bonds are put into question at the same time. The social and the political have thus the status of what Heidegger called existentials, i.e. necessary dimensions of any societal life. If the political – understood in its hegemonic sense- involves the visibility of the acts of social institution, it is impossible to determine a priori what is social and what is political independently of any contextual reference. Society is not to be seen as the unfolding of a logic exterior to itself, whatever the source of this logic could be: forces of production, development of the Spirit, laws of history, etc. Every order is the temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices. The frontier between the social and the political is essentially unstable and requires constant displacements and renegotiations between social agents. Things could always be otherwise and therefore every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities. It is in that sense that it can be called ‘political’ since it is the expression of a particular structure of power relations. Power is constitutive of the social because the social could not exist without the power relations through which it is given shape. What is at a given moment considered as the ‘natural’ order – jointly with the ‘common sense’ which accompanies it – is the result of sedimented hegemonic practices; it is never the manifestation of a deeper objectivity exterior to the practices that bring it into being.
Every order is therefore political and based on some form of exclusion. There are always other possibilities that have been repressed and that can be reactivated. The articulatory practices through which a certain order is established and the meaning of social institutions is fixed are ‘hegemonic practices’. Every hegemonic order is susceptible of being challenged by counter-hegemonic practices, i.e. practices which will attempt to disarticulate the existing order so as to install another form of hegemony.
What is at stake in what I call the ‘agonistic’ struggle, which I see as the core of a vibrant democracy, is the very configuration of power relations around which a given society is structured. It is a struggle between opposing hegemonic projects which can never be reconciled rationally. An agonistic conception of democracy acknowledges the contingent character of the hegemonic politico-economic articulations which determine the specific configuration of a society at a given moment. They are precarious and pragmatic constructions which can be disarticulated and transformed as a result of the agonistic struggle among the adversaries. Contrary to the various liberal models, the agonistic approach that I am advocating recognizes that society is always politically instituted and never forgets that the terrain in which hegemonic interventions take place is always the outcome of previous hegemonic practices and that it is never an neutral one. This is why it denies the possibility of a non-adversarial democratic politics and criticizes those who, by ignoring the dimension of ‘the political’, reduce politics to a set of supposedly technical moves and neutral procedures.
The Public Space
What are the consequences of the agonistic model of democratic politics that I have just delineated for visualizing the public space? The most important consequence is that it challenges the widespread conception that, albeit in different ways, informs most visions of the public space conceived as the terrain where consensus can emerge. For the agonistic model, on the contrary, the public space is the battleground where different hegemonic projects are confronted, without any possibility of final reconciliation. I have spoken so far of the public space, but I need to specify straight away that, we are not dealing here with one single space. According to the agonistic approach, public spaces are always plural and the agonistic confrontation takes place in a multiplicity of discursive surfaces. I also want to insist on a second important point. While there is no underlying principle of unity, no predetermined centre to this diversity of spaces, there always exist diverse forms of articulation among them and we are not faced with the kind of dispersion envisaged by some postmodernist thinkers. Nor are we dealing with the kind of ’smooth’ space found in Deleuze and his followers. Public spaces are always striated and hegemonically structured. A given hegemony results from a specific articulation of a diversity of spaces and this means that the hegemonic struggle also consist in the attempt to create a different form of articulation among public spaces.
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