BY Nina Power in Interviews | 01 SEP 09
Featured in
Issue 125

Intelligence Agency

Theorist Sylvère Lotringer talks art and the market, the failings of capitalism and how radical thinking can help us survive 'the system'

BY Nina Power in Interviews | 01 SEP 09

Nina Power Recently you were at London’s Kingston University to talk about the avant-garde. What do you understand by this term?

Sylvère Lotringer I was happily surprised that we can still talk about the avant-garde in art. We are now inhabiting another time-space. Everything is happening too fast and in too many places at the same time for any group or movement to make any such claim. The conference that I attended was trying to extract from this Modernist concept some elements that could still apply among more socially creative political groups and movements, especially at this time when the capitalist system seems to be faltering. The idea of the Italian Autonomia movement – which I documented in an issue of Semiotext(e) in 1980 and republished recently – was that we could reinvent politics, and create something more fluid and non-institutionalized. We are now republishing The German Issue, first released in 1982, as part of the same attempt to bring out the communal part, the creative social impulse that was left behind as we entered the strange anomie that we are experiencing today, in which shallow individualism, cynicism and rapacity thrive in a complete vacuum.

NP One of the most important media for the Autonomia was radio. The obvious contemporary comparison is the Internet; it offers the possibility of putting out material quickly, and of constructing para- or non-academic discussions, as you did with Semiotext(e) at a time when French theory was still mostly untranslated. Perhaps there is less room for the kind of fetish items that the early Semiotext(e) books became. Now there are blogs, online books, and so on. How do you feel about this development?

SL It certainly offers an enormous range of possibilities that didn’t exist before, but increased dissemination and accessibility doesn’t replace hard theory. Actually the introduction of the electronic media in the late 1970s marked the end of French theory in France. Philosophers of this great generation were replaced by publicists, like Bernard-Henri Lévy. Theory is not synonymous with blogging, nor is multi-tasking with thinking. The books that we publish are a long-time intellectual commitment on their authors’ part and we have hardly scratched the surface. We are interested in everything that helps us diagnose the future, where we are going, what can be done, and that is far from clear at this point. We are presently moving from a humanistic space to a more global and ecological horizon. So we need an ever wider range of theories, not less, and the re-introduction of Italian social thinkers as well as Peter Sloterdijk’s amazing philosophical extrapolations are part of this project. Radio certainly had its time, but it is no less interesting for that. Actually it has been experiencing a revival. Technological advance isn’t everything. The Autonomists’ radios were not just radio, they were part of a total – not a global – environment, and they could mobilize the population whenever the police tried to raid them. These were political groups embedded in a local community, they knew who they were talking to. Can these communities be extended on a wider scale? Not in the same way. The Internet seemed to be the answer at the time it was introduced, but it has quickly become a new form of mental pollution. The CIA, apparently, is now working on a ‘gated’ equivalent that will keep hackers and other rogue idealists off-limits. The Internet certainly allows for a direct connection between people, but it still depends on long-time memory and a central organ. It assigns individuals a place that pre-exists them and abstracts them from their own environment. This is just the opposite of the idea of ‘general intelligence’ that Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno have extracted from Marx, which implies social creativity and public cooperation. Like other recent technological inventions, the Internet runs the risk of reproducing itself at the expense of the very sociability it was supposed to provide. It expands our world and reduces it to nothing, enforcing a culture of non-stop communication that is taking its toll on human temporality and its capacity to connect to the outside.

I call capitalism ‘the system’ because it doesn’t have a face, let alone a ‘human face’ you can challenge.

Ernst Jünger was the first to invoke, in the 1930s, the ‘total mobilization’ of populations in times of peace as in times of war. He was careful to point out that it didn’t mean sending people to the battlefields, but making sure of their readiness for mobilization. We all seem to be engaged at this point in a war of movement whose purpose and outcome mostly exceeds our control or understanding. And this war, unlike any other before, is being waged by humanity against itself. Fittingly, the Internet was conceived by ARPANET for the US military in 1962 before being released to the general public. Its original purpose, let’s not forget, was to preserve the capacity for massive retaliation from below in case of a nuclear explosion. This doomsday scenario involved the destruction of 20 million Russians in major cities, and there is no question that it would have been activated given the chance. Paradoxically, the same concept was invented separately by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari with their ‘rhizome’ in 1975, and the disproportion between the means involved tells a lot about the power of theory. The rhizome doesn’t foster separation or passivity, which was the major Situationist diagnosis of the society of the spectacle. It is not a given, but invented along the way and you constantly have to look for roots that could burgeon into untimely events. It fitted perfectly what was happening with Autonomia and Guattari at the time; but when you look at the extension of the concept of rhizomatization alongside Foucault, then this fluidity can also reinforce power and control. We’re in a society where nothing is simply what it is. All the more reason to try and drive a wedge, in concrete situations, between active and reactive forces.

NP In The Conspiracy of Art, the book you collaborated on with Jean Baudrillard in 2005, you talk about the devil’s pact between art and markets, and how it’s no longer possible to separate them.

SL It hardly was a prediction by then, only a clinical assessment. Marcel Proust said that much of Swann’s love after it reached a certain stage: it was no longer operable. This is the kind of relation that art has entered with the art market, and you would have to look at art from the point of view of the system, not from an art lover’s, if you wanted to understand what has happened to it. The situation of art has become ‘systemic’ in the sense that the concept is being used in the present financial crisis. What it means is that the problem keeps feeding upon itself and nothing proves it can really be solved. So we had better ask the market itself what it thinks about art. That’s why I found the discussion about ‘Art and Money’ that was held last year in New York so fascinating. It was a triumphalist event, like the press conference of the US generals in Saddam Hussein’s palace – and it was staged just a few months before the castle of cards abruptly collapsed. Every participant in the discussion, including the many artists in the audience, seemed to rejoice at the thought, expressed by Jeffrey Deitch, the New York art dealer, that avant-garde movements could be replaced by the ‘top ten list’ of contemporary artists. ‘We’ve gone from art market to art industry’, Deitch asserted, going on to say that the art world had become ‘an extraordinary platform for cross-marketing’. As Christian Marazzi reminded us recently, the typical sequence of financial cycles is a phase of impetus, then collective infatuation and overtrading, followed by fear and disorder. This was financial infatuation at its very best. Amy Cappellazzo, co-head of contemporary art at Christie’s, estimated that art fairs and auctions were the places where ‘the art is happening in real-time’ and anticipated confidently that ‘the market will have shake-ups’, but that ‘the very high end will have the smallest amount of correction.’ They were not boasting. They were celebrating the fact that, from the point of view of the market machine, art has become like everything else, and that differences don’t make any difference any more. Art has ceased to be special, it has become an industry like any other. And it is true that the ongoing crisis has been affecting the art world just like any other corporation or industry, although it seems to have suffered a bit less. No auction-house that I know of has gone bankrupt. There may be something special about art after all: it is the minion of capital. This was exactly what Baudrillard had in mind when he accused the art world of ‘insider trading’, and he chose his words carefully. Art is still claiming a special privilege, and behaving as if it had one. But that was pure arrogance on its part, and Baudrillard deflated it roundly in the best Situationist tradition by asserting that art was null – meaning that it had no more ‘distinctive’ qualities. That was a deliberate provocation, and part of his strategy, which consists of pushing the system to the limit until it collapses. And he was right in that respect: withdraw this sense of privilege, and art would be just like anything else. Nietzsche always urged us to shake down what is unsteady. What is crumbling down is a certain idea of art.

What I like about theory is that it spares us disasters. We don't need to see the worst to understand it.

NP One of the central figures to emerge in the art world in recent years is the freelance curator. Do you see any link between a curator, who is basically pure connectivity and networking, and the theories of immaterial labour that Semiotext(e) has published? Marazzi, Virno, and others have tried to theorize changes in the nature of work, trying to get back to ideas of human capacity, almost a return to a kind of naturalism, or, in Virno’s case, a kind of critical naturalism.

SL Virno is clearing the ground, collapsing naturality and immateriality – biology and techno-intelligence – in order to bring out a capacity for innovation that capitalism fosters and could eventually be used against it. His approach is in line with the strategy devised by French post-1968 theorists after they realized that traditional class struggles led by the working class and communist parties had become obsolete and that they had to extract subversive energy directly from the flows of capital. Marx anticipated that the ‘general intellect’ liberated by the system of machines could replace political action, the way Italian autonomists created immaterial barricades in Bologna by tampering with traffic lights. Political action then becomes pure performativity without any product. But that kind of communicative virtuosity can also be tapped by the system. The freer the curators, the more work-time they will have to devote to their projects. They contribute in their own way to the extermination of use-value, which was mostly an alibi for exchange-value to start with. Now it isn’t just work-time that is being used, but life-time. The entire ‘bio’. This ambivalence is inherent to post-Fordism in which life and work have become indistinguishable. It results from the principle of equivalence enforced by capital in which everything becomes commutable, reversible, exchangeable. It is this general exchangeability that has gradually abolished all differences and boundaries, and imposed an uneasy sense of indetermination throughout society. Sex, the last remaining codification of morality and culture, is the quintessential example. It has been so saturated from all sides that there is nothing much that one can do with it at this point. The only place left is greed. Virno would agree with Baruch Spinoza that there is nothing worse than ubiquity, the endless oscillation between invention and negativity. Ambivalence is a prey to fear and anxiety, emotions that separate us from our strength and prevent us from discovering what our body is capable of. It is precisely that kind of indetermination that ‘general intelligence’ claims to eradicate by breaking into the productive process through communication, abstraction and linguistic cooperation. Whether these can hold against the exchangeability and ubiquity of capital, and how they could be mobilized against capitalism, remains to be seen. It is, in any case, a bold proposition meant to regain the initiative.

NP Do you think that art has become indeterminate as well?

SL Absolutely. This has little to do with individual works – whether good or bad – only with the dizzying change of scale, the massive production, circulation and consumption of art world-wide. The art market has expanded exponentially and has been losing its shape to achieve monstrous proportions. It is occupying all the space, wildly metastasizing in every possible direction. It is so bloated at the core that it doesn’t seem able anymore to digest all the data. It is on its way to surpass its function. The early 1980s orchestrated the return to painting, and gave the art market a chance to fasten its hold. But it didn’t stop there and it didn’t take long before art started outgrowing its own boundaries, opening itself up to the exchangeability of capital. First it absorbed photography, until then considered unworthy; then it moved to architecture, fashion, and design. Along the way, it has integrated ‘outsider art’, abolishing its own internal limit, and put together ubiquitous ‘installations’ liable to be pitched anywhere and provide a fast pedigree for ‘rogue nations’. Today it is difficult to imagine anything that could be excluded from art. Its field has expanded exponentially to include the entire society. Along the way, it has grabbed anything that could be used for its own purpose, recycling garbage, forging communities, investigating political issues and perfumes, tampering with biology etc., simultaneously appearing and disappearing with an ambiguous promiscuity. Art has finally fulfilled the program of Dada with a vengeance, embedding art into life. The only thing left for art to do is ‘auto-dissolve’. Most avant-gardes promised too much and never delivered. Their manifestos of ‘auto-dissolution’, on the contrary, revealed them at their most radical and paroxysmal moment. This moment has come to contemporary art, and it may even spare itself the trouble of publicizing its own exit. Forget art then. Unless it is capable of bringing us up to the next paradigmatic shift, as Andy Warhol once did, forgetting about its own name and past history. Artists themselves may have been showing the way by venturing so far astray from home. All it would take is to cut off the umbilical cord that still ties art to the market, or rather turn it into a rich rhizome. Some art groups are already working at it. Autonomists used to say, ‘The margins at the centre’. We haven’t yet given art a chance to grow autonomously.

NP There’s an interesting link here with your essay ‘Doing Theory’ included in the collection French Theory in America (2001) where you say that one of your initial reasons for setting up Semiotext(e) was about not becoming a medium for the art world, because of everything that’s tied up with it, money and so on.

SL The art world is so seductive, especially when you’re stuck in academia...

NP  Right, but then obviously Semiotext(e) and Baudrillard, in particular, went on to have a very complicated relationship with both artists and the art world. By not being a playground for art or art theory you somehow end up with more of a role in the art world.

SL It is a role, if any, that the art world has mostly created for itself since I didn’t give it much of a hand. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was best keeping some distance. The art world is a black hole, but one had better not occupy it, just step aside and let others fall in. That’s what I’ve been trying to do: to reverse the seduction and dodge the position that has been carved out for you. Baudrillard did the same, quite brilliantly I must say. At the height of his fame, in 1987, after his lecture at the Whitney Museum, he refused to acknowledge his own misguided disciples. It was all the more easy for him that he didn’t know what the scene then was and didn’t realize what was really at stake. He told me later on that had he known, he would have been a bit more cautious. But he had no compunction blasting the art world again in 1996 with ‘The Conspiracy of Art’, the small pamphlet published in Libération, that seemed totally uncalled for, and created an uproar world-wide. If you want to be a free thinker, you can’t let your mind be clogged up by half-truths.

Semiotext(e) started with nothing, and mostly managed to stay clear from the art machine. On the other hand, it has always been a pleasure for me to deal with artists in any capacity, and we had a few groups of them work with us along the way. I can be more relaxed about the university, because the stakes are much smaller, and nobody forces you to take them seriously. Staying with one foot on either side has always been my favourite position. It gives you some more room to play. But as time passed, the university and the art world got a bit too close together for me. They started speaking the same lingo, sharing the same critics and students. I would have preferred to keep them separate, but it was part of the same blind thrust to abolish boundaries that you can now find everywhere. Now they are debating if there should be a doctorate in art. I say, why not? If you teach students to make art, why not make it a doctorate? At least they would get something for their money. The American university is now embarking wildly on new imperial ventures, farming out summer schools in Europe, disseminating its own academic model throughout the world, as our troops enforce ‘democracy’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. Everything ends up becoming business, even war, and I don’t see why academia shouldn’t have a go at it. At least the stakes are clear. Art is still too murky for me, and I prefer watching Deitch strut about the stage like Ubu the King. It remind us of what art becomes when it covets the system.

NP This idea of the system has been a constant theme in your work. In the French Theory in America essay, you say that the dominant ways of conceptualizing history and the subject were inadequate to the ‘violence and terrorism’ of capitalism, and that you have to be aware of assimilation; it’s not simply about redefining the borders of art, artist, the gallery.

SL You’re right, I don’t like assimilation. It is not by chance that we published a book called Hatred of Capitalism (2001), quoting artist Jack Smith’s rant against capitalism’s ‘insane waste’. Hatred is a volatile affect, but it is still a way of acknowledging someone’s existence. I call capitalism ‘the system’ because it doesn’t have a face, let alone a ‘human face’. You can’t challenge it to come out in plain view.

NP Perhaps the economic crises will focus things.

SL Yes, but at what cost? The financial meltdown suddenly made things appear that we wouldn’t have had a chance to witness otherwise. From one day to the next you could see businesses close, entire industries collapse, crowds on the dole. And nothing had happened. No towers had collapsed, no trace of any violence. Suddenly Circuit City, the huge electronics store on Sunset Boulevard, was emptied, as if it had been snuffed out by a plutonium bomb. The parking lot was deserted, the entire compound surrounded by barbed wire. A secret war was unfolding; not in far away places but under our very eyes. It was happening in the heart of one of the great cities of the West.

It requires quite a mental jump to equate the immateriality of sub-prime speculation – signs spinning on signs – and the huge devastation that it dealt on the entire planet in just a matter of hours. This is the violence of capitalism. And the worst is still to come, in this or other ways, ecological disasters on the scale of continents yet as abstract in our minds as this crisis in liquidity was, all caused by the terrorism of greed and neglect. So it did help remind me that, for all the freedom it promises, capitalism is on its way to destroy everything that made life worth living on this planet, art included. Capitalism isn’t just something that is happening outside, it is also polluting people’s minds. What I like about theory is that it spares us disasters. We don’t need to see the worst to understand what it is about. It gives us a handle on the way contemporary society operates, and what place we occupy in it, where it is going and how we could possibly affect it. It is one of the ways we have been able to survive for so long in the interstices of the ‘system’, and make something out of it.

Born in Paris, Sylvère Lotringer studied at the Sorbonne before he moved to New York in the early 1970s, and founded the journal Semiotext(e). In 1975 he organized the ‘Schizo-Culture’ conference at Columbia University, New York, at which Michel Foucault and Félix Guattari addressed an audience of thousands, and in 1978 ‘The Nova Convention’, a three-day homage to William S. Burroughs. Lotringer was responsible for introducing the work of Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Paul Virilio and others to America through the publication of the small, desirable Foreign Agents book series. He is Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and continues to work for the publishing house Semiotext(e) alongside his co-editors, Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti.

1 See: Christian Marazzi, The Violence of Financial Capitalism, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2009 
Art and Money’, discussion organized by Artforum at the New School, New York in April 14, 2008
See my Overexposed: Perverting Perversions, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2007
René Loureau, Manifestes d’auto-dissolution des avant-gardes, Galilee, Paris, 1980
Sande Cohen and Sylvère Lotringer, eds., French Theory in America, Routledge, New York/London, 2001

Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University, London, UK, and the author of One Dimensional Woman (2009).