External order; internal chaos.
External progress; internal regression.
External rationalism; internal irrationality.
In this impersonal and overdisciplined machine civilization,
so proud of its objectivity,
spontaneity too often takes the form of criminal acts,
and creativeness finds its main outlet in destruction. -- Lewis Mumford
Evoking the pivotal essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, "The Aporias of the Avant-Garde," seems necessary in a time compulsively destabilized by its woeful lack of interest in critical history and its dubious fascination with cynical history. It explains why pleonasm and redundancy haunts too much of an emerging and seemingly rootless artistic generation weaned on glib "negative dialectics," virtual "one-dimensionality," and hip cyber-technics. Unwilling, or unable, to invoke sublation within the politics of representation as an act of differentiation, the lure of "the culture of the copy" (to use Hillel Schwartz's phrase) seems to hook its adherents into hustled solipsism and faint theory. Unwitting casualties of the de-ethical surfaces of the present, they inevitably skid into cultural memory erased as rapidly as the refresh rate of their screens or the release of their "send" keys. Aporia, though, isn't just a signifier of implausible or reactionary dialectical unresolvability, but one of permanent contradiction negating the reciprocity uselessly delimiting decidability (no less creativity). In this regard, Enzensberger's essay is clear: "The argument between the partisans of the old and those of the new is unendurable, not so much because it drags on endlessly, unresolved and irresoluble, but because its schema itself is worthless...The choice it invites is not only banal, it is apriori factitous." Yet a facetious discourse persists in the guise of faux subversion, indifferent mischief, opportunistic fraud, deconstituted history, or irresponsible defamation perpetrated through vain electronic deconstructions of identity 'theorized' in nonsensical notions of schizophrenaesthetics more deluded than deleuezian, more subjectivized by pathologies of smug hubris than by ingenious sabotage. To this end, the "avant-garde," as Enzensberger observed, "must content itself with obliterating its own products."
And even if, as is obvious, the notion of the "avant-garde" is only summarily relevant to issues of electronic media, it does evoke a set of historical issues about artistic production, its presumptions and the long discredited bourgeois tendency to tolerate adversaries in the service of the culture industries. It's surely evident that there is a stark difference between "necessary ferment" and critical practice. This issue is well approached in Paul Mann's book, The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde, and has been exposed over and over and over again by the trendy retailing of subversion. Mann writes:
There has never been a project for delegitimating cultural practice that did not turn immediately, or sooner, into a means of legitimation. The widely disseminated awareness of this unlimited legitimacy has eroded the ruse of opposition. The death of the avant-garde might thus be the most visible symptom of a certain disease of the dialectic, a general delegitimation of delegitimation. One might call it a crisis were it not for the fact that it announces an end to crisis theories of art. The crisis-urgency of the avant-garde repeated itself so often, with such intensity and so little in the way of actual cataclysm, that it wore itself out. We are now inured to the rhetoric and market-display of crises.
Even though the 70s, 80s and 90s have demonstrated persuasively that the commodification, deconstruction and engineering of dissent are not disassociated from the marketplace of ideas, the persistence of a futile, and perhaps complicit, neo-avant-garde suggests that the lessons of art-world theory and economy haven't really been learned as they spill into electronic media in increasingly tidal waves.
Indeed, the politics of subversion as intervention and the aesthetics of promotion share a fuzzy border that is crossed more frequently than admitted. Indeed one might suggest that an aesthetic of subversion shadowed modernity's hopeless fascination with avant-gardism and now has been transmogrified into a game of ego fulfillment played out in the spectacle of fictionalized, illusory, purloined, or cyberized identities, a kind of triumph of "The Data Dandy" whose presence was articulated in the Adilkno essay:
The data dandy surfaces in the vacuum of politics which was left behind once the oppositional culture neutralized itself in a dialectical synthesis with the system. There he reveals himself as a lovable as well as false opponent, to the great rage of politicians, who consider their young pragmatic dandyism as a publicity tool and not necessarily as a personal goal. They vent their rage on the journalists, experts, and personalities who make up the chance cast on the studio floor, where who controls the direction is the only topic of conversation...The dandy measures the beauty of his virtual appearance by the moral indignation and laughter of the plugged-in civilians. It is a natural character of the parlor aristocrat to enjoy the shock of the artificial.
Related issues have emerged in the writings of The Critical Art Ensemble (particularly The Electronic Disturbance). Unhinging the fictions of authority, they write cogently about rupturing the "essentialist doctrine" of the text while their interventions (some might say performances) into the sacrosanct territories of authority represent a provocation directed at both the worn traditions of public sphere cultural politics and a reckoning with the accelerating implications of technologies for a generation inebriated with virtualization. But to the point of reactionary or regressive trends they write:
Cultural workers have recently become increasingly attracted to technology as a means to examine the symbolic order... Its is not simply because much of the work tends to have a "gee whiz" element to it, reducing it to a product demonstration offering technology as an end in itself; nor is it because technology is often used primarily as a design accessory to postmodern fashion. for these uses that are expected...Rather, an absence is most acutely felt when the technology is used for an intelligent purpose. Electronic technology has not attracted resistant cultural workers to other times zones, situations, or even bunkers used to express the same narratives and questions typically examined in activist art.
But the spheres of activism are not driven by insidious ingenuity, but by clearly delineated opposition. Nor are they sustained by incognito egos cloaked behind imperious and ambiguous intentionality. Activism, in short, is concerned with visibility and not subterfuge. This lesson hardly seems understood by wanna-be hackers whose trail might prove untraceable but who, nevertheless, (and in utter disregard of hacker integrity) leave forged evidence to certify or publicize their intrusions. Less politics than gloating narcissism, this behavior seems all too symptomatic of the roguish (is that voguish?) appeal of the rakish criminality in Natural Born Killers, Trainspotting, Gansta Rap, or perhaps the ultimately pathetic imperatives revealed in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.
It is difficult too to ignore Peter Sloterdijk's irksome, but in this case useful, positioning in the Critique of Cynical Reason. In the introduction Andreas Huyssen poses a series of questions emerging in Sloterdijk's brooding work: "What forces do we have at hand against the power of instrumental reason and against the cynical reasoning of institutional power?...How can we reframe the problems of ideology critique and subjectivity, falling neither for the armored ego of Kant's epistemological subject nor for the schizosubjectivity without identity, the free flow of libidinal energies proposed by Deleuze and Guattari? How can historical memory help us resist the spread of cynical amnesia that generates the simulacrum of postmodern culture?..." But Sloterdijk's argument is far more pertinent: "Cynicism is enlightened false consciousness. It is that modernized, unhappy consciousness, on which enlightenment has labored both successfully and unsuccessfully. It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice. Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already buffered." "Cynicism," he says in the chapter titled "In Search of Lost Cheekiness," prickles beneath the monotony."
While itself invoking an enlightenment ethic, Sloterdijk's paean to moralities and tradition nevertheless stands as a form of diagnosis of the yet uncomfortable discourse of modern and postmodern positioning. Theorized in so many ways, the issues that seem most pertinent in the continuing (and now perhaps dated) opposition mostly concern a radically altered subject -- one not merely at the reception end of authority. But the inverted hierarchy of subject/authority is erroneous. And with the intervention of electronic media (with, among so many other things, its reconceptualization of both subjectivity and identity), the issue has often lapsed into virtualized sociologies of sadly presumed notions of the self transgressed by "life on the screen." This, to use Huyssen's term "schizosubjectivity," lapses into re-essentialized categories by failing to understand the difference between identity and subjectivity, no less between the self and its anecdotal other. This astonishing disassociation leads into the possibility of a fugitive digital ethics whose contemptuous naivete seems more reckless than subversive, more pessimistic than productive.
But the oscillations between self and other also suggests the avoidance of consequential psychological issues deeply affected by the development of electronic technology and its history. It is here that the distinction between schizophrenia and "schizosubjectivity" can be considered in terms of behavior. There is little doubt that the unified notion of subjectivity collapsed in the hierarchies of modernity. What emerged are fragmented identities not salvaged in political nationalism, muddy text-based otherness, or in the abandonment of subjectivity and the acceptance of questionable notions of agency and its relation to avatars. This sort of dopey refusal (perhaps sublimation), well articulated in Slavoj Zizek's recent writings (and particularly in the chapter "Cyberspace, or, The Unbearable Closure of Being," in the just published The Plague of Fantasies and in Enjoy Your Symptom), is articulated in fraudulent, deceptive, or preemptive strategies that only serve to further discredit the politics of the politics of subversion. "Insisting on a false mask," he writes, "brings us nearer to a true, authentic subjective position than throwing off the mask and displaying our 'true face' ... (a) mask is never simply 'just a mask' since it determines the actual place we occupy in the intersubjective symbolic network. Wearing a mask actually makes us what we feign to be ... the only authenticity at our disposal is that of impersonation, of 'taking our act' (posture) seriously." This fundamental position cannot be trivialized by phony realizations or outlaw aesthetics. Extended into the public sphere, there is nothing worse, or more revealing in cyberculture, than a hypocrite revolutionary whose relationship even with opposition has to be invented.
Brecht wrote a great deal about "refunctioning," shifting the authority of extant material to expose its ideologies. Surely this political mimicry, joined with the Benjamin's loftily ambiguous and hopelessly redemptive aesthetic, fits into the trajectory of art - from Dada to Pop to Post-Modern - by rationalizing various forms of reproducibility, repetition and appropriation as legitimate approaches that were both reflexive and creative. But these strategies were rooted in a form of 'critical' consumption that clumsily persists in electronic culture.
No doubt that these strategies have also mutated into the cut-and-paste techniques (no less the cut-and-paste identities) of far too many artists involved with media. Very few of these techniques are confrontations whose parodic or satiric intent outdistances or demolishes its sources. Isn't the goal of parody sublation? But the weakness, and sad pervasiveness, of a cavalier position does little to suggest that the shift into fragile digital communication technologies raises the stakes of far more than such worn notions of creativity as will perpetuate themselves by evolving their own development. Nothing could be less interesting in a time of monolithic operating systems, algorithmic aesthetics, and the politics of virtualization than a shiftless, hollow, and finally selfish positioning of the artist as a hapless subversive or, worse, the subversive as a hapless artist. Indeed, the link between cultish anonymity and subversive presence strikes me as a pitiable attempt to sustain vaguely modernistic notions of subjectivity behind the electronic veil of deconstructed - or better destabilized - identity or perhaps, more pathetically, self-styled celebrity.