What Is Not

“It is not too far from the truth to suggest that this freedom of choice by a freely choosing subject, which operates the essays of Toulmin, Davie, Dworkin, and Booth, is the ideology of free enterprise at work-recognizably a politics of interpretation.

The discussion raised last posting (on the unconscious) has led to a host of thoughts both directly and indirectly related.

My interest is in a process or approach for the creation/production of artworks that will not be subsumed by Capitalist (bourgeois) models of identity. Now this is a subject needing a book length framework to really adequately cover, so I will just touch on some things that seem of interest to ‘my’ project here. The U.S. today, in its near total commodity hegemony, forms a certain backdrop to cultural production. The ideological traces are present in everything produced, and perhaps that is always the case in any culture. It’s useful to keep in mind, that ideology is by definition involved in perpetuating and justifying the power of the dominant class.

The question of the subject is immediatley present. The creation of the subject. The assumpiton of free choice, an individual voice that is aware of all the ideological implications of its voice, is one constantly reinforced by capitalism, and in an even more pronounced way in the U.S. of the 21st century. As Spivak says, at its foundation is the idea of free enterprise. Well, yes, but it’s also embedded in related beliefs such as the virtue of hard work and of self denial. The bourgeoise subject is the background noise for every cultural offering no matter the designation (the hierarchy of genre, high brow, entertainment, etc). In fact the ideological outlines of entertainment are worthy of an entire study. The fetishizing of personal creation, of authorship, casts a long shadow. There is the idea that creativity somehow exists in a vacuum.Also, the subject *owns* his creation. Its part of the marketplace of ideas, in a sense. Its certainly a part of sub catagories of marketplace. It is also a part of the fabric of interpretation. A work is posited as having “meaning”, the ‘voice’ of the author is responded to in relation to this specific subject, but riding along with this is a kitsch biography of the author that includes, usually, a pop psychologizing of the author. The economic and material production of these works, the audience for any specific work of art is also part of this posited template. The erasure of the collective, the crowd, a mass audience, takes place in several different ways. Sporting events have a mass audience. The sporting event is spoken of and judged in accordance with this mass audience. If a novel is being discussed, the interpretation is very different and demands a single viewer, even if masses of people read it. There is a private ownership of the product. Usually one has paid to experience the artwork. I can think of obvious exceptions to all this, but none of them really contradict the fact that there is an ideological backdrop that has informed the creation of the work itself, and that ideology is rooted in capitalism.

There are other perspectives to the ideology of works however. Before getting to those, however, a more interesting question (for me anyway) is the sense of unity that such a model asks for. For that demand of unity is at the base or foundation of western capitalist thinking. For any narrative the interpretation is set against this unified subject. From another perpsective, the story itself must be unified. It must adhere to notions of accepted structure. The subject is the individual audience member who owns his opinion and interpreation as an “individual”. Most mass produced cultural product today is really above all else, in the service of propping up this idea of a unified subject and of ownership as the purest expression of that identity. We could go back to medieval church sculpture or alter pieces to find cooperatively created works, meant for collective appreciation, but even within the bougeoise tradition we can find disunifying work, only that disunity, that effect given in the recption of it, often operates on the margins. But it is here that the unconscious enters the discussion. In a pre psychoanlytic world, these effects had different names, but whether called the sublime of the Dionysian, the disunifying was always treated as anti-social. Still, this delirium or Dionysian response was connected at the root to a shared experience. The politics of disunity is worth considering. The idea of the tragic was almost completely based on a revealing of hidden experience, of awareness of our own manufactured sense of identity. But that tragic moment was witnessed by others. The spatialized idea of an interior, of an authentic center of the meaning, which informed the interpretation, came later. What was “in” this center? Well, that’s where another ideological dynamic is set in motion. It is at exactly this point that I think the questions of collectivity enter. For part of this space, part of the unconscious effect or affect, is the unconscious’ gesture to our collective selves. Bougeoise state models, as we have inherited them in the West, find the quesiton of the collective uncomfortable to talk about. That the Dionysian is partly a recognition of disunity, of primitive urges and unseen powers, also implies a state of existence in which seperatism has been abolished. The anarchic is way too social. The anarchy of our sharing with others the recognition of these forces is the only way such forces can be discovered. I would argue that even, or perhaps especially, the most monastic works are predicated on this recognition of the collective. The ecstatic is paradoxical viewed in this way. Ownership is always self isolating. It is about accumulation and hording. I own this particular pleasure. I own it, and I’m keeping it, and eventually my children shall inherit it. Roman law — as a gesture toward immortality, advanced legal definitions of the inheritance of property. Of space. I bought this painting, I paid to come to this exhibit, I bought these narcotics or this prostitute. Oppression is wedded to ownership. The Dionysian sublime is less about what can’t be said then it is about what cannot be said alone ….where there is nobody to hear it. Accumulation is madness, its talking to yourself.

The Lacanian reading of art also enters the discussion here (per Spivak’s pretty cogent critique of Kristeva). It is indeed an egregious misreading of Lacan to suggest the “delirious” center, the sublime, the pre-symbolic, (ab-ject)is not ideologically determined. For it is within the analysis or interpretation that ideology exists. This would take us off on a long tangent, so I am only going to discuss it in short form. But the desire which we miss,as we run after the bus we just missed, the lost object, is an early childhood lack, and while it certainly (to my mind)is significant in terms of what the artwork “means”, not its purpose, but what it is about, that does not preclude the fact that one is still articulating a dynamic or tension connected to the backdrop of “identity” as western bourgeoise thinking has posited it. The artwork exactly does create the space for this journey, this return to what we never knew, but the architecture of the entire formulation remains bourgeoise. Our childhood trauma is not universal truth even it is happens to everyone who has ever lived (which it didn’t). Its the analysis itself that betrays ideological content on this theoretical content-less end of desire. One of the results of this trauma, in fact, is the durability of criminal identification. Our recognition of ourselves as transgressors in some primal drama of Oedipal origin, remains pure ideology. None of which is to say its impact is not considerable. And not to say its liberating power is not considerable. For modern man, all stories are crime stories.

The Tragic, as Benjamin saw it, was ended with Sophocles. That was the beginning of this search for meaning which took the form of cataloguing, of preserving, and drove out the daimonic forces of the pre-rational. A corrective if judged by the values of the Enlightenment, but much was lost with this turn, too. The impulse was toward illuminating what had heretofore been hidden. Or unseen. The Enlightenment then carries forward to the rise of Dutch traders, the enshrinment of bourgeois accomplishment — success in the marketplace. Mediating this trajectory was religion, which had become the repository, a place for cleaning up or domesticating those unruly (and unproductive) urges of the “unconscious”. I think one of the trickier subjects to examine is the historical unconscious. Was the subject of Dante’s Italy, his or her unconscious, structured the same way? Was its operational architecture the same? I think clearly not, and yet one of the generalizations of post modern psychoanlyzing has been to sweep them up together somehow. Any psychoanalysis of the personages of antiquity yeilds very unsatisfactory results. It is within this tension with definitions of the individual that a sort of unspoken moritorium on the ideological seems to take place. Now, there may be a lot of work devoted to just this, but I’ve not seen it.

This is where Artaud remains so relevant. Among the struggles he endured was the tearing down of the western idea of individuality. At least as it related to art and theatre. Intrinsic in this discussion is notions of the performative, which for Artaud linked to a release from psychic slavery, and the imposition of the false rational, or those same enlightenment values. Derrida completely missed the point, but then thats because Derrida, finally, despite some truly brilliant work, was politically immature. Artaud was the non-Freudian of modern aestheticians. I think Kristeva is closer, but still wrong. Perhaps one has to have worked in theatre to sense the Artaud violence to ownership. Its a useful question, possibly, to see just how capitalist commodity form gave Freud that super ego/ego dynamic of artist and censor…standards and practices as super ego. Loan shark and degenerate gambler.

To return finally to the unconscious, then. When psychoanlysis crossed the Atlantic to the U.S., the response in the land of Puritanism was to dissolve the unconscious into merely a problem of the ego in adjusting. Freud’s political import was changed into a medicalized model of adjustment. The ideological background was adjustment, but more precisely an adjustment to wage labor and authority. To free enterprise and to market forces. The unconscious was an unvisible hand and was economic… It was Keynsian (or Adam Smithian) Freudianism.

Frantz Fanon

If art and culture have importance, then critics have importance and criticism has importance, and it is therefore neccessary to question the reasons for discrimination at all. The organic intellectual of Gramsci is ever more invisible — and corporate consumer advocacy ever more visible. The sense of collectivity, of community, is treated in terms of consumer preference. Whereas, the community has to be self regulating without being heiarchical, or at least not authoritarian. The left as it organizes and establishes resistance, has almost entirely abdicated cultural rigour and relegated aesthetics to the role of either superficial moral instruction or cheap consensus propaganda. The mural on the community center wall syndrome. There is in the U.S. an antipathy to theory. A distrust which is itself ideological. Art (and often theory) isn’t important, action is. Art is just a way to amuse ourselves, like kindergarten kids finger painting. This is ideological hegemony. The background noise is corporate mass media. The basso ostinato of FOX News or the White House in counterpoint to The Blue Angels or Army recuiting booths. The tentacles of ideology extend to education and here the liberal standardized testing and job training template also makes clear arts education is of very minor importance. There is no test for art. Useful to remember that Gramsci saw two superstructures: coersive and less coersive. The police and military were coercive..as are the courts and legal system. The less coercive were churches and family and even unions. Schools were in both camps. School is , as William Burroughs said, The Job. Schools today are specialized, they are balkanized and mentally partitioned. It has been a trend going back almost one hundred years. The idea then was to modernize education. That was the professed motive. In fact it was, rather obviously, to reproduce docile specialists, adrift in any realm outside their narrow specialization.

As a foot note to Burroughs, after the obscenity trial for Naked Lunch, a journalist asked Burroughs about the trial…and he said…

The defense was trying to demonstrate that Naked Lunch has social significance, and this seems to me quite beside the point.


The bourgeois idea of the authorial owner permeates artistic production — and there is, as I’m suggesting, a pretty clear ideological backdrop. Its also true some artwork engages its audience in interpretations that point toward something that itself is a critique of the prevailing hegemony. Artworks always draw on history. They always inscribe a voice, or a text, upon the traces of previous forms and engage in some form of dialectical dialogue with these now dead ancerstors.If this sounds mystical. I suspect it is. Allegory is mystical. The interpretation and creation of art demands a rigorous practice of making distinctions. Of difference. Today the inscription of academic privileging and its evolution of a specialist jargon, is only one contradiction in all this. The normalizing and legitimating of power can be narrativized so that stories may be Oedipal crimes, but ideologically in the U.S. they are white exceptionalism underneath. How this ideological intercession works is hard to clock, totally anyway. The receptions, the reading of the story and the telling of the story operate in seperate registers, even ideologically. There are counter effects from oppositional narratives. This is the cunning of late capitalist marketed reality. There are mechanisms (structural) in the corrective oppositional trope that quickly lodge themselves as hegemonic within their own dialogue.

Frantz Fanon articulated the role of ogranic intellectuals as one of creating an alternative hegemony, in order to give expression to those emotions and ideas which normally in non colonized peoples, are linked to traditional culture, to their heritage. For the colonized, that heritage has been forgotten, largely. For today, the road to alternative hegemony, a way out of the brain washed sleepwalkers, is to find those poets and artists capable of creating art at odds and in opposition of the dominant ideology. This is, by the liberal class and a lot of the left, seen only in terms of content. Of sentimental or simplistic kitsch lessons. The radical avant garde movements of modernism insisted on a pursuit of experience outside the bourgeois boundaries of the academy or the political class. And today, outside of mass media. The first step leads smack into the question of identity. For identity is now wedded almost completely to marketing and ownership. The legacy of Puritanism and protestant morality and to the ethos of expansion — genocide and slavery — defines the individual as a supreme value of independence and as a consumer; this independence finds expression in shopping, not in much else. As I say, even the left movements struggle to find articulate critiques of art. Consensus is not the goal, its informed art wars. Art should matter as much as anything, as any protest or picketing. And you have no art without an exploration of the ideological subject of today’s advanced capitalist West. So all art is political.

Today, most Americans see themselves in terms of image as closer to successful Dutch merchants in Antwerp, 1675 then as auto plant workers in Detroit, 1995. Americans wallow in ersatz imagary of success. And they recoil from the crowd. There are spaces for crowds, the spectacle. The super bowl. The world series. Spectacle must be a politics free zone. Crowds must be managed. The spectacle must have very well defined codes for personal expression.

Since even language is ideological one cannot just decide to be rid of ideology. As Spivak says, you dont choose to just step out of the ideological. Even the spatial metaphors are ideological — some obvious, some less so. Some evolve — the images of the military are obvious, those of race and gender perhaps less so. As someone said recently everthing is sampling. And it is, and its counter sampling, and there are glosses on glosses… so the slightly fetishized moments in critical theory that centered around voice and text, seem to miss the point a little. Everything is co-opted already. All stories are crime stories, and I’ve heard them all. Artworks always posit an alternative world, but increasingly that alternative is discovered to be owned by Time Warner already.

Adorno said art is defined by its relation to what it is not.

The obsessions of this age of the therapeutic, informs artworks with a trivializing demand for normalcy. This tendency now almost complete, has escaped the confines of aesthetic interpretation and become a definition of reality. Today’s political spectacle is percieved in the same way as a TV show. And the spectacle is managed in order that it be a sitcom. Daily life is only a TV reality show. Identity is gauged according to the norms of corporate TV and film.

In fact the contradictions of daily life in the Imperium are reflected not in content but in form. The only remaining radical possibilty lies in radical questions of form. When one hears “Oh, that went a little too far”, you know it has not gone far enough.

Art asks questions, and often answers them, but those answers then become new questions. This may be the last role art has to play.

The psychologizing of character in a world of pop psychology, means that artistic creation, narrative, be understood only in terms of comparison to the spectacle and to how it reflects the psychology of its author. What is should do is explore how it is NOT like its creator. For somewhere in that resides a real autonomy that seperates from this system of domination.

Social networking is anti social. It breeds isolation. It promotes an ideology of ownership, of hording and accumulation. The creative is neither group therapy (drum circles and the like) nor is it the highest grossing film or the year. That background noise is the sound of coins changing hands…or rather, the credit card pin code being punched. Whichever it is, the ideology just foregrounded itself. The escape from the dominant ideology may be found in art’s distance and unreality, where the form of the work can more clearly suggest alternatives, since it will always be made up of elements, ratios, and scale that are responding to what is out there.


  1. Joanna Perry-Folino says:
  2. Jack Littman says:

    Great as usual. Sometimes I feel like my identity has long been pillaged… The effects of Saturday children’s shows when I was 9. It’s hard to reclaim something that was robbed at an early age.

  3. A lot to think about.

    But let me ask – Artaud and others of his milieu, when they “tear down the Western idea of individuality”, leave a white streak on the sidewalk. Leave spaces that are crossroads for forces. That is, they don’t oppose individualism with socialism – the individual with the connected concrete others in our actual relations. Fascism replaces individual with a conceptual abstraction (race, volk) ; left modernisms with a structural position, node linking institutions for the reproduction of ideology. Something very different was offered by romanticism, and Marx as the culmination of that romanticism, but also by many traditions that are not the spine of the bourgeois ideology of the imagined community of Europe or the West (as Robinson’s Black Marxism shows) . Fanon is often transformed into a native informer, carrying an opposition that is very much immersed in the main line of elite bourgeois thought (psychoanalysis) where the alternative to the bourgeois individual is another model individual or a disembodied nexus of abstract forces.

    The suppression and marginalization of women’s writing in that Grand Modernist tradition alone sustains this unthinkability and absence of the socialist/romantic social alternative to individualism. Individualism is so powerful all that is permitted to remain of an socialist alternative in the mainstream is the genre love story which validates the couple as the minimum for humanity, but even this very much within the constraints laid down by individualism. Spivak doesn’t quite get to it in that celebrated talk, though she lays the ground for later discussion. But she too works to ignore the socialist bent of women’s genres, which can be detected plainly despite the immense encrustations of ideology. And this rather astonishing refusal to notice love stories as anything but ideological policing of libido poses the problem of the elite genres and their incapacity to cope with alternatives to individualism that are not mere anti-individualisms or de-humanisms but socialisms. The critical institutions have been quick to ridicule all the theatre that moved toward attempts to offer baccanalian options.

    Not framed quite as a question but – my sense is the bourgeois forms of attack on individualism through art led directly (this is not inculpating) to social media personas. Social media, a market for ersatz individuals, instead of socialism; more than anything as you say these practices emphasize the fixed identity (in the guise of the malleable) – the legal individual, the social security number, the individual of the crime story, property and the contract.

    A peculiar film that comes to mind is The Prestige. It’s based on a novel that has an utterly different effect than the film (and in the difference on can grasp the duality of “the postmodern”). The strain on the film is that film (or really recording technologies generally, working toward the digital which loses nothing generationally) is the tenor the metaphor for physical duplication presented in the book. The form of the text with its postmodern questionable authenticity, inciting scepticism and critical thought, when transferred to film becomes the opposite, another pavlovian exercise in cfreduilty and obedience; One is to take the slightest suggestion (that one is amazed that numerous pictures of Christian Bayle and Hugh Jackman can exist) and live it’s absurdity wholeheartedly

  4. John Steppling says:

    @jack….i know the feeling.

    Molly….yeah, a lot …..so let me say a couple things first off. One is that I dont trust any definitions, any longer, of genre. Maybe once….70 years ago….but today either nothing is genre or everything is genre. Second….theatre. I think those institutions that laughed away bacanallian whatever, were laughing at the wrong thing. What was going on was weird. I mean The Living Theatre was doing something…..Im not sure what it was….but it was something. But over all there was a sort of new age reading of the idea from these theatre groups. At least in the US. So……..per Artaud, and I think I might want to do a whole post on artaud at some point. Artaud was always writing about theatre. Im not sure he ever considered much of the rest of the world. His remarks on shadow puppets and the like…..remarkable……that is where he is best. He sounds like a Lacanian, in fact. But he understood that doubling that goes on in theatre………and I think when derrida or kristeva write about him, they dont understand theatre properly. In any event……..there seem almost two seperate topics…one is identity and one is the individual and they arent quite the same at all. But I think historically, they came to overlap at some point. In the US, the land of rugged individualism……..the individual was obviously part of a manufactured mythology, meant to keep people happily liiving in the symbolic or something, but working for the man………while having their leisure time shaped by these fantasy identifications. On weekends, I can be danile boone. I mean paintball is sort of the cartoon extension of this.

  5. “Today, most Americans see themselves in terms of image as closer to successful Dutch merchants in Antwerp, 1675 then as auto plant workers in Detroit, 1995. Americans wallow in ersatz imagary of success. ”

    I would say that that IS America at this point. The proliferation of that (those) image(s). Our cultural colonialism displays our ability to sell images that aren’t real here, let alone anywhere. America won the culture wars for a long time, because it (hypocritically) allowed the blues to imbed in it’s exported culture. It’s now losing the culture wars because it turned it’s back on the blues and allowed bad to keep getting echoed worse and worse. Now we put out a kind of collectively acknowledged lie to the rest of the world that enough Americans assume are too ignorant to receive in any other way than how we’ve been lead to imagine naked natives would receive a swiss army knife. All of the profound work that happens here is for the most part denied any access to the channels of pop culture. So what every gets it’s more and more of the ersatz imagery of success being leant the language of critics that would otherwise be talking about something serious (except most of them wouldn’t know how). I think about how the young, bourgeois “intelligentsia” of my generation love to pass around old pics of people like Patty Smith or Kieth Haring, or Basquiat and imagine themselves sitting in that lower eastside loft with them making art. When in truth they have only ever known excessive privilege that has had them surrounded by a police blockade their whole life. It’s part of why the work of people like Blind Willie McTell, or Wllie Dixon can only be laughed about by so many of them. They “like” it but don’t take it seriously, or see it as anything but one dimensional.

  6. John Steppling says:

    So……identity though, this sense , is a hermeneutical question as well as ontological…..i think at least Heideggerian hermeneutics altered this idea, so that it was more how it is we think of ourselves in the world. I guess this is my Ricoeur-ian influence…..cause he blurred those two. :…Anyway, identity as Im thinking of it goes back…..sort of to first people….whatever……..and then the individual got laid over this as ideology. Im being reductive, but my point is that what you describe as the bourgeoise romantic idea….the family of man, the community of europe, etc………all of which is just pure invention…propaganda……because while these ideas were thrown out there, the individual human was being more and more controlled and regulated and his choices narrowed. And his vision of himself deformed somehow. Now…The Prestige…a film i hated, but never mind……it IS an odd film. But its a very literary film, much like Fight Club, which reeks of the literary. And I think the very literary work leaves traces in the film somehow, like the dressmakers little tag inside the collar……..THIS WAS A SERIOUS BOOK, the tag reads. The actors all give pretige project performances, too. Still, there was something of interest going on there. But……i think what you say is true. There is a message out there that one runs into again and again, a pavlovian response comes up in us. Reminds me of the john carpenter film with Roddy Piper…….where you put on glasses and see the messages all over…OBEY AUTHORITY. It was hysterical.

    That is often how I feel. So social media seems ever creepier to me. And the obvious tracking that goes on and so forth. Im sure they send viruses out through your IP address or something. But its absolutely not social…not community. And I feel as if for many white westerners, the experience of community is gone. What Jack said above…….it was stolen. And it was !

  7. John Steppling says:

    Yeah, Lex………all that is sort of exactly right. But I think its good, or at least Ive been of late, trying to think how the form works. How its shaped by the tensions between ideology and artwork ….and accomodates itself, organically in a way, to the outlines , the traces encircle the artwork. The culture itself is so exhausted, so just moribund, so without any any any energy that its openly cannibalizing itself and doesnt care. And nobody else cares in a way. I hear people say the most contradictory things to me in the same couple sentences almost. Just unaware or unconcerned.

    And i think you touch on this sense of *authentic*…and marketing has tried to seel authentic. But even the most gullible dont buy it. Its like the one thing you cant sell. Its indelible. But its also increasingly out of reach. The cost is so high. Blind Willie McTell died in an unknown city, buried in the wrong grave under the wrong name. An american genius……..so the US has always felt hostility to art. It drives people insane…Miles went insane. Coltrane died. Charles Ives sold insurance………which is a form of madness. But almost everyone…Charles olson, sort of becomes raving……..i dont know where Im going with this…..but molly mentions Romance novels……and a sort of low end psychological read on the genre. And thats what i was trying to get at when i said we have to look at what someone prodcues, and see in what way it doesnt fit their identiy, its not like them. Its the anti psychologizing take i guess.

  8. “They Live” With Rowdy Roddy Piper….”I came to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum” as he proceeds to shoot up a bank full of the secret alien monsters.

  9. John Steppling says:

    And this leads directly to the other thing I was trying feebily to think about…….the idea of authorship. Ownership is deadly. McTell died homeless as an example…and perhaps dylan and me, and others see him as the very best because he was never allowed even a tiny sand grain of ownership. And when that happens, you lose this model of *I* created that ….me me me….I DID THAT…me me me. I am alway so suspicious of writers who hold on to everyting they ever wrote and make copies and put the stuff in fire proof boxes or safes or something. Its how the *I* is posited in a future, and the future is anxiety. The present is where you lose shit.

  10. Brings us back to Richard Pryor and how much he detested the world his talent put him in. He hated being seen as an owner of his work. Same with Dylan really, he said all he was doing was channelling.

  11. John Steppling says:

    Not to say, having McTell get his stuff stolen is good………..and therein lies another whole question. And I suppose this is what corporate control means on a rudimentary level.

    But to return again to the notion of individualism.

    i want to get back when my head is clearer, to Fanon. I mean in a sense thats true…..his carrying on a bourgeoise tradition….the accusations or how he is seen. But its also wrong. But virute of who he was. His role. There is no real mirror or x-ray here……..the colonized is both a creation of the colonizer and NOT…impossibley not……so, how does that work vis a vis questions of hegemony? And also, per Lex……….this is part of why I raised that notion of organic intellectuals. But for that to happen, you have to create or establish a place in which one speaks *before* a community –not on facebook. Its very hard….

  12. John Steppling says:

    and Pryor, right. Right……….his role in public was so disunifying that they ran him. It rattled the system too deeply. The containment didn’t work .

  13. I was studying something else about this on another blog. Interesting. Your perspective on it is novel. If I were in this business only for the business, I wouldn’t be in this business. Samuel Goldwyn 1882 1974

  14. Many a little makes a mickle

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