Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity

Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity

by Terry Smith

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Collection of essays by art historians and cultural theorists on what it means for art to be contemporary in the wake of postmodernism.See more details below


Collection of essays by art historians and cultural theorists on what it means for art to be contemporary in the wake of postmodernism.

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“Anyone wishing to assess the state of contemporary art and its relation to institutions, politics, social movements, and indeed, the entire project of imagining and naming the world at the present moment will find this brilliant book essential and disturbing reading. It offers no grand synthesis but provides a shattered mosaic of the crucial elements that will have to be assembled by any future historian looking back on the early twenty-first century.”—W. J. T. Mitchell, author of What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images

“This is a provocative and indeed challenging assessment of the relation between ‘art’ and ‘culture’ (in scare quotes because both concepts are questioned) in the post-post-modernist moment. The essays successfully reposition discussion in a genuinely worldwide perspective, redefine modernism on a global scale, and push avant-garde thinking in new directions.”—Hayden White, University Professor Emeritus, University of California, and Professor of Comparative Literature, Stanford University

“This remarkable orchestration of voices, visualities, and political visions lays bare the antinomies and contradictions that haunt the sovereign claims of globalization. Each consummate essay is an artful reflection on the complex resistances and revisions that emanate from cultural practices that transform the aesthetic and ethical realities of embedded and embattled localities. I warmly recommend Antinomies of Art and Culture.”—Homi K. Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University

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Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4203-8

Chapter One



Contemporaneity: what does it mean to be "contemporary" between modernity and postmodernity? For me, the definition of "contemporaneity" raises problems. Perhaps I will be somewhat polemical in pursuing this question, but it will be worth the effort.

Looking back at the cultural history of recent years, we see that (generally speaking) we have been steeped in the construction of a concept-and an experience-of postmodernity that wished to remain in the direct lineage of modernity. Postmodernity was, in fact, constructed as exasperation with modernity and the sublimation of its qualities. The Frankfurt school was, from this point of view, the source of the gravest misunderstandings and mystifications about the linear, "hypermodern," and sometimes catastrophic configuration of modernity. The school derived this sense and destiny from the pessimistic, often desperate, and always critical perspectives of a certain brand of Marxism typical of the 1920s. These conceptions, which could all be assigned to a common critical matrix, led to the construction of a "hypermodernity" rather than to a realistic vision of the coming into being of postmodernity and of the "radical break" that it implies.

As often happened in various Marxist heresies, the concept of "trend" was used in a teleological sense, as if it alluded to a necessity. Yet already in Marx, the concept of trend denotes the contrary: a break, a scission, a discontinuity. A trend is not dialectical; it is not reconciliatory in character. It implies the objective contradictions of development, and these contradictions recompose and intersect the subjective mechanisms of class struggle through a complex play of transformations in the material conditions of consciousness.

This line of thought is paradoxical and tragic: it has determined a situation in which critical-catastrophic traditions (from Lukacs to Adorno, passing through Benjamin) and critical-reactionary traditions defining capitalist development and the imperialist state (from Max Weber to Carl Schmitt) ended up coinciding. At that point, Heidegger's synthesis found itself right at home.

Postmodernity, in contrast, when it is defined as the real subsumption of society into Capital, reveals that this subsumption is not linear with respect to modernity, but antagonistic in nature. Not only is it antagonistic with respect to modernity, it is also contradictory in itself. Contemporaneity (as you define it) is situated in postmodernity, when postmodernity is understood as a field of forces that are not only new and orbiting the global circuit, but are also innovative and antagonistic. To be contemporary one has to confront the end of the 1900s, the historical upheavals that characterized it, and the counterreformation happening today (if the comparison were not too flattering, one could talk about Bush as another, "hypermodern" Cardinal Bellarmino). Being contemporary will, then, mean defining postmodernity as a break with modernity and as a field in which antagonism is expressed in the most radical way.

In the most recent debates, and in particular in the field of cultural studies and in the discussions taking place in the so-called underdeveloped countries, the categories of modernity have become associated with and opposed to antimodernity. Similarly, modernity, in its constitution and in the forward movement that it implies, has been accompanied by a linear and rigid definition: the capitalist or the socialist model of development (we should never forget that socialism always had the skeleton of capitalism in its closet) triumphed in it.

But could "another" modernity exist? Another modernity, one that did not want to be, or better, did not want to construct itself either as a return to archaic forms of accumulation or as a reproduction of static (Eurocentric and Western) definitions of value, but that would determine alternative modes of development and a different material organization in the existing social and political forms? Another modernity, one that would not appeal to paradigmatic and utopian "use values" but would raise the question of acting differently and of transforming the world-starting from productive dimensions and established ways of creating commodities in our society? Debate about this possibility was extremely lively in some of the great developing countries (China, India, Latin America); nonetheless, the weight of a rigid postmodernity, fixated on Eurocentric or Western models of continuity with modernity, has neutralized all efforts to build something "other." More important, it also prevented the finding, within the process of development itself, of nondetermined alternatives that would not be fallaciously considered necessary or constraining but that could be free, inventive, original.

The idea of another modernity arose in the debate that took place in China between the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 and the massacre at Tienanmen Square in 1989. On that square the demonstrators were not the defenders of the West, but people who were looking to another, original way toward development within and beyond underdevelopment.

We need to remember that a similar debate developed during the classical period, during the birth of modernity. The field of antagonism identified at that time was one on which the ontological power of the multitude was being expressed. Against the capitalistic seizing of power, an instance of liberation was posited. Both Hobbes and Spinoza commented, from different viewpoints, on these antagonistic tendencies. Alternatives of this type are often found within the debates and struggles typical of developing societies. Today, we will not find a balance, or a new hope, unless we break the teleology of modernity, that is, the command imposed by Hobbes and capitalistic transcendentalism.

When we insist, today, on the concept of "contemporaneity," I am not certain that we simply want to summarize, to find an abbreviation, a logo for the break with the teleological paradigm of modernity. If we do want to take this shortcut, I welcome the theories of "contemporaneity," but they will have to assume as their foundation that the break with the paradigm of modernity, the opening toward a spectrum of new possibilities, is based on a new potential of resistance and difference.

When we talk of contemporaneity, therefore, we have to consider it as the field of antagonism. But why is this antagonism powerful? We need to stress, first of all, that this antagonism has nothing to do with the one formerly described in modernity, because it is rooted in a new social, economical, and political context: the context of biopolitics. When we say "biopolitics," on the one hand we mean that capitalist power has invested in the entirety of social relations, but at the same time we also consider this context as a historical reality inhabited by new subjects and new political and social configurations. Empire is a biopolitical reality; it is not simply a new capitalist organization of work. It is the ensemble of forces that traverse this reality and that express the power of life.

We cannot fully assume contemporaneity if we fail to thematize it within the passage from modernity to postmodernity, within the simultaneous passage from modern to postmodern biopolitics, between the invasion and the colonization of existence by power and the antagonistic dimension of the powerful contradictions present in the biopolitical context.

This configuration implies certain consequences.

(1) We can define the biopolitical context as the place where labor antagonisms have become social. When we say "social," we mean that the paradigm of work, or better yet of productive activities, pervades the whole society while becoming immaterial and cooperative. Today, the capitalist invasion of society, its subsumption by capital, is accompanied and contradicted by the transformation of the paradigm of work. Modern biopolitics were disciplinary; postmodern biopolitics are founded on control. Our deconstruction of modernity, therefore, revisits the material conditions of the totality of existence during the modern period in order to show contemporaneity as being the context for new contradictions.

If the social composition of contemporaneity has nothing to do, anymore, with social constitution within modernity, it is because innovative transformation is actually happening in the field of labor. We are talking about the passage from the mass worker to the social worker and from material to cognitive labor, as well as the transformation of the construction of value, which is no longer a measure of the time of production, but is, rather, the innovative construction of new mediations for the value of work. Here, the new technologies (new technological environments and new machines) are closely interwoven into a new social composition. The jump is decisive. As I noted before, understanding the present in terms of postmodern contemporaneity requires us to posit a new periodization in historical development. The change in the nature of work and of technology implies an anthropological mutation. Still-and this is the true meaning of a new historical periodization-these processes are not purely technical, nor are they simply anthropological (if anthropology is predicated on the individual); they are "social passages" tying the transformation of humanity to the facts of social cooperation. Work becomes linguistic in its very expression; it is cooperative, not simply because it includes cooperation but because it expresses it, determining cooperative innovations and producing a continuous excess of signification.

(2) In the philosophy of postmodernity we have witnessed a long and laborious philosophical effort that has tried to grasp the events that have ruptured the continuity and the teleology of modernity. It might be useful to remember three great lines of development.

The first was initiated by French philosophers of postmodernity when they insisted on the complete circularity of the processes that produced both commodities and subjectivity. So-called weak thought, aesthetic conceptions of life, and Marxist heresies about a production fully dominated by capital and therefore immeasurable and out of control, on its way to catastrophe-all of this did in fact reconfigure the field of analysis. At the same time, however, it also neutralized it. Between Lyotard and Baudrillard, it would be difficult to decide who was less responsible for this.

A second group tried to find, through the deconstruction of this context (precisely because they recognized it as being neutralized and insignificant), a point of rupture: a "marginal" point of true rupture that would allude to another form of existence or at least to a capacity to renew its meaning. From Derrida to Agamben, this line of thought developed its potential with force and intelligence. But the point of rupture remained and still remains marginal; the field and the horizon where this attempt at reversal takes place are extreme and become hardly viable. They are both frail and vulnerable to extremist tendencies. Critical theory here trumps practical reconstruction: the problem is recognized; the solution escapes our grasp.

The third line of development finds its inspiration in Foucault and Deleuze: it locates the powerful production of subjectivity at the center of the constitution of the real, rooted in a resistance to the insignificant self-enclosure of the world created by the production of commodities. This conquest of a creative ontological space (also called a space of difference) is crucial: this difference, this resistance, this production of subjectivity located in the center of the metropolis, in the center of cultures, in the center of intellectual and affective exchanges, in the center of linguistic and communicative networks, this center that is everywhere-well, it is from here that an ontological alternative can be given. Not a desperate, but a constructive, one.

(3) When we implant ourselves in the biopolitical field, work becomes a social activity and vice versa. Social activity participates in the General Intellect. But the General Intellect, in a biopolitical context, is also Eros: this means, obviously, that our anthropological becoming, in contemporaneity, is a process of singularization that is pragmatic and intellectual, affective and corporeal. The production of subjectivity accompanies an affective and a corporeal singularization. When we say "general intellect" we therefore indicate that ensemble of relational, ethical, and affective activities that were once called "eros." I will give you an example: the processes of artistic innovation from Cézanne to Beuys can indicate the direction taken by the reconstruction of this ontological concretion, consisting of matter and spirit. Spinoza described this kind of process as a synthesis of complexity and ingenuity. Between material and immaterial labor, between the production of commodities and the production of services, the workforce infuses the totality of the life experience and apprehends itself as a social activity. Living labor, and therefore the production of value, presents itself as at once an excess and a by-product.

(4) Capital and state control of technological development, reacting against the struggles and the resistance of workers and citizens (of the worker-citizens), operates essentially through the attempt to reappropriate social cooperation, and therefore through the dissolution of the commonality of life, through the colonization of affects and passions, through the commodification and the continual reduction to financial entities of the places of resistance and antagonistic cooperation. Nonetheless, the existence of apparatuses of resistance is becoming increasingly evident. Today, the expression of "living labor" is directly the "production of a residue": this expression is, therefore, in the anthropological terrain, a production of subjectivity, and, in the political terrain, a production of democracy.

I come now to my conclusion. We cannot get rid of the category of postmodernity: in fact, this category allowed us to identify-beyond the conceptions that envisioned postmodernity as a pure and simple description of the capitalist invasion of life-a field of struggle, of antagonism, of power. Postmodernity gave us the possibility of imagining contemporaneity as the place of the production of subjectivity. It made us discover, in the totality of subsumption, the permanence of antagonism. It made us imagine an ethical power that would be entirely immanent.

It is, therefore, the concept of multitude that brings us back to contemporaneity. Today, when we talk about multitude, we sometimes find ourselves in an ambiguous position: we define it as a multiplicity of singularities, but this reality of the multitude is fully inserted in the antagonistic context of postmodernity. We arm, in fact, that the multitude is capable of a reconfiguration of the sensible; we also arm that the figure of imagination is capable of innovation and that, vice versa, innovation is capable of constituting a context capable of imagination.

On the other hand, the multitude appears to us within a catastrophic picture. Nothing is less terroristic than this affirmation-we should not be afraid of it; but nothing is less messianic either. We only want to emphasize that the emptying of meaning typical of capitalist development finds as an alternative (as an alternative to catastrophe) the power of the multitude. This is why, today, the multitude appears as the figure of a possible recomposition of the sensible, within the catastrophe of contemporaneity. The multitude appears as a liminal figure between biopower and biopolitics, or, better, between pouvoir and puissance. Could we, at this point, reformulate an old figure of the antagonism, as did those seventeenth-century English thinkers who distinguished between power and multitude?


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