30 April 2012

Robert Mittenthal: Reading LIke a Loser

Robert Mittenthal came down to Oakland from Seattle in early April to give a killer reading at Andrew Kenower's place (with Steven Farmer and Lauren Levin), prefacing his performance with this little talk he called "Reading Like a Loser," which I present in full here; if you know Robert and his work, you know you're in for a treat, but if you haven't had the pleasure of reading Robert before, the best place to start is his wonderful new Chax collection Wax World (read what I said about it here).

And if Robert's work is new to you, here's a short bio for context before you read the essay: Robert Mittenthal is author of Value Unmapped (Nomados), Martyr Economy, Ready Terms (Tsunami Editions), Irrational Dude (tir aux pigeons), and the newly arrived Wax World (Chax, 2011). Mittenthal has written essays on contemporary art and literature, including catalog essays on Gary Hill, Harriet Sanderson, and Cris Bruch. He was instrumental in creating and curating the Subtext Reading Series (1995-2009) in Seattle, and the last few years has been working to induce collective thought via a series of related reading groupuscles, a project called "autonomous university." He blogs at http://rmutts.blogspot.com/

Here's the talk in full, delivered on the 6th of April in Oakland:

Reading Like a Loser                        

To start with a conclusion, I’d like to adopt what Mallarme said circa 1895: “it all comes down to Aesthetics and political economics.”  Economics is the piece of this that is often left out by leading thinkers on the left like Badiou, Zizek and Ranciere. 

One of the quickest ways of summarizing what’s wrong today is that: rather than being merely part of the world, markets are taken to be the circuit thru which everything in the world needs to be seen.  That’s maybe a (reductive) thumbnail definition of neo-liberalism.  While the truth is NOT as they say “on the market,” the market has become accepted as a (false) force or law of nature – like gravity.

Historically the left has attempted to address problems like this pedagogically.  There is a long heroic tradition (not just in our literature) of developing the correct position so that it can be taught or proselytized to others.  Sort of the fallacy of: The truth will out…  Political histories of the left and art histories, theories of the avant-garde etc all heroically put forth their radical news in order to correct the past.

As Tim Morton suggests, the history of critical theory in the modernist era could be summarized as “anything you can do, I can do meta…”  (Yes, I can)

Of course identifying a problem versus figuring out how to get a hold on it (in order to effect change) are two different things.  When I say “get a hold on”, I mean with traction – Capitalism for example, seems to be able to absorb negative definitions without much trouble.

However, it is very difficult to envision a useful politics without a dose of the negative.  The problem I don’t have time to discuss tonight is whether one can translate aesthetics into politics without being compromised – that is, by having to travel thru the circuits of capital.

It’s worth noting here that the notion of “economy” is generally left out of these arguments.  It interests me that economy is etymological cousin of ecology – which is literally the logic of the house or home.  Coherence – if that is what we’re after, ala Whitehead – is not necessarily logical, but rather it is eco-logical.  Something coheres in relation to its environment.

There was something in my little bio that suggests that the goal of the Autonomous University (“AU”) project is to induce collective thought and action.  I can’t say it’s wildly successful, but it is worth saying that the purpose is not necessarily to empower participants (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but rather to empower situations – which can lead to collective thought and action.

One of the books that AU in Seattle recently read was The Beach Beneath the Street by MacKenzie Wark, which is great for a number of things including its focus on the less famous members of the Situationists.

In response to an inquiry about the health of AU, I found myself remembering something cynical that Wark says about “discourse clubs,” that is, my hope is that AU can be more than merely a discourse club.

And thus the critical force of historical thought was separated into various specializations and absorbed back into business as usual within the spectacle…  The margins outside the spectacular world that once harbored a glimmer of negation have been all but foreclosed. What remains is professionalized anesthesia, mourning communities, discourse clubs, legacy fetishists.  Some ages betray a deep respect for their critical thinkers.  To Socrates, they offered hemlock; to Jesus, the cross.  These days its Zoloft, a [journalistic] column – or tenure.

So, Wark does indeed want to find a way to keep us young Hegelians fed and clothed on mere glimmers of the negative.  The shimmering shimmering waters on...

Clearly Situationist ideas and tactics continue to inspire many.  So it’s maybe dangerous to say how ambivalent I am about them. 

[Before proceeding, I need to say that I owe a great debt here to Steve Shaviro and Isabelle Stengers– I’m largely following in their footsteps here.]

As Shaviro says, contra Debord we have:

…moved from being a “society of the spectacle” to being a society of participatory and interactive media….  We are no longer passive, voyeuristic spectators; instead, we actively both give ourselves over to surveillance, and eagerly surveil …both others and ourselves). We fragment, multiply, and network both ourselves and whatever we encounter. This no longer falls under the dipolar schema of subject and object; but rather has the form of a network in which everyone and everything is a node [in that network].

While he doesn’t explicitly criticize tactics (which I think are the Situationists’ strongpoint) on political strategy, Shaviro writes much more critically: “The Situationist strategy of radical negation and absolute refusal is a self-congratulatory self-deception, or at best a show of empty bravado.”

The irony is that the Situationists’ “virulent critique of all forms of commodity culture became one of the most commercially successful …‘brands’ of the late twentieth century.”

I want to briefly bring in the (seemingly) very anti-Situationist Andy Warhol for contrast, since Warhol completely embraces the spectacle, completely complicit but at the same time revealing the art world for what it is.

The strategies are not reconcilable: violent negation that sells itself out, versus the (apparent) complicity that peels back the ugly skin from within.  But Shaviro suggests that in the post-modern era, it's not a choice between complicity vs revealing the ugly world.  It is beside the point.

… if you care at all for pleasure, [and here Shaviro is talking about Warhol’s film about Juanita Castro, Fidel’s anti-communist sister:] if the old corrupt Yankee-controlled Havana of nightclubs, casinos, and whorehouses holds any allure for you whatsoever, then such purism and puritanism clearly won't do. You'll have to work around and within the spectacle, just as [Warhol] did.

The argument that I'm intrigued with (outside of Shaviro’s immediate discussion of Warhol) is that of “reading like a loser” – which specifically comes from an essay by Malcolm Bull: Where is the anti-Nietzsche?”  This syncs with Isabelle Stengers’ insistence (in Capitalist Sorcery especially) that we must resist all mobilization, all denunciation, and the temptation to turn a theory into a conquest. Force/weakness comes before truth/justice.  Don't look into the distance.  The metaphor she uses is that: The job is to sound the depths – as if on a boat calling out the dangers that lurk below the surface.

The challenge is to think: with the milieu, which implies becoming through the middle (without grounding definitions or an ideal horizon—in other words, unmapped) and with the surroundings. No theory gives you the power to disentangle something from its particular surroundings. 
Ultimately there is a big problem with the heroic, “reading for victory” tendencies that we get schooled in.  Nietzsche is the prime example of this – since he does it so well.  Perhaps this is really what the problem is with the Situationists, i.e., they were young heros, playing for victory, with their own jaded notions of purity.
One way to think of this purity is as a unity or totalization of theory & practice.  (This is where I can segue out of here and into my reading.)
I take Henri Lefebvre’s discussion of Dialectical vs. Romantic Irony in his Introduction to Modernity as an implicit critique of the Situationists, with whom he was quite intimate. 
In contrast to the Hegelian dialectic, the Socratic dialectic is not one of contradiction or negativity, i.e., it contests in an understated way, it confronts and enacts a drama of not knowing.  This aligns very well with Ranciere’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, where he argues for a non-hierarchical pedagogy, that is, where teachers (merely) contest and question, and confirm that students are translating their experience.  
Dialectical irony (following Lefebvre’s preference for the Socratic) would release us from the goal of unifying theory and practice.  A couple quotations:
First Lefebvre: Dialectical irony, he argues: “is an essential aspect of the modern world.... [It] would gladly reactivate the initial project of Marxist thought. [Which is:] How can the world… be changed so that objects become objects of enjoyment, aesthetic realities,… transformed by art (rather than [becoming] objects of power, or technological realities
And here’s John Roberts (not the chief justice) writing on Lefebvre: 
Ironization, therefore… is that which happens to revolutionary praxis once it is released from the dogmatism of the unity of theory and practice. Praxis and theory are not so much externally… related and mutually supportive, as internally divided and disjunctive. Hence, the ironist gains access to truth when he or she is objectively at their weakest: when theory fails to cohere with practice – that is, when theory exposes practice and practice exposes theory.  (Philosophizing the Everyday: Revolutionary Praxis and the Fate of Cultural Theory by John Roberts)
In sum, Socratic irony attacks or challenges the world while the Romantic ironist attacks him or herself.  The Romantic irony is in some ways the unavoidable (and inexhaustible) gap between appearance and reality, between the “author” and the narrator implicit in the author’s text.


I spent considerable time under the influence of the objectivist poets, and I think one of the impulses behind Wax World – probably the title poem more than the book – was to explore the notion of sincerity and objectification, in other words to enact in some minor way the drama of not knowing, & at the same time keeping watch so that the toast doesn’t get too burnt.   In other words, I was suspicious about this desire for sincerity.

A little quotation from the preface of the Value Unmapped (a chapbook which comprised about 1/3rd of Wax World):
It is an unfortunate iron that walks stiffly over us, pressing our clothes.  I miss the comforts of a baggy garment that covers everything while revealing very little…  The truth of appearances is that there are only appearances.
This last seems like it could be paraphrasing Warhol, who says something wonderfully swishy somewhere -- about the only real problem being how to suppress skin blemishes…
[And now some heroic examples from Wax World::]

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