I’m showing two images. On the left, a protest in Karachi over the last several months in the garment industry sector, and on the right, an image from the Fiat wildcat strikes in 1969 in northern Italy. Together, I wanted to create a comparison to try and bring to mind what I think Bifo has said.
Franco Berardi theorizes linguistic redemption against what he calls semio-capital. As he mentioned two weeks ago, the question at stake right now is how we can think and speak outside of the metaphors of finance capital, which often seem to be speaking us. So we are currently produced by a new linguistic horizon, and our task is to figure out how can we fold that horizon against itself: to speak ourselves against the grain of metaphors of financialization. The animus behind this project derives from a question concerning technology. The entwinement of technology and capital are situated in a way that Bifo has inherited from Mario Tronti and Operaismo, the Italian radical left of the 60s and 70s that split with the communist party for its having sold Italian workers out to the interest of a nascent transnational model of corporate capitalism that would later come to be called “globalization” in everyday parlance, “restructuring” or “post-Fordism” in the lingo of political economy, and “empire” in specialized political theory. This globalized, post-fordist, neo-imperial era begins with the Marshall Plan, or its avatar, the Bretton-Woods experiment, of which Bifo makes much in his project, and to which I’ll return later. A descendent of this ultra left poised at once against Soviet Communism, and above all against the party form on the one hand, and against capitalism associated with the US as empire on the other, Bifo picks up and elaborates a particular understanding of Marxian orthodoxy in which the worker, not the party, is both the engine of growth and the force to drive capitalism towards its inherent structural collapse. I can’t emphasize enough Bifo’s formation in a particular Marxian axis long estranged from a party or any centralized entity, including unions or any other such organ of the central planning state, a historically elaborated position turning its hopes to decentered modes of resistance such as sabotage, ludic tactics, and strikes—the wildcat strike being a privileged tactic—all of which might occur to us as more urgently relevant than ever before if we scan some recent headlines.
So that’s part of the reason why I’m showing you an image of Karachi workers protesting, on the left, and putting it into a relationship with an image of the wildcat strike at Fiat, which provides an illustration of the social, historical and political matrix that formed Berardi. In this next set of images, I’m showing you, on the left, a set of images done by Bernd and Hilla Becher, and I’m putting that in relation to images done by Warhol: his Heinz and Brillo box works from the 60s.
For Tronti, Negri, and others during the heady years of the creeping May in Italy, capitalism’s own trajectory of hyper rationalization could be mobilized against itself. Tronti, in Operaio e Capitale, and Negri, in Marx Beyond Marx, both emphasized an element of Marxian orthodoxy, long dormant in mainstream communism, which understood capitalist production to be essentially self-annihilating. Better known as the immiseration thesis, or the tendency of profits to drop for reasons structural to capitalism itself, such as competition. Because capitalism is not inclined to homeostasis or internal consistency, much less sustained profit, unless it continually accelerates its game and finds ever-new sources from which to extract material and labour, it is inclined to recursive crisis. These downturns require fresh pastures of primitive accumulation. Enter advanced technology which has, at least as far as Berardi is concerned, seemingly interrupted this inherent inclination to crisis, purchasing time for capitalism through complex forms of subterfuge. As far as those who live in what I might call now fallow pastures of capitalist frenzy, that extra time is purchased through displacement onto another tier of abstraction, one no longer predicated on pressing surplus value from working bodies, but from manipulating the second and third order representations of this surplus, namely the money form. Foremost among these time-purchasing financial instruments is, of course, debt.
On the left, I’m showing Andreas Gursky’s well-known image of workers at Foxconn, and on the right I’m showing Goya’s very well-known print The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters and I’m hoping that will subliminally suggest itself to you as two different images of a certain logic of time.
Rehearsing the bourgeois nightmare of animated machines evoked by Freud in his theory of the uncanny—and let me emphasize also here that it was the special feature of the Italian ultra left, excommunicated from the orthodoxies of the church, the state, and the party, to embrace psychoanalysis. It’s kind of a strand within Autonomia, to use psychoanalysis against psychoanalysis, in what was known as the anti-psychiatry movement, very much bound up with worker protests. In his user’s guide to mobilizing the irrational to disrupt the logic of the assembly line, Tronti channels something of Goya’s Sleep of Reason; Negri in turn quickly allied himself with Félix Guattari and the schizoanalysis project, for better or worse. In any case, one could say that everyday life has indeed become uncanny, spectral, and this is one of Berardi’s central points. Lacan called the Big Other the social field, the site of the law; for Bifo this big other might be better understood as either the robot or the formula, reconstituting the social into a network of familiar yet alien and contradictory lines of cause and effect, absent consciousness much less agency, the effect of what he calls financialization. Production having become seemingly ghostly, Bifo turns to the way in which algorithms have doubly displaced people in this phenomenon known as financialization, a term describing how banks move money around and initiate complex schemes, hedging bets to collect profits in the absence of material production. First: production machines rendering the human supplementary; now algorithms. So the question is where is the human?
Enter the term semio-capital, coined by Berardi to suggest the degree to which the contemporary subject stands in a mimetic relationship to financialization, a kind of cipher in a labyrinth of the banking-state, a mere function of his or her debt. Against this, the subject must reclaim its force, which in turn requires a common space of self and mutual recognition. How do we recognize each other? This is a crisis of the human face.
And to describe that I’ve brought in a still of Dreyer’s well-known Jeanne d’Arc on the right. And on the left, of course, a still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, because I think that Bifo’s problems can more or less be summarized by this comparison.
And so Bifo opened his talk two weeks ago with the following query in recognition of finance as both limit and spur: how does the language of finance and finance capital speak us? How can we, rallying our human intelligence, speak outside the metaphors of finance capital? How are these metaphors no mere metaphor, but the structural condition of language insofar as it’s the condition of non-production, of the destructive animus of financialization? So Bifo is interested in tracking a paradigm shift from what he calls production, by which he means the production of value from the factory floor, to a paradigm that he calls destructive, which has to do with the capitalization of second orders of production through the value itself of debt. Here’s where things get tricky. Bifo situates language as homologous with this slippage from production to destruction, only to find failure and damnation in this very transparency of the sign to the evacuated subject that he himself posits. Note the circular line of thought. Berardi also wants to privilege insurrection as a moment of expression. 2011 therefore is important as THE year of the historical re-eruption of speech. It’s the rebirth of history. It is also THE year of insurrection, mapped geopolitically as plural. So for Berardi, it was Oakland, New York, London, Madrid, Athens, Cairo, etc. This pluralization across what old school party type Marxists might call context resurfaced the dreams of a transnational commons, the dream of Autonomia, essentially, proving correct the basic premise of autonomia that, given the division of world powers, anti-capitalism would also be a form of anti-statism. People were brought together provisionally, often through the mediation of social networking on the internet. We could think here of Benjamin’s wishful phrase “simultaneous collective reception.” But this re-emergent commons, the return of history with a capital H like the tiger that is ready to spring once again (to use a Benjaminian metaphor), was stymied always in the 11th hour. Autonomy came up, again and again, against autonomism.
It is thus technology itself that is both spur and limit, making revolutionary fervor spread only to deflect it. We see once again a vicious circle emerge, one in which mediation brings us to a reterritorialization of a collective body only to foreclose it. This discontinuity results from the fact that we can’t confront the enemy in the real world. Where once it was class-consciousness, there is now only an internally antagonistic multitude defined by what it is not. In place of the individual there is only the monad subjectivized by the technological matrix, a self that maps herself through her purchases. In place of the street, there is Facebook. In place of even that old enemy the union, and other forms of conciliatory mediation between individual workers and state, there is only the corporation, corporate identity, and mathematical formulas for calculating risk.
The enemy, in short, is dematerialization itself.
The trouble here is both complicated and simple. It is complicated in that it traces a tautology in Berardi’s own thought that results in his own conclusions. It is simple in that a little history could illuminate matters to a set of very different conclusions. There is no such thing as dematerialization tout court; there is restructuring, there is outsourcing, and there are what some economists have called post-Fordism and the crisis of over supply. The spaces, objects, bodies, and situations Bifo wants to see may and do exist in guises other than that to which he attaches meaning. Perhaps the sign does not align with the referent of the speaker’s desire, the European insurgent. In other words, the revolutionary subject Bifo seeks may be elsewhere than where he is looking, elsewhere than Europe, elsewhere than in poetic language. My question then becomes: might Bifo’s entire theory not rest on a kind of melancholic European-centric chauvinism?
Again, here are the protesters, the garment workers in Karachi, and on the right, I’m showing Peace and War by Peter Paul Rubens. It’s a tendentious image to show, but it’s situating Europe, torn apart by war in the 17th century, and it’s a work in which Rubens tries to make the case that what’s at stake is not necessarily Europe as a territory, but the entire problematic of civilization, which I think is silently operative within Berardi’s project. So now we can talk history.
Because dematerialization is a term born, to no small degree, of art historical discourse, coined by Lucy Lippard in 1972 to describe a new kind of art making no longer bound to an object, I’d like to come to grips with what I see as Berardi’s tautology and why it matters from the relatively stable vantage of my own field and my own precarious expertise: art history, or the scene of the crime of so called dematerialization. I do so to challenge Berardi’s narrative about value in order to suggest that the embodied revolutionary subject does indeed exist all the time, everywhere in our midst, perhaps dormant to a certain political outlook, perhaps crouching in wait, but that this subject might just look less male, less European, less white than Bifo might wish. He simply can’t recognize this subject through the scrim of his own theory.
And now we’re back to Foxconn. I’m showing you a image of workers at Foxconn on the lower left, and on the upper left a work again by Warhol, and on the upper right a work by Judd, and on the lower right a contemporary artistic practice by Cory Arcangel.
When New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a solo show of Cory Arcangel’s work in 2011, it aimed to address the lacunae where the history of Pop and Minimalist seriality conjugates with “new media” or the expanded field of communications technologies—most prominently the personal computer—used to generate objects re-baptised as art due to the special power that the institutional apparatus has to confer new identity onto objects, at least nominally. And here I’m channeling the history of the Duchampian readymade. Put otherwise, the show and Arcangel’s oeuvre to date is a story of post-production, and as such that dovetails rather nicely with Berardi’s narrative.
On the right there, I’m showing an image again from Arcangel’s show at the Whitney, and on the left, a comparison to Andy Warhol’s Heinz boxes.
As you see here…packaging, commodity, reproduction, immiseration are all blithely referenced (à la Warhol and Judd) in the serially arranged Vizio flatscreen boxes of Arcangel’s Volume Management from 2011. This work near-seamlessly delivers the hit strategies of hegemonic art practices of the last half-century: the readymade, the monochrome, the grid, the axiomatically deduced structure. Arcangel does this via popular forms he cites in his work, but in general through popular forms like Nintendo and YouTube, and the use of other infomatic materials so frequently evoked as some kind of transgressive outside to the last remnants of class hierarchy in culture. So the kind of work I’m showing you by Arcangel is posited as a kind of challenge to high culture, and the point I’m trying to make is that this challenge of high culture has been part and parcel of high culture throughout the entirety of the 20th century. Arcangel’s work also delivers the cybernetic turn that is, at least historically, co-terminus with Pop and Minimalism.
In order to show that, I have a still of Jim Dine’s Car Crash, which I associate with Fluxus and sadly I don’t have the time this evening to go into an exegesis of this work, but it revolves around the logic of the black box. This technological term has been in the very heart of the neo-avant-garde for nearly seven decades. So what I’m doing is bringing this work in to remind us that the encroachment of machines was always already part of every single paradigm shift that we’ve gone through as elements in cultural production. But the cybernetic turn had heretofore remained bracketed off as “cultural studies” rather than art as such, which allows it to live in the space of the museum. I’m showing now on the right another part of Cory Arcangel’s Volume Management, as shown at the Whitney in 2011 and then shown again in the Museum of Modern Art in 2012. And then again on the left, the famous murals by John White Alexander, his homage to labour, put up at the Carnegie Museum around 1910, to show you shifting paradigms of art and labour.
A year after the Whitney’s 2011 show, in 2012, Arcangel’s work was shown at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pennsylvania, as part of a survey of contemporary “Masters.” Pittsburgh is a special site for this appellation, as the birthplace of Andy Warhol, who was himself a product of a new kind of pedagogy reflecting the shift toward technology. Pittsburgh’s also a rich site for the history of mining and heavy industrial production of steel and glass, all of it outsourced in the late 70s and early 80s. So it’s a kind of ideal site for the kind of narrative that I now want to draw. If any American city could be said to have born the brunt of shifts in the site of value production, it would be Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By the time that the rest of the world had come to recognize the symptoms of economic crisis. As late as 2008, three-odd decades after its origin in the oil crisis of 1973, Pittsburgh was long over any such need to collectively panic. It had already moved on to another form of financialization: insurance, above all medical malpractice insurance, tracking parallels with the boom in pharmaceuticals.
Arcangel’s light industry aesthetic therefore seems as appropriate to the mid western American city as his quotation of Warhol’s Heinz boxes. But this already begins to make my point. Because if Warhol used Heinz in a directed way to think about home production, Arcangel’s technology, his boxes, signal a site of manufacture somewhere, anywhere so long as it be elsewhere. But this anywhere is not nowhere. Someone made the stuff that filled the boxes that the artist repurposed. Someone made the boxes themselves that the artists repurposed. In other words, production did not evanesce in the delta configured between Warhol and Arcangel at the Carnegie; it was simply removed and mediated at a degree of abstraction that is part of capitalist acceleration, part of its de- and re-territorialization. This is not the same thing as immaterial, precarious, or affective work, it’s just work by non-whites, non-Europeans who have never starred in revolutionary representation. Which is to say that while the bond of social capital from which Arcangel’s work derives its “value” might indeed be machines-gone-wild e-trading rather than the assembly line right over the bridge at the Heinz factory on the North side that Andy Warhol mobilizes, that the e-capital, so to speak, that Arcangel is hedging his bets on against surplus value, is still generated somewhere, in this case China, and China is not immaterial.
An excursus here may be necessary to acknowledge that yes, it’s true, these days machines also fabricate things that wind up for sale, that actual value is made otherwise than by labour, and in quite the same way that it had historically been. Let’s take this step by step. We know that manufacturing is coming back to North America and the US, that mills in the Carolinas are once again a-whir with the making of fabrics in a way that they haven’t been for several decades. And we all say no, that this return is just another index and another tier of subsumption; where a standard mill once employed 2000, it now employs 140. This is not just the same thing as dematerialization. I am getting these numbers from last week’s articles that were circulating about manufacture’s return from the NY Times; MIT has just put out some interesting figures on the return of manufacture to the US, now dependent on ever smaller and smaller labour pools. Just as capitalist sites of manufacture withdrew from the global north in the 70s, precisely because subjects unformed by civil society would work more cheaply thereby guaranteeing a provisional band-aid against the tendency of profits to fall, they return now thanks to new technologies that offset the expense of shipping and the embarrassment of the kind of thing that happened in the Karachi garment factory last year, so saving face. What these narratives of mechanization fail to account is that markets are deeply entangled, and that the fragile homeostatis, or growth, that capitalism depends on to ward off its own immiseration is a function of a larger totality. What this nightmare of the machine occludes is something that has indeed remained constant in capitalism since Ricardo theorized it and John Stuart Mill refined it: namely that the root of value continues to be labour, labour pegged to the wage, somewhere, somehow, that permits an almost infinite variability within which none of its terms are expendable. I’m referring to the wage-fund theory, which is held fairly consistently within labour theories of value—I don’t have the intellectual capacity or time to go into this at the moment. The wage-fund theory would have it that wage calculus is a zero sum game of workers played against other workers, maintaining larger global homeostatis at any given historical moment. And this is something coming out of Marx’s own research, worked out in relation to the Turing machine in which computation could make value jump in the evident short term only to re-incline toward immiseration over a temporal durée, or by dilating one’s vision of profits over larger and larger geo political sites. History has shown this to be true. Thatcherism and Reaganomics were not possible without the IMF’s tinkering with Africa and the restructuring and circulation of profits globally. Dilating the scope and protracting time only reveals Bifo’s map, which starts and ends with European civil society, to be a function of nostalgic mourning for a Europe that only too happily sold itself to banks that then sought fresh material, fresh sources of surplus outside its own geo-political boundaries. So this was a fairly bad deal for Europe, the purchase of a complicity that has only ever betrayed it. So a poor trade and dematerialization are simply not synonymous. The crux of my retort to Berardi is that these sorts of poor historical compromises are simply not synonymous with dematerialization tout court.
What Arcangel shows, under the great fanfare of post-production and dematerialization, is that Art making, like any other kind of production, is a function of “globalization,” a process in which revenue, or value, is generated on factory floors in far away places, making it seem remote enough to argue that value derives from moving things around in electronic circuits. In fact, surplus is produced as it ever was within a capitalism order—which is to say through human work, through the vanishing horizon of surplus labour, expelled in a process measured by the clock, and brought to market to be realized as value. It has been, over the last three decades, offshored, out of sight, out of smell and out of touch, which allows it then to be appropriated by Google and Google users who doubly efface the labourer by claiming to produce value.
In short, my own revolutionary impulse comes to suspect Bifo’s not so much of inaccuracy as of a double order of violence. Perhaps no one expects good poets to understand concentric circles of mutually dependent political economies, but expropriation continues to exist as it once did, and now by clicking around in a cubicle, which is not the same thing as expiring on an assembly line. My concern is that Bifo produces his worst fear: the occlusion of bodies in spaces that rely as ever on other bodies in as yet unorganized and nascent collectivity. A theory of precarious labour is doubly violent insofar as the worker is still the victim of the initial violence of expropriation, and then again insofar as this theory refuses to recognize, in its melancholic evocation of a material past, the material networks that continue to subjectivize and desubjectivize. It forecloses research into new forms of insurrection. So the Facebook desiring machine failed against the capitalist war machine, to use the Deleuzian language that Bifo has elsewhere accepted. And so we multiply the pleats of opacity in which we might find each other. In keeping with Tronti’s research from the 60s and 70s, we look elsewhere, perhaps theorizing supply chains over factory floors in order to keep up with acceleration, in order to keep up with the logic of decenters and centres. If capital metamorphoses and revitalizes, why can’t we? Why these images of insurrection that don’t see to have grown past May of 1968? Why must the barricade that precedes even my birth be the limits of Bifo’s imaginary?
What I was hoping to show is that the limits of this historical imagination are again encapsulated in Arcangel’s project. In Arcangel’s work, the slippage between demos, as in product demonstrations for the purposes of marketing, and demos, the people, is offered as a central question. This question hinges on whether it’s possible to come out on the further banks of conceptual art, which turned out to be synonymous with the management of changes in the geopolitical location of value. As production moves to other shores, those of us left behind by capital have to restructure, even if nothing needs to be restructured, in order to keep ourselves and others busy, so no one gets too panicky about this encroaching spectralization. One could argue, as inspired by Arcangel’s work, that we live in a moment that is impassioned by management. What imaginary might emerge if we ceased for a moment this busy chatter of management? To be sure exploitation exists within the managerial regime, which I think is what Berardi is getting at with his notion of the precariat. But this exploitation does not automatically circumscribe a new class. All sectors are being restructured. We have two choices: we can continue and pretend that our exploitation happens in a one-to-one relationship with the worker—it’s important to return to this image, but again, the point I’m trying to make is that that strikes me as an advanced form of narcissistic melancholia—or we could understand our own place at the mouth, as one part of a much larger total picture wherein our managerial enactment of cut-and-paste is part of, essentially, a laundering mechanism.
Of course the malaise of production as such is a crisis in the art world, too, which is what I’m hoping to get at with the model of post-production brought to bear by Cory Arcangel. New Media is an old phenomenon, but it continues to be delivered as though new—which is to say new to the art world—as a kind of “value-added” exotic ingredient, part of the task of rebooting, or updating, necessitated by capital. Arcangel’s show at the Whitney was called Pro Tools, acknowledging the legacy of Duchamp, the degree to which artists, too, are salespeople for advanced cultural research and development. The actual tech in the show had to be just obsolete enough to signify technology without mesmerizing and thereby absorbing the viewer with its newness. It had to read as art, art with the value-added bonus of technology. Cutting across the museum’s losing battle for timeliness, Arcangel reminds us that art has only ever been technology: technology always already mediating the relation between an economic base and ideological structures looking to growth and progress. Art as the primary form of mediation of economic structure was after all the very point of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.
But to keep things in focus, it’s worth bearing in mind that when Lippard coined the term dematerialization to describe six years of a new kind of art practice disarticulated from objects, she was writing in the midst of the crisis that spurred outsourcing: the oil crisis, which also impinged on policy, causing any number of countries to try and offset falling profits with new instruments furnished by banks. Lippard may not have been aware of this relation between base and superstructure, being herself no vulgar Marxist. She would, however, have been familiar with the new aesthetic paradigms structuring much art production from the 50s on, not least of which was the phenomenon known as the flatbed picture plane and the aesthetics of indifference, historically bound up with the cybernetic turn, which is to say, with the same historical matrix that generated the algorithm that displaced currency with accelerated forms of credit. So to illustrate the flatbed picture plane, I’m showing Robert Rauschenberg’s well-know Factum I and II—and to speak ahead to Cory Arcangel again, I’m showing the score for John Cage’s well-known 4’33” on the right, and on the left, Cory Arcangel’s response to that kind of aleatory score structure, which I’ll get to in just a moment. I hope it’s becoming clear how changes in the technological base and in culture are very much historically imbricated.
So to discuss Arcangel again, briefly: trained in classical guitar and having graduated with a degree in electronic composition from Oberlin’s Conservatory for Music, Arcangel is of course keenly aware of the legacy of John Cage, very often utilizing chance operations in his work. However, “the aleatory” is not analogous to software design. Rather, the model for Arcangel would be more a 1990s MIT Media Lab working order under corporate contract, than a 1950s Zen master D.T. Suzuki lecture at Columbia University, which is where John Cage picked up his principle, which he would then mobilize in 4’33”. By contrast, Cory Arcangel’s Three Piano Pieces op.11 (Drei Klavierstücke op. 11, 2009) which I’m showing you on the left, is a collection of online videos of cats walking across piano keyboards to reconstruct Arnold Schoenberg’s well-known eponymous score, Opus 11. Arcangel then ran this material through a program that broke down the clips note-for-note, reordering them to create a mash-up of Arnold Schoenberg’s work—an ur-example of “atonal,” twelve-tone composition. So Arcangel’s work would already have been a joke on Adorno, an elaborate joke on Adorno, but a fairly precious one as early as 1975, let alone 2012. But what the work signals is the failure of production at a historical moment in which growth and productivity have reached a saturation point of over supply and enforced obsolescence. This obsolescence is already inscribed in design. As Bifo said in a lucid expression of the problem: production is in crisis precisely because there is no more production in production, it has once again switched over to destruction in the form of financialization. These kinds of financial operations involve hedging on failures, capitalizing on government and individual debt alike, as the real estate and now student loan bubbles attest. But even in reference to hedge funds, hedge funds do not produce something of nothing, they buy and sell actually existing value, offsetting the imbalance in one sector against that of another. This has real and material effects, forcing companies to cut back or fire workers to hit profit expectations, but it is not in and of itself generated from nothing. The whole point of abstraction is that it becomes concrete, after all. I’d like to briefly remind you that in his lecture two weeks ago, Berardi brought up the term “Baroqalization” as a synonym for financialization, and this is an associative way to remind you that in the first iteration of the Baroque, we’re looking at something that appears as though evanescent, as though floating on air, but this detail I am showing you of an angel holding the fabric of St Theresa’s robe in Bernini’s Ecstatsy of St Theresa, too, is a solid slab of marble, so there’s something of the slip in Berardi’s logic, I think, inscribed in this term Baroque.
At the very historical moment when artists are aware of the imperative of pushing against the hegemon of digital technologies that make any and all “expression” possible only up to a point that verges on direct action only to deflect direct action, some artists, such as Claire Fontaine, are thinking through a “libidinal economy” (that’s their term) and the impact of the readymade, as well as the impact of changing modes of production, distribution, reception and “creation” in a very different way. So I’m positing Claire Fontaine as thinking through the same problematic as Berardi, but coming to almost diametrically opposed sets of conclusions. While the artist’s collective Claire Fontaine hedges its bets, too, on the mediated folds of institutional, digital, and otherwise dispersed circuits symptomatic of our age, they do concede where value comes from: from human labour. And so their ruminations on the Human Strike, about which they’ve written at great length, which are born at the same historical moment and the same geo-political site as Berardi’s project: Italy of the 60s and 70s, the years that led and resulted in Autonomia that can be described through the image of the wildcat strikes, again. That, too, is Claire Fontaine’s social, historical, and theoretical matrix. Italy was, after all, the crucible for a new kind of structuring and where what we now know of as financialization was inaugurated, which is why the first instance of what Berardi is calling financialization can be located in the Bretton Woods plan of the 1940s, which is why he makes much of the Bretton Woods experiment in his own text. Bretton Woods, to remind you, was the moment in which world currencies were reticulated to the US dollar in 1947, making American money the measure of all world markets. And he recalls well that the Marshall Plan, signed into effect in June 1947, entailed loans made by American banks with fancy terms designed to ward off the threat of communism over Italian territories, and to create European markets for new post-war products made in American factories. Bifo situates the Bretton Woods experiment as the first instance of banks displacing states as sites of authority, thereby evanescing material modes of resistance. But the whole point of this is that Claire Fontaine is coming out of the same historical moment, the same problem, the same struggle with an emergent financialization.
So to wrap this up, I’d like to briefly discuss Claire Fontaine in order to suggest conclusions diametrically opposed to Bifo’s, yet drawn from the same geopolitical and historical matrix of a radical left of the 70s, reworked against the same horizon of insurrectionary anti-capitalism that we’ve come to see in the present, or from 2011 on. Yet Claire Fontaine evokes another aspect of the revolutionary struggle of the Italian May, known as the “creeping May” that ran from 1962 and the Fiat Strikes to 1977 and the violent arrest of numerous revolutionaries, among them Negri, Balestrini, and at one point Bifo himself. And that other strand, which Claire Fontaine is eager to resurface, was busy thinking about the curious convergence of the potentially revolutionary subject occluded from revolutionary discourse: notably the house-wife. The house-wife, the immigrant, all the unclassifiable members. So in so far as the radical left is theorizing class composition in the 60s and 70s, a new strand of the ultra left comes out that is interested in thinking about those who cannot be accounted for within theories of class composition in that they are marginalized by the wage, so those living on the outer peripheries of the wage: illegal immigrants, the house-wife. In Ready Made Object and the Human Strike, Claire Fontaine turns to the revolutionary subject by resurfacing its theorization in the Italian feminist movements associated with labour movements. Already in 1972, it was clear that sources of value that were anterior to, outside of, overlooked by the wage nevertheless remained in the domain of bodies, in the domain of labour unaccounted for by the work-to-clock relationship. 1972 77 were crucial years in which Italian feminists were theorizing an apparatus of social reproduction framing dynamics of the factory floor yet absent from the factory floor—already spectral. From Claire Fontaine: “The revolts of the 1970s and in particular the ones that took place in Italy in 1977 aired all sorts of dirty laundry that no political or biological family knew how to clean anymore: colonialism, whose racist heritage was doing rather well, after all, and above all, domestic colonialism, or sexism, which only looked healthier after 1968.” 1968 in its cultural revolution…. Moving from a damning dismissal of May 1968 as having achieved for Europe only a politics of repressive tolerance, a cosmetic revolution, which incidentally is a conclusion shared with Tronti against Bifo, Claire Fontaine continue: “Some Italian feminists in the 1970s already envisioned a strike that would be an interruption of all the relations that identify us and subjugate us more than could any professional activity.” In order to qualify this, Claire Fontaine evoke the Bolognese collective for a domestic salary who, in 1976 wrote, “If we strike, we won’t leave unfinished products or untransformed raw materials; by interrupting our work we won’t paralyze production, but rather the reproduction of the working class itself. And this would be a real strike even for those who normally go on strike without us.” This principle, that capitalism is produced not only through objects but more fundamentally through the reproduction of the worker who reproduces the objects, is echoed in their own formulation that, “We are not going to trace a genealogy of transformation in the domain of art objects; what interests us here is what happened in the domain of the production of artists, in the production of people.” So capitalism continues to produce labour, whether or not this labor is actualized. And to give him credit, I think this is really where Berardi is trying to go. And this resource continues to be its undoing. Claire Fontaine describes the strike as “an interruption into the total mobilization to which we are all submitted and that allows us to transform ourselves, and we might call this the human strike, for it is the most general of general strikes and its goal is the transformation of the informal social relations on which domination is founded. The radical character of this type of revolt lies in its ignorance of any kind of reformist results with which it might have to satisfy itself.” So there is nothing to suggest that the logic of the general strike has been foreclosed by history. If we expand Claire Fontaine’s understanding as being much broader and wider than actual value production on the factory floor, it’s a set of social relations that produce bodies, that produce value. If anything, historical unfolding of the last few years, notably exemplified by strikes by the Wal-Mart supply chain workers, suggests that we may be at the very beginning of a historical period rather than its collapse, or to place someone like Badiou over Bifo, we might begin to see 2011 as the rebirth of history and the end of the three decades long restoration (restoration is Badiou’s term), rather than as a set of historical foreclosures.
To conclude, Bifo’s voice is a welcome corrective to the naïve utopianism that subtended much conceptual art and institutional critique and the kind of utopianism that would celebrate dematerialization. I think what Berardi’s thesis begins to show is that much production that we see as critical is part and parcel of the logic of a new economy. But the idea that replacing the object with the analytic, as though the commodity were not a congealed social relation resulting from a field of exchange, but a free standing valorized thing, so to that extent, as far as Berardi points this out, the correction is long deserved. Technological advancements and a shift toward information and post Fordism signaled by deskilled and conceptual art practices have not ushered in liberation or a dismantling of bourgeois static materialism, and this I’ll give him. On the contrary, capital marched ahead bolstered by many supposedly critical practices, onward toward a global service industry replacing service with things. And this again does validate Bifo’s project. But the idea that value is now replaced by semio-value violently disavows the subject already disavowed through the expropriation of her labour. The tragedy here is that by denying this value-producing labourer her own material reality, Bifo is doubly foreclosing the emergence of spaces and sites of struggle, and that strikes me as fairly ironic, again, given the headlines that we’re seeing recently. I can only imagine that a creeping Eurocentrism, a belief that Europe and its diaspora continue to hold special possession of the place and subject of historical struggle, is informing Berardi’s outlook. The struggle to come must happen along the same telos of history that we already recognize—indeed one in which May of 1968 has a special, private place. I think there’s a strong whiff of Hegel, despite the project of Autonomia, with that kind of telos, warding that off; it really does continue to inform Berardi’s project. So two weeks ago, Bifo was outspoken about the violence of referring to post-colonialism as post-colonialism, his point being that it’s not a post, as colonialism is alive and well in so many guises. Yet he isn’t willing or ready to recognize the way in which it continues to adhere much in the way it always did: the IMF gets ready for a new round of primitive accumulation in Africa, for instance, in East Asia, and not least of all in Canada—so our own territorializations are proving him incorrect. But he reinscribes this colonial tendency by being incapable of imagining that his dream of a revolutionary subject might stem from places where value is still generated through forms of expropriation, and not from the decentered centre of capital. So again, what I’d simply to point out is that something like the Wal-Mart strikes that aren’t occurring along the factory floor but are occurring in the supply chain is no negligible matter. That’s already offering us a model for a new kind of insurrection, one that isn’t occurring in quaint urban centres and European city streets, one which is diffuse and not as mediagenic. It would be easy enough to believe that this round of accumulation and restructuring were simply a form of mental and verbal colonization, a colonization of language and intellect. Sadly, colonization and the tightening of enclosures is terrifyingly, territorially real. It is as though the logic of the precariat were to cover that terror of the real, as Badiou would call it, with a last ditch effort at a veil of false hope in the name of pessimism.
Bifo’s position might be summarized in caricature: revolution has failed over the last three decades of restoration, and especially in the last decade, because mothers sell their labor power, having come out from the unwaged relation to the market to the full blown light of the wage. While a mother is at work to enable her social reproduction, her time wedded to the clock, and the minimal daily social reproduction of her offspring, said offspring are acquiring entry into language from other sources, mostly screens provided by and mediating the interests of corporations bound up with states in so called public education. This caesura of the sign from the maternal body effects a rupture with the social body, thereby rendering broken in advance any commitment to collectivity and community, much less the necessary step of embodied solidarity and confrontation foreclosed thus far at the heart of Cairo, London, Oakland, etc., a.k.a. revolution. Instead of echoing the right, which always likes to hook the blame on the welfare mother, why not recognize the potential of this least “invested” subject who is yet most fundamental to capitalist reproduction?