That which can only be new, which calls itself a fissure in the trendline, a needle skipping from the record to the floor, whatever calls itself thus necessarily calls for a ground clearing, shoving to the gutter the clutter of accreted junk so as to gain visibility and the room to build up momentum.
Or this is how it supposedly goes. And this is been the rallying and outpacing cry of prescriptive radical cultural movements, from the manifestos of Dada and the SI, Constructivist design and Brutalist slabs, dialectical film and anarcho-punk.
This - this mode of emptying the graveyard to make room for new dead - is nothing new, nothing if not the dominant minor logic of the 20th century, the blood-and-noise conviction running alongside its modern twin: the promise of global liberal democracy making capitalism itself a "basic human right." And there is little left in our periodizing mourning which dwells in the basement of the museum of avant-gardes, fingering our collectible remnants of when times were different and when people believed.
So, like the very movements in question, we wind up backs to the wall of that non-choice: either we mark and mock, tell ourselves that it was always just aesthetic play from the start, postmodern equivalences from the start, and that real politics always lay elsewhere, or we maintain a conviction in the thought of the avant-garde, unmoor from our radical past in order to break the baleful spell of melancholic inaction, thereby discounting both the struggle that is our very history and the forces beyond which these days are unknowable.
In other words, we are one of two Jokers:
Jack Nicholson's Joker in 1989, having a band of merry pranksters defacing party in the Museum, saving from alteration only Francis Bacon's "Figure With Meat", entirely missing the point that for them to truly respect the Bacon would not be to reify it as dark art but to basically become what the Joker would become in the American filmic imagination.
That very figure, a remarkable hearkening back to the 19th century vision of anarchist as terrorist, the Joker as some slavering, negative-thought wielding combination of Sergei Nechayev, Lucky Luciano, and Hunter S. Thompson.
Protesters at the kettled G20 London protest in Ledgerite Joker makeup, proving that us radicals are not immune to and can benefit from the slips and shocks of what mass culture still remains capable of producing
Either defacing or destruction, the positive mark of negation left as a mocking sneer trace or the immolatory fantasy of groundclearing.
this town needs an enema (it is polluted, I have a conscious program of action, an invigorating solution, via the rather uncomfortable procedure of art-as-life and death-as-art it so as to make it better)
this town is itself already an enema (the hollowed out core of what could be, the administered false freedoms of the liberal order, and hence we might as well light the fuse and see what happens, let the world show its barbaric colors pulsing beneath the scrubbed-clean surface: "I'm just introducing a little chaos to this dull rule filled world").
(Or course, what is never spoken but implicitly suggested insofar as it is Batman's own solution, not to use his wealth - his only actual superpower - for any sort of collective social programs but simply to fight the Joker, is that this clown needs an enema. Hence the maddening, Bruce-doth-protest-too-much insistence that "I'm not like you, I won't kill you" - I'll just let your grip slip so you falling to your death is the consequence of your inability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps into the proper role for a maverick committed to preserving the status quo.)
There are distinct corollaries here with the kind of schematic Badiou (and others, albeit in different terminology) have been proposing in recent years, that of the different inflections of a "passion for the Real": read "Real" here not in a strict Lacanian sense, but rather as the insistence on praxis founded on the ground of what the world could be, neither Utopian nor hemmed in by the reigning symbolic order, but a sense of what lies below, of the bedrock of a social relations and thought to be rediscovered by revolutionary theory and action, particularly insofar as it indicates a relation to how one thinks antagonism and historical projects. Without delving into the specificity of that project (I have extended analyses of this elsewhere if interested), what is to be drawn forth here is, first, its direct relation to political-aesthetic projects and, second, here is the symptomatic blindspot of the model.
The century, as it tracks the supposed heroic arc of avant-garde art and vanguard political thought, is indeed marked by the relation between the ghosts and goals of unity and division, synthesis and contradiction, coalition and antagonism. And as such, the basic question is needed: are we to locate our way out of this mess via the unification of the opposed Two into a new One, or do we need to keep ceaselessly negating, dividing, resplitting, to shove a wedge into the false unity of the globe and show who's on what sight, plainly, harshly? The reformist and/or apologist overtones of the "unifier" position are unmistakable, and I give force, with Badiou, to the latter, to the drawing out of the Two. In this latter position, he recognizes the possibility that was the dominant historical tendency: our well-known annihilative, purgative, partisan conviction that just might destroy the world - or at least the possibility of its own position having coherence - in trying to burn it clean. Yet the work of revolutionary consciousness, political or cultural, cannot be the antithesis to the world that this annihilative passion forges itself as (the destructive embodiment of the antagonism itself), but something else, a horizon toward a third that escapes either the unary phantasm of the One or the terroristic deadlock of the Two. Regarding the image from earlier of the burning pile of cash, the Joker's joke is, fundamentally, that you can't just burn one part of a totality. It's all or nothing...
Against this, as a third of sorts, Badiou offers a "subtractive path: the subtractive path: to exhibit as a real point, not the destruction of reality, but minimal difference. To purify reality, not in order to annihilate it in its surface, but to subtract it from its apparent unity so as to detect within it the minuscule difference, the vanishing term which constitutes it. What barely takes place differs from the place wherein it takes place. It is in the ‘barely’ that all the affect rests, in this immanent exception" (from "One Divides Into Two", in Lenin Reloaded, on which I've written a long review possibly forthcoming in HM).
Concretized as cultural strategy, what does this look like?
Minimalism, that particular (historical) form of abstraction. Robert Ryman, Carl Andre, Agnes Heller. Morton Feldman. Mies. Malevich at his starkest best. Late Beckett, minus the scatological humor. Warhol's films, not his paintings. Late conceptual names, all.
(Yet... this is a longer gesture to track, too far for here, but there is another set of objects that perhaps crystallizes and deploys this barely far better than those productions that self-declare as minimal shifts of difference. Namely, the anti-minimal production of serial genre production, the relentless rehashing of a form that cashed in once, the repetition that tries its damnedest to escape difference. Think here of my great horror film loves, giallo and Hammer, Euro exploitation and minor studio 30's production, then beyond horror, to directors who can't get it quite right, the full-blooded, bawdy, surrealist ceaseless iterations, reading the tradition wrong through too much fidelity, too much studio pressure, a tectonic weight on what should be just another low-level production. Not diamonds but symptomatic coal, doubled back on itself and the very processes of production pressing down on it. Beyond film: psychotic pulp, Weird fiction, the insane linguistic frottage of Harlequin romance, all those books that know it has been done yet are commanded to do it all again, reaching out past themselves, raiding the tombs of other traditions. The feeling before the screen, knowing full well the director was told to play it straight, to make this just like that because that ruled the box office. And in front of you, the feathers drop, a boiling shadow, the words that should never go together, and we all think, how did this happen...)
We have three jokers now, three grains of sand, three ways of working within, through, and against a world order that does not satisfy you.
1. Annihilative passion for the Real, the one who stands before the burning millions of dollars and says, you just don't get it...
2. Subtractive passion for the Real: a Malevitchian Joker? Can we fathom it beyond its invisibility, the Joker somewhere convincing himself that his nearly unseen actions have brought forth, in the impossible difference of the barely different, a contact with the Real? (The non-maniacal Joker who may be a threat to the city, but the city will never know.) Or perhaps: this enema needs a town, a site from which it can barely withdraw.
3. Two unite into One: the Joker who will give the city a cunning enema, cajoling its consciousness via small calculated shocks, cultural sabotage, and lots of gaudy purple clothing.
But the blindspot, and not the sudden productive blindspot of anamorphic vision?
This approach to thinking radical political culture/ culturally radical politics is utterly accurate, particularly for a certain dominant moment in capitalist aesthetics. Yet something rests behind, a lack unacceptable for this conjuncture, at this economic flashpoint, this crisis that may not become a crisis unless we make it so. A lingering dissatisfaction, that there need be something else. The sense that these may be, for our moment, merely modes of petty nihilism, self-subtracting unwillingness to play the game that be the wrong game, and light defacement, just ways of apologetic participation.
More, though, we might say, that each of these have been more than that. But they are no longer.
More, though, is the other possibility not followed through, that the passion for the Real should not only be allowed to count when the dialectical model is that of One divides into Two. For
simply making as Two is not dialectics, at least not the dialectics of my project, from the rust knowledge of salvagepunk to the uncanny existence of our world with its copresent apocalyptic collapse. Capitalism is the bringing into existence of a world of the non-dialectical Two (there is that which is capital and that which might be, and underpinning it all is the unresolvable antagonism of workers and capitalists). All this under the shifting veil that tells us the world is global now, a tremendous heterogeneous One. Our thought must be dialectical exactly because capitalism itself is not.
And as such, we need not just the division that creates the Two but the insistence to not rest in it, either as annihilation or subtraction. Rather, construction, the other possibility so anathema to contemporary dialectical thought so resolute in its following of the vitally important line of thinking that was negative dialectics that it considers anything other than annihilation or subtraction to be the silly promise of unification, of synthesis, of the magical joining together.
What it can't think is the work of salvage and montage, of the work of construction in the age of wreckage.
In other words, to divide up the One not for the sake of purgative annihilation - or for the substractive insertion of a void - but to see what's worth saving in the One that was never there other than in our militant assertion of the world that will be made. That we begin indeed with the racheting up and cracking apart of the pseudo-totality of late capitalism. And then starts the harder task of knowing when to call something a wreck and to dig through that wreckage.
Like the avant-garde move that we can't afford to leave behind, but here doubled. To clear the wreckage - the wreckage at once material, the crap and scraps of our production processes, and formal, past gestures, manifesto fragments and strategies for repurposing - to make a space for what can be made from it. Then the making, the remaking, not the smoothing synthesis, but welding, stitching, rewiring. All with the chances that were there from the start, too polished to see, too immense to grasp, too broken to have ever been whole.