Misadventures in Universality

Rancière’s talk from the Second Moscow Biennial is available at their site, here.

The central concern in the talk is “the way in which the universality of the human rights or people’s autonomy appears to be absorbed by […] a certain idea of the universality of the commodity.” To illustrate what he means by this, Rancière brings up Godard’s Masculin/Feminin (view the trailer below):

the film where we are introduced to the children of Marx and Coca-Cola. He does this to point toward a newer problem, that during the 60s the protests were supposedly in solidarity and identification with the children in Vietnam, today there is no identification possible because there is only the caricature of who is exploiting whom.

In the 70s Martha Rosler’s collages were perhaps powerful critiques, but today this technique doesn’t seem to have the same force. The mode is tired. These sorts of collages seem to be just one of millions of such images. Perhaps this is because the Vietnam war was so pervasive in the American dining room – the family could be on the front lines of the jungle warfare while eating tv dinners.

Today this proximity to warfare is a primary means of providing entertainment.

ABOVE: Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975).
RIGHT: Martha Rosler, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (2004).
BELOW: Martha Rosler, The Grey Drape (2008).

Today, while it might be satisfying on some level to throw a brick through a Starbucks window it just doesn’t seem to convey any form of urgency to political action. Indeed, on a personal level I can relate a story of exactly this. While there was some sense of political excitement in the Battle of Seattle as the anti-globalization movement began to really ramp-up and a brick in a Starbucks while wearing a vinegar-soaked bandanna seemed a viable political action; only a few years later the gesture became impotent one night in Athens, Georgia when my friend had her store window busted-in by UGA party boys. No bandanna, not purpose other than the thrill of simple vandalism. In short, no universal principle being advocated, except that joy of being rebellious.

The result of this commensurability (you can invoke the same bandanna worn in the Battle of Seattle by purchasing it at Urban Outfitters) as Rancière states it is, “[u]ltimately terrorism and consumption, protest and spectacle are shown as part of the same process, a process governed by the law of the commodity which is the law of equivalence.”

He then proceeds in the talk to outline both sides of the political spectrum, primarily focusing on the shortcomings of the contemporary left. The right he simply passes over characterizing it as full of rage at the ambivalences in today’s world.

With the left there is talk of the impotence of its melancholic prediction which is, “not about verifiable facts. It is just about the lie hidden in any truth. Melancholy thus turns into a kind of cynical wisdom. It only says: things are not what you think they are.” We should perhaps clarify this as, perhaps, an incomplete melancholia. As Judith Butler pointed out in her “Melancholy Gender“, Freud saw an ego-accumulating aspect inherent to melancholia – an incorporative dimension in the ego’s seeking the lost object. Perhaps this, too, is a universalism that Rancière would characterize as misadventure…

So on the one hand there is this “rupture predicated on the historical assimilation of a critical knowledge of the system by the powerful material collectivity,” but also this rupture is the natural result of what Marx stated was capital’s ability to dematerialize previous material relations by subsuming them to the demands of market exchange.

To be continued tonight at the Poncey-Highlands Reading Group


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