Think Generically, Act Particularly


Yes, it's a twist on the old slogan 'think globally, act locally'. Bear with it, though; it means something related, but also quite different.

There is a certain degree of equivalence between a Badiouian Evental Site, the situation of mésentente in Rancière's 'part-of-no-part', Agamben's State of Exception, and, (perhaps least of all due to its apoliticity) a Lyotardian Differend. I do not know whether it was Balibar or Agamben who first noticed this. There is an excellent article on the subject of the Evental Site here.

It's sometimes startling to recall that Apartheid, slavery, and colonialism were all perfectly legal regimes. Even the Shoah was fully legislated for well in advance. In fact, a pre-occupying focus of genocide studies has been that the legal framework for acts of genocide always pre-exist the historical atrocities they legitimate, which constitutes in itself a formal, absolute, atrocity. Rancière is therefore far from merely sporting with language when he speaks of 'a wrong that is right': like Agamben, he is talking about situations of legally supported injustice. As leftists, whether we admit it or not, or whether or not it is explicit in our theoretisation, we are all dependent on a distinction between legality and justice. Without an idea or sense of justice, there can be no sense to revolutionary politics.

Just how generalizable this recognition is I do not know, but Badiou seems to have identified the formula under which the distinction is most visible: the Evental Site. Just as, for Agamben, the legal State of Exception (which defines the Homo Sacer) is both the gravest problem and the greatest hope, for Badiou the Evental Site is that place ('on the edge of the void') where organisation and true (revolutionary) political subjectification is possible.

With respect to Grenfell, for example, it is easy to see how the tragedy occurred, and difficult to see how things might have gone otherwise. Human voices were effectively put on mute; dissent from the dominant opinion was simply ignored or alleged not to exist; legal recourse was denied to residents; complaints were met with strong-arm threats and silencing strategies on the parts of the powerful. Here the structure of the situation is Evental: elements of the situation were on the edge of the void because they 'belonged' without being 'included'; they were always present but their political power considered from above was unaccounted-for, always rendered null in advance by dissuasion and threats.

Yet within this situation, in which human subjectification and the political representative link was denied to residents by those financially invested in keeping them quiet, residents formed their own collective and attempted to speak out. They attempted to give themselves a voice and make themselves known. One of these efforts was the Grenfell Action Group. When people in an Evental Site, denied voice, give themselves a voice, they are participating in revolutionary subjectification. Just as those denied human rights in detention camps around the world demanding due legal and political representation, refugees or workers deemed illegal, sans-papiers, or mere 'survivors', all contesting that they be acknowledged to be fully humanized and not pseudo-animal in status, so the residents of Grenfell were in the process of what Badiou regards as proper political subjectification, i.e. the formation of a subjective body of fidelity to a truth (in this case the truth would be something like: 'justice exists' or 'we have a right to rights'). This is far from a trivial theoretical observation. It means that, since truly public social housing has all but disappeared, the rentier and the private landlord being the ascendant figures of contemporary and near-future capitalism, and with coming generations unlikely to buy their homes, local bodies such as the Action Group are of extreme significance in our era. Perhaps even to the same extent that industrial workers' unions were in the time of bourgeois-owned factories (which constituted the Evental Sites of their times). This is all the more the case when the labourification (or monetisation) of everyday life is considered in closest scrutiny. It is not so much the worker, but the life-as-worker — the one whose ordinary living of their life constitutes an upwards revenue stream (via rents) — who constitutes the next historical subject.

Had the Grenfell community been able to reach the wider electorate, or perhaps federate with other similar communities without official voice, amplifying their own politically autochthonous voices, perhaps the tower fire might not have been inevitable. An Event was, at some point, perhaps possible. It is important that this failure is not regarded merely as the structural 'democratic deficit' of our neoliberal, democracy-abreviated times, but also at a much more grass-roots level a failure to rouse a wider context for concern, to federate, and to ally. A failure to see past the privatization of "issue" politics into groups of people concerned only with single issues affecting their members. A failure on the part of the left to regard "someone else's problems" as being a problem for all; a failure to think generic truths ('justice is a thing worth believing in', 'there is a right to have rights', etc…) in particular situations.

The Ersatz Image [2]

Roman Jakobson's communication model1, while developed on the back of studies of verbal communication and the speech event, has proved invaluable for the semiotic analysis of culture beyond the scope of structuralist linguistics. One of the primary benefits of Jakobson's functionalist understanding of language is that it avoids the transmission model's reduction of communication to the imparting of information. In Jakobson's view, this is only one of the possible functions language has. In addition, Jakobson made important distinctions between the parts of communication, such as those between code and context. Such distinctions only became more important, especially for Althusser, for whom for example message and code are irreducibly different; the ideological elements of a message can be much easier to resist than the ideological aspect of the code it uses. This of course depends on the dominance of the code in use.

Can something such as a mural be analysed in terms of a model like this? To do so, there has to exist a correlation between the constituents and functions of language (in the narrow sense of speech) and the constituents and functions of an artistically produced image. It is not so difficult to show that pictorial analogues of these constituents and functions exist. The addresser and addressee are the artist(s) and the artwork's public (both of whom are virtualised within the work itself through débrayage, as discussed in part one). If the art is inclined towards the addresser, focusing on their internal world, then the expressive function comes to the fore. If the art is inclined towards the addressee, marshalling its impact upon them, then the conative function gains in intensity. If the artwork serves to visualise a world (or what phenomenological hermeneutics would call a 'referential context', be it real or imaginary), then the referential function dominates — the image is then what art historians usually call 'figurative' (I prefer the term figural). When a work of art encourages focus on its own material constitution (as is the case in abstract or nonfigural works) then the poetic / aesthetic function is highlighted. When a work of art encourages only that the gaze of a public is maintained — when it predominantly invites the look and is interested primarily in keeping that channel open — then it is functioning in a phatic mode. And when a work of art orients attention towards the codes and conventions it makes use of, it can be said to be functioning in a metalingual mode. Thus, term for term, Jakobson's functionalism can be appropriated for the semiotic analysis of visual culture and art, providing a methodology that opens up an object's various dimensions for discussion.


In treading this path, we have to be cautious that the linguistic constituent called code is given its fullest, social-historical weight. We are not only dealing with the broad conventions of a particular medium, but with the narrower conventions of particular representations within certain social groups. Thus, for Ockerman, the choice between generic (or even abstract) representation and identifiable, personalised figures that always faces the painter of political murals gives way to the pre-existing or historical codes of satire, lampooning and caricature. Falling back to an already-established, but deeply anti-semitic, series of stereotypes which depict the political influence of financial institutions and their mechanisms of power broking through cartoon-like representations of a certain physiognomy, postural and gestural isotopy, the artist cannot help but orient public attention towards this narrow, exclusion-creating, code. We have to ask from where this code originates, who uses it, and how it attempts to situate us as viewers. This is easily done through thought experiment, and the asking of a handful of critical questions. Which traditions are those which have used similar depictions? How would we react if this mural had been sponsored or patronised by a right-wing politician such as Donald Trump, a member of his administration, or a prominent member of the UK's Conservative party? What are my feelings as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Wiccan or Atheist in regarding this image? How am I included into or excluded by the referential context generated by this image?

What comes to the surface is the way the conative function of the image, its attempt to persuade its public of something, is deeply dependent on the assumptions of its coding. Understood as a mural depicting caricatured individuals after a certain tradition, the image openly displays its code conventions through the metalingual function. So in this case, the metalingual and the conative functions of the image work together to create an already emotive or attitude-laden context for the referential function to act upon. There is nothing neutral about this context. When a member of the public has an identity that is at odds with the sharing of this code and its referential context, the image threatens persecution, and remains deeply offensive at best. The origins of this code have been addressed in part one, drawing from early twentieth century anti-semitic caricature in print, then from right-leaning libertarianism of the kind that was highly popular and vocal amongst 1990s newsgroup and bulletin board culture. This analysis was recently echoed by author Richard Seymour.2 Seymour also elaborates on the unsavoury alliances forged in the 1990s era between fringes of the left and certain libertarian and conspiracists whose views were circulating on the internet. One of the social causes of such alliances was the deep isolation suffered by leftists during this period, in which visible representation on the political stage was at a dire level, owing to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair's policies of triangulation, the continuing attack on all forms of social security, a deepening assault on democracy, and the virulent spread of neoliberal economics among the managers of public services. Throughout the 1990s on the fringes of the left a seemingly apolitical anti-authoritarianism — a vacuous and generalised opposition to surveillance and government but with little in the way of genuine social principle — grew in line with a fervid millenarian eschatology. It was Chris Carter's Fortean-styled paranoid TV shows, a newfound availability of esoteric texts, beat generation lit., early peer-to-peer file sharing, acid-trip-riddled newsgroup browsing and a vague sense of cyberfreedom that gave birth to this strange tendency (I myself observed it, but was never 'of' it). Twenty years later the 'false-flag', 'black helicopters' and 'chemtrail' conspiracy industry is going strong it seems, perhaps today shorn of its hippy, Reichian sex-machine and Laingian anti-psychiatry trappings, but is also a good deal more politically invested (in the libertarian right).

As Pierce put it, '[a] sign… addresses somebody'.3 The structuralist notion of an address is that it always positions and corresponds to a subject, but here 'subject' should be understood to mean not an actual person but a series of roles. Gender, ethnicity, social class and age are some of the ways in which a subject-position can be ideologically weighted in terms of value. Clearly, in the case of Ockerman's mural the subject or addressee supposed by the image has multiple effects on actual communities of individuals. On the one hand, those who would identify with the actant-narrator (or simply 'narrative' of the image) are of a certain political disposition, age, ethnicity and so on. The libertarian right is a largely white, young to middle-aged, Anglo-American public. On the other hand, those who find themselves implicated, blamed or persecuted by the image is a somewhat more fuzzy group. Is it enough, for example, to be a member of the Jewish faith, or does one have to also be involved in finance, or western mysticism? Are the categories of people which Ockerman's conspiratorial figures stand for supposed to be read synoptically or serially? The very slipperiness caused by the ensemble of identifiable figures around the monopoly board (which, while uniting them in gaming the capitalist system also divides them as competitors), their collocation and simultaneous being-together, multiplies their persecutory power. The uncertainty as to whether or not one is being blamed directly, indirectly, by association, and so on, for all the widely acknowledged ills of capitalism is, indeed, one of the principal ways in which shaming and blaming practices capture their victims, intensifying their power to interpellate. For a Jewish public the figures condense an emotive message that feels much like hatred, especially when taken against the historical background of anti-semitic caricature in right-wing politics. The mural constructs a murkily-defined fantasy object, a multifaceted (literally many-faced) scapegoat ensemble, and by intention suggests to Jews, 'whatever this is (and I can't really be bothered to think it through), you are this'. Those protesting that the image is anti-banker rather than anti-semitic have failed to understand the very indifference towards the boundaries of communal identity inscribed in Kalen Ockerman's mural itself, the way that it takes the principle of equivalence (on which, according to semiotics, all representation is based) and intentionally loosens its boundaries, intensifying its power to draw into itself, associate and signify.

Why then, would Jeremy Corbyn, in October 2012, make the following comment on Mear One's facebook profile?


'You are in good company. Rockerfeller [sic] destroyed Diego Viera's [sic] mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.'

Factually, the last part of this reply is absolutely correct. In 1934 Diego Rivera's unfinished mural Man at the Crossroads was indeed removed from the wall of the Rockefeller Center, which had previously sponsored it, when political conservatives objected to the inclusion of a figure of Lenin.4 The destruction of the work sparked a protest, one of several actions by the Artists' and Writers' Union in support of alternative public painting.

It is worth considering more fully the mural which Corbyn mentioned in order to get some context to his reply to Mear One.

“Man at the Crossroads” proved out to be one of the most groundbreaking works of Diego Rivera. The center of the painting portrayed a commanding industrial worker with his hands on the controls of heavy machinery. The crossroads were formed by two long narrow slides intersecting at the centre, right below the worker. One slide displayed a microscopic view of body cells, reflecting sexually transmitted diseases (STD) and another presented a telescopic view of the universe. The painting was roughly divided into two sections. The left panel showed elite people, especially women, enjoying, drinking, and partying. A contrast was reflected on the same side with a group of people protesting and being clubbed by the police.

The right side of “Man at the Crossroads” showed a May Day parade with workers and people living in harmony. At the center of the left side, there was an image of Vladimir Lenin (Russian communist leader), as if joining hands in power with a black farmer, a white worker, and a soldier. The presence of Lenin in the painting hinted at an ‘Anti-Capitalist’ flavor. To avoid any kind of political controversy, Nelson Rockefeller requested Rivera to replace the face of Lenin with any ordinary face. Diego was an ardent fan of the Soviet leader and so he refused to replace Lenin in the painting. He instead offered to add American leader Abraham Lincoln’s face to another part of the mural. Their differences were never resolved.

Rivera wished to get a few pictures taken of his “Man at the Crossroads,” but photographers were banned from the center. Lucienne Bloch, one of Rivera’s assistants, snuck in a camera into the building and took some pictures to record the mural. These pictures are the only original records of the mural. On May 22, 1933, Rivera was paid in full and was barred from the premises, without letting him complete his work. The painting was then draped and was hidden away from the public eye. On the midnight of February 9, 1934, a few workers marched into the center with axes and hammers and destroyed the mural.

Diego Rivera was determined to finish his painting “Man at the Crossroads,” so he reproduced his work under the name “Man, Controller of The Universe.” This painting also depicted Lenin and Rivera added a portrait of Leon Trotsky (another communist leader). This painting can be seen in the Palace of Fine arts in Mexico. At Rockefeller’s Center, the mural replacing that of Diego’s has Abraham Lincoln as its key subject.5


(Man at the Crossroads, 1932, by Diego Rivera, pencil on paper, MoMA, Drawings and Prints Department, object number 138.19356)

As fascinating as this history is is to an art historian, especially one working towards a more inclusive art history such as myself, it hardly needs stating that Corbyn's (surprisingly badly misspelled) reference to it was more of a (surprisingly badly misspelled) name-drop, perhaps to bolster his own 'knowledgeable leftist' credentials than a genuine endorsement of Kalen Ockerman's mural. After all, any old graffiti artist tagging the same wall keeps the same 'good company' (Rivera) when the administration removes their work; it does not mean they are birds of a feather. Nonetheless, it was a serious oversight on Jeremy's part (and I say this as a strong backer of Corbyn and McDonnell's political vision) to have missed the deeply anti-semitic and injurious nature of Ockerman's mural. Also, the statement that 'Rockerfeller [sic] destroyed [the mural]' is playing into the hands of the conspiracists. It was not a case of one man, cloistered and enthroned in his own private sphere of power, unilaterally and autocratically deciding to wreck the work, but rather a decision owing to a general registration on the part of the Rockefeller Center of a malaise among 'political conservatives' over the mural's content. It was an institutional decision, not the fiat of a puppeteer. Corbyn could have been a lot more sensitive to the reception that his post was likely to get from this particular audience, and it is absolutely right for him to have issued a full apology recently for having given the impression of lending support to an anti-semitic artist.

In the wider context of what appears to be a sustained programme of smear attempts on Jeremy Corbyn by the media, including the BBC7, we have to be careful not to dismiss actual carelessness and mistakes made on the left. While anti-semitism is far more prevalent on the right wing of politics8, it is a problem across the political spectrum and has had certain pockets and fringes of accommodation on the left as has been mentioned above. In other words, it is a real problem to be stamped out.


(Corbyn figured against backdrop in a pastiche of Soviet Constructivism, featured on the BBC's Newsnight programme)

Sooner or later, this argument always appears: if you don't support art you disagree with politically, and shrug as it is whitewashed away, then sooner or later art which you do agree with will go the same way, and you will be left with no argument. This is the so-called 'freedom of expression' angle, a favourite argument, unsurprisingly, of libertarians. The argument fails on several counts. First of all, free expression is a political concept rooted in a constitutionalism intended only to limit the power of governments from impeding free speech. When it comes to private property, even public-facing private property such as the wall of an institution, we are not dealing with a public sphere as such but some strange (and as history shows frequently contestable) zone on the fringes of the legalistic applicability of 'free expression' politics. Several competing claims as to the ownership of the space in which a mural is painted can exist, and this particularly the case where public-private partnerships exist. More important, however, is to really understand what freedom of expression can mean. Does it really extend to the freedom to offend, to injure or persecute? The classical liberal definition of freedom used to be that it ended where the use of freedom diminished the freedom of another party. Clearly, even by classical liberal standards then, Ockerman's mural is suspect. Any representation that creates or seeks to create public animosity towards Jews is culpable as a use of 'freedom' that oversteps its limits. And as a critic of the liberal concept of freedom in the first place, I would suggest that it is not even consistent to regard this as a 'use of freedom' or that 'freedom' as a formal or abstract concept in this sense is of much use as a fundamental category of human relations. But this discussion would take us outside of art history as such and into a series of complex social theory arguments I am not prepared to make here today.


[1] Sebeok 1960:350-77; Jakobson 1990:69-77
[2] SoundCloud 2018
[3] Peirce 1932:228
[4] Lee 1999:149; San Francisco News 1934
[5] The Virtual Diego Rivera Web Museum 2018; Ezine Articles 2009
[6] MoMA 2018
[7] Maugham 2018
[8] Institute for Jewish Policy Research 2017


  • Ezine Articles, 2009, 'His Most Famous Painting "Man at the Crossroads" by Diego Rivera' by Annette Labedzki [webpage] available at accessed 06/04/2018
  • Jakobson, Roman, 1990, On Language, (eds. Linda R. Waugh & Monique Monville-Burston) Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA
  • Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 2017, 'Antisemitism in contemporary Great Britain: A study of attitudes towards Jews and Israel', conducted by L. Daniel Staetsky, September 2017, available at in contemporary Great Britain.pdf accessed 29/03/2017
  • Lee, Anthony W., 1999, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics and San Francisco's Public Murals, University of California Press, London
  • Maugham, Jo, 2018, 'Just remembered I have a written message from a senior BBC bod explaining (unambiguously) that the BBC does code negative messages about Corbyn into its imagery' [Tweet], available at accessed 29/03/2018
  • MoMA, 2018, 'Diego Rivera. Man at the Crossroads. 1932 | MoMA', available at accessed 06/04/2018
  • Pierce, Charles S., 1932, Collected Papers vol. II: Elements of Logic, eds. Hartshorne, C. & Weiss, P., Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA
  • San Francisco News, 1934, 'Destruction of Rivera Mural in N.Y. Termed "Murder" and "Capitalism Couldn't Take It" Declares Steffens', February 14, 1934
  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (ed.), 1960, Style in Language, MIT Press, Cambridge MA
  • SoundCloud, 2018, 'Richard Seymour on Labour, Anti-Semitism and the Left' by Politics Theory Other [audio], available at accessed 11/04/2018
  • The Virtual Diego Rivera Web Museum, 2018, 'Man at the Crossroads: the Rockefeller Controversy' [webpage] available at accessed 06/04/2018

The Ersatz Image [1]

As someone deeply invested in the disciplines of art history and visual culture studies, the recent shitstorm over a comment Jeremy Corbyn made in 2012 regarding a mural by Mear One (Kalen Ockerman) keeps flying into my radar range. Because it's Easter and I'm supposed to give myself a break, I'll stick working towards my research pro forma on hold for a day or two and wade into this furore.

Firstly, let's talk about this mural. Yes, it is antisemitic. No, this cannot be watered down into 'features antisemitic elements'. When you are used to perusing images, you come to regard them in terms of not just what they represent (if anything), but in terms of what they do, and what they want with us. Art (of this kind at least) does not occur naturally, it is fabricated by human intelligence. Furthermore it is publicly displayed, which means it has a claim on us; it is staked upon, motivated by and addressed to our attention. Visuality is a primary modality, perhaps the primary modality (it's tempting to rank it equal to musicality), in which ideology is propagated and reproduced in contemporary life. Since at least the early 20th Century this was recognised among newspaper editors, who coined the idiom that 'a picture is worth a thousand words': if you had something to say, say it with a bold image, then append the argument textually. Since that time, among the weaponry of journalists their cameras have taken pride of place and it is often (though not always) the case that it is the securing of an image that will make or break the rationale for a story. No one can doubt the extraordinary impact of images today. However, the powerful 'speech' of images, their ability to hail or interpellate a public, precisely by virtue of standing in for or condensing the argumentative impact of 'a thousand words', also elides the discursiveness and rational argumentation that those thousand words would have had to present in order to achieve a similar intensity of effect. In other words, the impact of images takes place largely in an affective register; they appeal to the emotionality of their public and not, primarily, to their discursive or critical thinking, which they tend to short-cut. It is this emotive character of images that lends to them a rhetorical, persuasive character. All of this is absolutely obvious of course, but it is necessary to step through it in order to approach the specific image.

Before we begin interrogating the mural, there are some important caveats that would need to be included in any visual analysis. Firstly, whenever I discuss the image in terms of what it 'does' or what it 'wants', this is in no sense to be taken as an categorical attribution of agency to the image. Taking note of the debate between Mitchell1, Freedberg2, and Wolff3, it is entirely possible to speak of an image being motivated or having motivations without this slipping into philosophical animism. This is possible because we are dealing with the production of an artist or author, and can therefore approach the mural in terms of the process known to Greimasian semiotics as débrayage.4 Rather than having the artist who calls himself Mear One standing before us presenting us verbally with some kind of argument or narration, Ockerman instead delegates his enunciatory power to the expressiveness of the mural and its iconography. It is in this sense of débrayage or disengagement, and in this sense only, that we can speak of the actantial aspect of the image.5 However, this has important ramifications, since it means that the entire background network of cultural assumptions on which Ockerman's delegated enunciation would have depended are as implicated by the imagery of the mural as they would have been were he himself present.

Furthermore, just as the artist's function as enunciator is virtualised within the medium by disengagement and delegation to the expressiveness of the medium, so too is the function of any hypothetical enunciatee presupposed and virtualised by the production of his artistic labour. The fictional 'voice' of the image (that which is colloquially regarded as 'saying something', and whose impact on an audience would be 'worth a thousand words') is a virtualised 'I' which addresses a no-less simulative 'You', just as narrator and narratee are constructed and organised by a text. Both this 'I' and the 'You' it addresses are actant-delegates,6 in this case not virtualised through strictly textual strategies but via the visual and compositional organisation of the mural itself. Recall that the mural is a public-facing surface composed of symbols which are presupposed as intelligible or bearing semantic freight. The 'I' and 'You' formed by this visual distribution further presupposes a relationship whose modality is fiduciary. Without an assumption of trust on the part of a public no artificial image would be able to mean anything at all; we are supposed to believe that something intelligible is there to be conveyed to us — not necessarily propositional, but at the very least signifying. More prosaically, the mural can be said to construct or elect an audience, which may or may not conform with its actual publics. An actual public, in regarding the mural, can thus be said to be offered a subject position (which it may or may not be at ease with). For in-depth visual and formal analyses of works of art it is imperative to identify such a subject position, in short to ask: who are 'we' supposed to be when this image is addressing itself to 'us'?.

The second caveat is the following: it is important to clarify the distinction between image and the physical existence of the mural. The physical mural was available purely in terms of its sensual existence — its visual medium (painted mural), its form (delineation, texture, recession, multiplicity, clarity, etc.), its support (the wall of a building), and in its environmental context (its location, not only geographically but socially and historically). Although the original mural has since gone, it has been reproduced many times over in digital form online, through photography. It makes sense therefore to say that the material support of the image still exists, but that its environmental context and its support have altered considerably. As an image, however, the mural is also immaterial, reproducible and reiterated through memory and imagination. As an image it persists in the 'mind's eye', as an artefact not of some specific visual encounter (embedded in physical context) but of visuality as such, as one within countless images we tend to call 'mental images'. While some mental images can fade and be forgotten, the physical existence of a picture, painting or material artefact in a public arena is not easily overcome without concerted, collective action. This is important because, for a public who encountered the original material and experienced its problematic or offensive nature, the re-encounter with its myriad digital versions in circulation can serve to verify, or perhaps even amplify their experience. It is for this reason I have chosen not to further circulate or recycle the image by posting a photo with this blog post. This is in line with an ethic of not providing a material support for an offensive image. Should anything I write here require confirmation, a search for '"Freedom for Humanity"' and "Mear One" will bring up plenty of versions.

It is also clear from such an understanding of artificially created images that they can never be regarded as neutral with respect to intentionality; there is no way to reduce the image to its material support, as in the disingenuous arguments of those who would defend it as 'just some paint on a wall'. To speak of an image is to be already engaged in interpretation; an image cannot exist in an uninterpreted state. The composition, medium, practical history and forms of its material support must already be understood as presenting an image before we were able to designate it as such. The habit of regarding purposive markings on a surface as an image is encoded and presupposed by the action of the artist painting the mural. Its manufacturedness is clearly evident; it didn't arise by itself but is the product of purposive human action. Therefore it is entirely unreasonable to regard it as anything other than an intentional statement bearing specific human and social weights.

One of the most striking things about this image is its deliberate stylistic crudity, intending it to be situated within a whole series of cartoon-like images, many of which are modern or contemporary, but which are overlapped in part by a tradition of political caricature in print since the late seventeenth century. That tradition is deliberately contemptuous of the human form in particular, and has frequently been used in racist typifications. The figural elements in the mural itself follow this pattern.

The upper part of the mural is dominated by the eye of providence, which has ever since the libertarian-right cyberculture's embrace of psychedelic fiction such as Robert Anton Wilson's trilogy Illuminatus! in the early 1990s, been used in online meme culture as a symbol of occult puppet-masters pulling political strings. This symbol needs especial care, as it signifies on several levels and has been especially hegemonised by both counter-culture and mainstream cinema. Historically speaking, the eye of providence as recognisable today comes from the emblematic tradition in engraved works, sometimes alchemical, sometimes purely exoteric and moral. Many guilds and fraternities, such as the order of foresters and the order of operative masons (precursors of Freemasonry) have made use of the symbol, but it is by no means exclusive to any of them. There is no record of its use in Freemasonry before the late 18th century. Much has been made by conspiracy theorists (again, prompted by psychedelic fiction and 'occult' literature) of its use in the great seal of America, held to suggest that the founding fathers were, in the main, Freemasons. While a role for secret societies in both the French and American revolutions is acknowledged by historical record, there did not exist at the time anything like the well-organised, regularised systems of Freemasonry such as those which exist today. In addition, Catholic anti-revolutionary propaganda has inflated many accounts. The narrative of a shadowy Bavarian Illuminati masterminding the 1789 revolution, recycled and popularised in early 1990s fiction, has little to no historical basis in fact. However, the lure of the narrative of a clandestine continuity to history has an appeal outside of film and literature. Many enlightenment-by-mail-order 'mystical' fraternities still exist, for example. Such bodies concoct their own histories, sometimes claiming the Providence emblem as a symbol for 'ascended masters' in some dubious precursor spiritualist society, borrowing much of their mystique from Helena Petrovna Blavasky's Theosophy and the reactionary theurgic writings of Martinez de Pasqually and Louis-Claude de Saint Martin. The continuing appeal of belonging to such 'special' or exclusive communities naturally fuels the paranoia of those who see in them a political influence on global events. In a further manoeuvre, such profit-making 'mystical' corporate bodies often attempted to link their initiatic pedigree to whichever floating signifiers still remained enigmatic from antiquity, such as the pyramids, the sphinx, and the Wedjat (eye of Horus). This hermetic quackery and charlatanry has many precedents, perhaps one of the most infamous being 'polymath' Athanasius Kircher. Kircher, on whose work some elements of the Western Mystery Tradition is partially based, claimed to have translated Egyptian Hieroglyphs before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. What he produced was a tract of pure gibberish according to modern linguists, but the work was held as deeply meaningful among esotericists, particularly in the occult revival of the Victorian fin de siècle. Although egregious from an academic point of view, lacking anything like scholarly or intellectual persuasiveness, such currents are on the whole politically harmless. What is not harmless, however, is the image of them that conspiracy theorists generate, linking them to contemporary political events and with the idea of a Jewish plot that has persisted in the right wing mind ever since, at the latest, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery.

As always when dealing with conspiracy theorists, 'secret histories' and 'forbidden knowledge' of this kind we have to tackle the displacement and reduplication of the Big Other. For a conspiracy theorist it's never simply that everyday language oppresses, but that there is another, secret language behind it. It's never that everyday social structures and relations effectively stratify society, but that there is another, secret structure behind society ordering it. To the paranoid mind, the psychoanalytic concept of the Big Other (language, society, history) is not enough of an account to explain the way things are; there must be another Other, behind the scenes. It is trivial to demonstrate that the iconography of the eye of providence has changed historically in order to accommodate this particularly postmodern paranoia. While its real origins as an emblem can be found in Christian and Talmudic exegesis, as when God promises to Moses to be ever watchful from the heavens (this explanation was still current within masonic literature of 1877, under which rubric the symbol is known as 'the all-seeing eye')7, its present associations with conspiratorial plots and secret histories eclipse this.

Providence is a theological concept that the Church Fathers knew also as dispositio or oikonomia, meaning the 'economy' or 'household rule' which distributed, within the totality of God, his being or essence on the one hand and his executive powers on the other. For the Catholic church this doctrine was essential to the narrative of a tripartite, yet still unified, godhood: the holy trinity. Thus in time the clouds, from which early renditions of the eye of providence gazed, came to be replaced with the triangle. Within the iconographical traditions of Europe from that time onwards, the eye of Providence symbolised the omnibenevolent omniscience of a three-in-one Holy Family (in which, as feminists have often pointed out, the role of mother became mystified and buried) that help form the 'nuclear' patriarchal model of western 'civilisation'.

Those iconological origins, however, were not intended by the mural as painted by Ockerman / Mear One. Rather, the artist has capitalised on the later meaning given to the symbol by libertarian literature in the late twentieth century, in a reuptake of occult sources such as Aleister Crowley, MacGregor Mathers, and Israel Regardie's pseudo-Kabbalistic expositions on the symbology of the Golden Dawn and the OTO, all of which circulated freely in internet newsgroups during the 1990s and in the 'New Age' literature of the time. In short, we are supposed to see the eye in the pyramid as representing not theological Providence but a shadowy cabal, an unseen — and for the uninitiated, unseeable — influence on world governments. As representations go, the appropriation of the (essentially Catholic) symbol by a libertarian right wing extremely wary of big government and surveillance is easy to understand. An all-seeing-eye would, to the kind of person who supported, say, the Tea Party in America, or who counted David Icke as a source of information, appear every bit as menacing as the lidless eye of Sauron would appear to a hobbit of Tolkien's Middle-Earth. As a symbol the eye connotes a destruction of privacy; no interiority; no subjectivity allowed. In the mind of a libertarian right-winger drunk on the ideal of abstract or formal freedom, all thoughts are laid bare by such an eye, leaving it open to the scrutiny and policing of us bureaucratic leftists who would, it is supposed, like to curtail their freedom. This is not by any means a left wing piece of art.

It is likely that at some point someone will compare the mural, particularly the pyramidal form of its main figures, with the classic anti-capitalist illustration, Pyramid of Capitalist System, disseminated by the International Workers of the World (a legitimate left wing group informally known as the 'Wobblies') in 1911.8 There are indeed some minor similarities, but a closer look reveals how superficial those similarities are, and how profound the differences.


The first thing to note is that Nedeljkovich, Brashich, and Kuharich's poster of 1911, while employing generic or stereotypical figures to represent various social layers (in terms of function: labour, bourgeoisie, military, clerical, executive), none do so in what can be regarded as a malevolent, conspiratorial or pernicious way. There are no gleeful hand-rubbing anti-semitic Shylock figures to be seen. In contrast to the ruling classes that comprise the executive, political-ideological wing and the military, the most malignant thing the social stratum representing the bourgeoisie engages in, in fact, is to eat and celebrate. They are characterised not as insidious evil doers; their 'sin', if the image is to be moralised, is largely one of blithe ignorance. The hierarchy is, of course, entirely supported by human labour, but rather than being structured from above by a mystifying emblem ramifying hidden ('occulted') political agendas, the whole exists to support the bag of money which, for Marxists, represents not any human group but a social relation: capital. In short, capitalism emerges and is the apex of a system in which abstract labour power and the production process is devalued and the surplus value thus created is placed on a pedestal as the teleological goal of the entire system of relations. There are no 'elites' in this picture, just a simplified illustration of the social stratifications on which the reproduction of the system is staked: the class relation which devalues labour. As a pedagogical tool or teaching aid, the illustration is, in some respects, Brechtian: generic roles are presented against the background of their historical contingency, and, perhaps by design, do not appear naturalistic, let alone reducible to any kind of biopolitically racist body morphology.

If we now return to the Mear One mural, and contrast its personalised, mystifying and anti-semitic character with the clarity of the Marxism in the IWW poster, things become much easier to point to. The figures seated around the table are intended to be identifiable individuals, namely (from left to right): Mayer Amschel Rothschild, John D Rockefeller, J P Morgan, Aleister Crowley, Andrew Carnegie, and Paul Warburg. The leftmost and rightmost are actually Jewish people, depicted in full-blown anti-semitic stereotypy — Rothschild, robed and full bearded, is actually counting out money. Indeed, it's as if the monopoly game is there simply as an alibi for this depiction. Crowley, meanwhile, was an antisemite but was steeped in the Western Mystery Tradition, which in the woolly associationism of a conspiracy theorist like Ockerman (who has actually turned to no less a fantasist than David Icke for defence of his mural) is equivalent to a 'New World Order' plot. The foregrounded monopoly game and its players occur against a background of turning gears, linking them to a paranoid vision of predestination, a worldview in which nothing happens that has not been orchestrated by 'the cabal'. It is not insignificant that this Laplacian, deterministic, world-view, which leaves no room for agency (or indeed complexity), is exemplified by the cogs and wheels of industry, since this condenses on the one hand a legitimate plea against the automatisation of life with a tainted, racist view of commercial industries as being in the hands of Jews and exotic cabals to the extent that the figure of the Jew and the machination of history become indistinguishable. Again, this is a mystification and a displacement.

In part 2, the context of the mural's reception, and especially the context of the media story generated on the back of Corbyn's apparent support (or at least, lack of criticism) for the mural in 2012 will be given some thought.


[1] Mitchell 1995; Mitchell 2005
[2] Freedberg 1989
[3] Wolff 2012:3-19
[4] Martin & Ringham 2000:47, 58
[5] Martin & Ringham 2000:18, 58
[6] Martin & Ringham 2000:58
[7] MacKenzie 1987:31
[8] Labour Arts 2018


  • Freedberg, David, 1989, The Power of Images, University of Chicago Press
  • Labor Arts, 2018 (1911), 'Item no. 28201: Pyramid of Capitalist System', issued by Nedeljkovich, Brashick and Kuharich, Cleveland: The International Publishing Co., 1911, available at Accessed 31/03/2017
  • MacKenzie, Kenneth R. H., 1987 (1877), The Royal Masonic Cyclopædia, Aquarian Press
  • Martin, Bronwen & Ringham, Felizitas, 2000, Dictionary of Semiotics, Cassell
  • Mitchell, William J. T., 1995, Picture Theory, University of Chicago Press
  • Mitchell, William J. T., 2005, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, University of Chicago Press
  • Wolff, Janet, 2012, ‘After cultural theory: the power of images, the lure of immediacy’, Journal of Visual Culture, vol 11, no 1, pp 3–19, Available at Accessed 9/03/2015

Lesson Plan


If history teaches us anything, it is that lesson plans are lies. Useful lies, sometimes, but lies nonetheless. How do we really learn things? How is it that something I did not understand yesterday, I can understand today? What did I do that uncovered a new relationship to the object of my inquiry, and can it even be replicated? I'll leave these kind of probing questions to professional epistemologists (there's a few out there I assume, with ID and job title swinging from their institutional lanyards). For my purposes here it's best to look at the paradigmatic cases: things that might have gone unexamined but which at some moment in time gave up their workings — things we became 'educated' about.

Marx dared to enter the holy and mystical cave of the economists with a crystal-cut determination to see what was really going on there, he dared to lift the lid on the illusionist's cabinet. He wanted to understand precisely what this thing 'value' was; where it came from, how it was born, how it functioned and changed its own shape and its name, what it did. He wanted to understand its own logic. There is something at least minimally sacrilegious, heretical, or even blasphemous in the gesture by which Marx enters into his discussion of the commodity. It is like taking a forbidden camera into a church with the desire to document its material culture accurately and meticulously, and to analyse how it worked as a whole system. This transgressive, profaning gesture — that of trespassing in a sacred space and liberating its apparatus for a human use, the use of analysis upon the supposedly numinous — is something Marx learned from the Young Hegelians: Feuerbach in particular.

What one can say of Marx with respect to 'Value', one can say of Nietzsche with respect to 'Christian Morality', Foucault with respect to 'Power', Freud with respect to 'Consciousness', Barthes with respect to 'Cultural Mythology', Anderson with respect to 'Community', Kristeva with respect to Otherness and 'Abjection', Hobsbawn with respect to 'Tradition', Derrida with respect to 'Presence', and so on. In each case (of a theoretical rupture, a shift or turning point in epistemological paradigms) there is a wary and self-conscious trespass into a forbidden zone of thought, something whose weight of tradition has made it resistant to critique, made it a 'mode of thinking' or 'usual form of thinking' that had gone unquestioned and its internal logic unexamined. Defamiliarisation, the alienation of the familiar, is a necessary step into the moonlit, shadowy realm where the workings of the everyday reveal their historical contingency — their strangeness. The assumed or imaginary relation to the sunlit everyday world shows itself as a leap or lapse, caesura, lacuna, a hiatus of thought, a fall or sleep of reason, a space of idiocy. Or: the alienation effect succeeds in dis-alienating the human subject from its own alienation, thus rendering it real, active, and political.

Transgressions are a dime a dozen, all meaningless unless they actually break the world in some way. Perhaps there are only a few things worth breaking, but they are the things that matter, the things we hang our hats on every day. Things we cannot but take for granted if we are to socially reproduce existing conditions: ideological practices so ideological they don't stick out in any way. Theory lines our shelves and victories are sparse, and from this we might learn: if you're going to intentionally drop the ball, drop it when it counts. A strike is only a strike when, afterwards, one can say 'we struck'. We have to invent some formations of this 'we'; we are only a we when we can federate in new ways.

Of all the usual forms of thinking we are ensnared by, perhaps the most predominant today is the thought of competition and of competitiveness. The online world, or the new patronage as some have called it, is a system whereby content providers vie for exposure, their output formed, tuned and adjusted by the signals of commenters, subscribers and donors, and in many cases regulated by what advertisers are willing to associate with through the monetisation of attention. The attention economy, it is held, is born out of the cinematic mode of production. It's about spectacle, it's about pyrotechnics, making noise and putting on a show. As far as the sphere of entertainment goes, this seems fine for the most part, but what about other spheres? The civil sphere, the public sphere, the sphere of education, for example? Can we participate in rational debate, can we decide matters, can we learn anything, in an intensely competitive environment?

Questions like this, particularly as they concern critical pedagogy, came to the fore last year when Jo Johnson — as if this were not already a fait accompli — announced that he wanted to bring the world of education within the model of entrepreneurial business, and to change the fundamental mission of the university from the production of knowledge and culture into the production of competitiveness. That is to say, the production of competitive subjectivity. If I was young and healthy and had nothing to lose but such a future — a dismal, unendingly bleak future of permanently indebted competitiveness — then I would be rioting like a mad bull.

Competition is not, by itself, an ill. There is always some element of co-operation lurking within situations idealised by economists as competitive, just as competition seems intrinsic to co-operation. Total competition means everyone must agree to compete — an overwhelmingly co-operative act; total co-operation is likewise meaningless. These are merely abstract concepts, reified by economic theory. Pure competition effectively represents an ahistorical fiction much like a void of indivisible atoms bouncing around without clinamen, that is, without any intersubjective, historical or dialectical intrusions into their space. Any kind of internal relationships between closed capsule-like identities are entirely absent from such a vision, there is no 'ethical substance', and everything is overdetermined by self-interest. Interest groups and co-operative, social tendencies are either recognised as unnatural obstacles (when they are socially oriented) or disavowed (when they represent the private interests of a ruling class). However, historical space is not like this; it is structured by the very thing that allows us to recognise it as historical. The fiction of idealised markets has them existing sans human while simultaneously depending on a particular anthropology: the human figured as asubjective competitor, 'rational' in the utilitarian sense, meaning politicised or historicised only to the extent that it serves some kind of self-maximising strategy. Meanwhile the real referent of competition, real in the sense of a factor which always escapes calculation, can only be the human factor of desire. Desire upsets the economic picture because it does not bow to 'usual forms of thinking', and in many ways can only appear to economists as struggle for its own sake. For example, the significance of the conceptual figure of the proletariat is that it is the class that fights for its own self-abolition. Its 'self-interest' is indistinguishable from its struggle for self-extinguishment. It seeks neither its self-maximisation nor self-extension, and still less its absorption and integration into existing structures through adaptation and listening to feedback. Struggle, indeed, is an apt representation of desire: struggle against all that which is considered normal, but need not be so considered.

The fire of class struggle is an important way in which desire is both deeply embedded in, and obscured by, a social formation. Class struggle is a social reality that 'competition' could meaningfully refer to, but tends in usage never to refer to. Neoliberalism, arguably, might even be defined as the attempt to foreclose such a meaning, principally by obscuring it with a lexicon of the 'horizontal': an object language designed to mask an inverted class struggle being continually waged and fought from above — the CC-PP game of socialising costs, privatising public assets, and creaming off profits for obscured, nested directorates no paper trail can hope to illuminate. The usual forms of thinking 'competition' open into an imaginary of field sports, played on a level surface, rather than pre-structured by history. Thus the ordinary usage when it comes to the term is, again, largely meaningless. This ordinariness is something we must alienate ourselves from, in order to disalienate ourselves from the historical conditions in which we can speak meaningfully about co-operation and competition. Within the current horizons of our history, one of the the few actual kinds of competition that the human subject can engage in (while accomplishing the status of a subject) is the struggle against exploitation. If we are to be educated — if education is to mean anything at all once considered another arena for the production of competitiveness — then it can only mean the unveiling of social struggles, of finding oneself immersed within antagonisms. Education entails collectively taking up such a position, and keeping faithful to the desire to engage in the formation of subject-bodies.

The temple of competition is of use only when it has been thoroughly profaned — when it allows us to strike upwards, instead of lashing sideways or kicking those already caught under the juggernaut. Education, meanwhile, must be prevented from continuing in the mold of a talent contest, but must be preserved for desire as tool, toy, and weapon.

The Apparatus


For Michel Foucault power is not a substance held by one person and not by another. Nor does it function in a 'top-down' manner as classically considered. With Foucault, power is decentralized, and operates through a distributed agency. Power functions through a range of relationships. For Foucault power is 'capillary',[1] 'cellular',[2] and 'exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations.'[3]

Foucault defines 'techniques of the self' or 'arts of existence' as 'those reflective and voluntary practices by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make of their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria'.[4]

Foucault described traditional notions of the author as being restrictive. The author is a category or way of organising texts [the 'author function'] which has a history and needs to be challenged. For example, the psychological entity of the author and the use of the author as a way of organising texts are two different things and need to be treated separately.[5]

Foucault generally uses the term apparatus to indicate the various institutional, physical and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body. The original French term dispositif is rendered variously as 'dispositif', 'apparatus' and 'deployment' in English translations of Foucault's work.[5]

In the slim volume What is an Apparatus? (and other essays) Giorgio Agamben traces out several journeys that the critical idea of an apparatus must have travelled:

  • Oikonomia: a theological term, used already by the time of Clement of Alexandria, which merges with the previous term 'Providence'
  • Dispositio: from the Latin Fathers, another theological term
  • Positivité: Early Foucault (1960s), taken from Jean Hyppolite's work on the young Hegel (e.g. Hegel's Die Positivität der christliche Religion)
  • Dispositif: Later Foucault (1970s), usually translated 'apparatus' in English
  • Gestell: Martin Heidegger: 'the gathering together of the (in)stallation (Stelm) that (in)stalls man, this is to say, challenges him to expose the real in the mode of ordering (Bestelm)'

According to Agamben, '[w]hat is common to all these terms is that they refer back to this oikonomia, that is, to a set of practices, bodies of knowledge, measures, and institutions that aim to manage, govern, control, and orient – in a way that purports to be useful – the behaviors, gestures, and thoughts of human beings'.[6]

It is Agamben himself who claims continuity between his own use of the term 'apparatus' and Foucault's methodology:

The Latin term dispositio, from which the French term dispositif, or apparatus, derives, comes therefore to take on the complex semantic sphere of the theological oikonomia. The 'dispositifs' about which Foucault speaks are somehow linked to this theological legacy. They can be in some way traced back to the fracture that divides and, at the same time, articulates in God being and praxis, the nature or essence, on the one hand, and the operation through which He administers and governs the created world, on the other. The term "apparatus" designates that in which, and through which, one realizes a pure activity of governance devoid of any foundation in being. This is the reason why apparatuses must always imply a process of subjectiflcation, that is to say, they must produce their subject.[7]

While Foucault's modelling of the prison, clinic and confessional are by now well-known in terms of their architectonic power as apparatuses, Agamben extends Foucault's basic insights into their subject-producing effects to incorporate everything from mobile telephones to language itself, pitting this wholesale and incessant production of subjectivity against another 'great class' of things: the living being.

Further expanding the already large class of Foucauldian apparatuses, I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions or discourses of living beings. Not only, therefore, prisons, madhouses, the panopticon, schools, confession, factories, disciplines, juridical measures, and so forth (whose connection with power is in a certain sense evident), but also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and-why not-language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient of apparatuses-one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences that he was about to face.

To recapitulate. we have then two great classes: living beings (or substances) and apparatuses. And, between these two, as a third class, subjects. I call a subject that which results from the relation and, so to speak, from the relentless fight between living beings and apparatuses. Naturally, the substances and the subjects, as in ancient metaphysics, seem to overlap, but not completely. In this sense, for example, the same individual, the same substance, can be the place of multiple processes of subjectification: the user of cellular phones, the web surfer, the writer of stories, the tango aficionado, the anti-globalization activist, and so on and so forth. The boundless growth of apparatuses in our time corresponds to the equally extreme proliferation in processes of subjectification. This may produce the impression that in our time, the category of subjectivity is wavering and losing its consistency; but what is at stake, to be precise, is not an erasure or an overcoming, but rather a dissemination that pushes to the extreme the masquerade that has always accompanied every personal identity.[8]

Somewhere in this extension of meaning, it is possible to lose sight of the more specific political meaning Louis Althusser gave to the apparatus, for example in his distinction between the repressive and ideological state apparatus. While Agamben's apparatuses are for him political in the sense of furnishing various philosophical anthropologies (which might be designated politics with a capital 'P' to indicate their ontological/Heideggerian nature), Althusser's apparatuses, together with their mode of subjectification ('interpellation'), are closer to Foucault's in being more localised within a specific (capitalist) history.

Althusser is generally regarded as avowedly attempting to expunge Hegelianism from theory. Yet even Althusser's residual historicisation, which remains after structuralism has reformatted his categories (indeed even Gramscian 'specific and concrete conjunctures within structural totalities'), leads after all to periodisation. So either the 'idealism' of Hegel — supposedly overcome by Marxist materialism — is something of a worm that snakes its way back in to theory whenever we consider the historical domains of apparatuses, or 'idealism' describes a different problem altogether. Is not the methodological and theoretical approach which considers artefacts as embedded in their social history both Hegelian-Idealist and Marxist-Materialist in this respect? Indeed, the very distinction seems a little pointless outside of pure ontology. History, whether conceived of as the self-development of geist or as the dialectically mutating ensemble of social relations and material practices, is regarded in both veins to be singularly determinate. Be it a top-down, bottom-up or even horizontal Spinozian-Deleuzian system of determination, it is the effervescence and mutability of history which determines the social 'place' in which the subject and its significance is produced. There is a certain positivity, historical normativity, social effectivity, symbolic efficacy, ethical substance, social objectivity, or let us just say 'institutional and/or cultural reality' to the place produced for a subject. All we really need bear in mind, in the interests of avoiding 'idealism' as an objection, is that history is a-teleological. This must be always borne in mind; for Althusser, and most contemporary Marxists, history is not a sequence of developments unfurling from some inner plan: history is, for materialists, aleatory. Thus, against the notion of some metaphysical gigantomachia waged between the forces of living substances and ruling languages, which is where Agamben feels to have left us, we are perhaps better to focus in on the specific and historical 'kludges' and always-being-hobbled-together apparatuses that our chance encounters with history throws up, rooted in the ongoing struggles between socially antagonistic parts of human society.


[1] Foucault 1980:96
[2] Foucault 1979:149
[3] Foucault 1990
[4] Foucault 1992:10-11
[5] O'Farrell 2007
[6] Agamben 2009:12
[7] Agamben 2009:11
[8] Agamben 2009:14-15


Agamben, G., 2009, What is an Apparatus? (and other essays), Stanford University Press
Foucault, M., 1979, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, New York
Foucault, M., 1980, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, Pantheon Books, New York
Foucault, M., 1990, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, Vintage Books, New York
Foucault, M., 1992, The Use of Pleasure. The History of Sexuality: Volume Two, trans. R. Hurley, Penguin, Middlesex
O'Farrell, C., 2007, 'Key Concepts' [online] available at < > accessed 18th Nov 2015

Le bon Dieu est dans le détail


It's a commonplace that the art historian is related to the detective. I find the pervasiveness of this analogy interesting, and although I am by no means a believer in astrology, I was mildly amused to see that the trope of art-historian-as-sleuth had even penetrated into that murky field when I read that a Scorpio (which I am, coincidentally) is ideally suited to work such as crime scene forensics, depth psychology, investigative journalism, espionage, police or private detective work, and art historians. Presumably there is something forensic and interrogative about the methodology of that traditional connoisseurial-biographical school of thought which even today (i.e. even after formalism, iconography, social history, feminism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, cultural studies, structuralism, queer theory, post-structuralism, postcolonialism, visual culture and 'the iconic/pictorial turn' have all had their methodological impact) tends to typify the art historian in popular imagination. The persistence of the myth also probably owes something to the stock cinematic bow-tied curator, invariably male, fastidiously interrogating documents and images through half-moon glasses, which for many people outside of the discipline could well mediate their impressions. As is the case with many contemporary mythologies, a compound of historical realities with earlier mythologies is at play.

Museums, Morelli said, are full of wrongly attributed paintings – indeed assigning them correctly is often very difficult, since often they are unsigned, or painted over, or in poor repair. So distinguishing copies from originals (though essential) is very hard. To do it, said Morelli, one should abandon the convention of concentrating on the most obvious characteristics of the paintings, for these could most easily be imitated – Perugino's central figures with eyes characteristically raised to heaven, or the smile of Leonardo's women, to take a couple of examples. Instead one should concentrate on minor details, especially those least significant in the style typical of the painter's own school: earlobes, fingernails, shapes of fingers and toes.[1]

As Ginzberg states (p.8), it was Enrico Castelnuovo who compared Morelli's method of classification to that attributed by Arthur Conan-Doyle to his fictitious creation, Sherlock Holmes. Castelnuovo developed this comparison upon the basis of an observation made by Edgar Wind:

Morelli's books… look different from those of any other writer on art; they are sprinkled with illustrations of fingers and ears, careful records of the characteristic trifles by which an artist gives himself away, as a criminal might be spotted by a fingerprint . . . any art gallery studied by Morelli begins to resemble a rogue's gallery'. [2]

Wind also explained Morelli's fascination with the seemingly minor anatomical details of painted human figures as having a Freudian basis:

To some of Morelli's critics it has seemed odd that personality should be found where personal effort is weakest. But on this point modern psychology would certainly support Morelli: our inadvertent little gestures reveal our character far more authentically than any formal posture that we may carefully prepare.[2]

Sigmund Freud himself acknowledges the early influence of Morelli upon him (under the pseudonymous guise of a supposed Russian art connoisseur Ivan Lermolieff) long before developing psycho-analysis.[3] However, Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk seem to feel that Freud over-psychologised in his understanding of Morelli's method.[4] That is to say, Freud (and by implication those scholars who have made something of Freud's acknowledgement) misunderstood Morelli's drive to anatomise, catalogue and taxonomise painted details. Rather than assuming a 'parapraxic' unconscious expressiveness secretly at work in those moments when a painter is least focused on representing a body part, Morelli's method was in fact indebted to the palaeological practices and methodologies of Cuvier and Agassiz (the latter of which Morelli knew personally). This was owing to Morelli's desire to develop, by analogy with the typological methods of palaeology, a typology of his own: one which collated painters' personal mannerisms without having to rely on biographical or documentary detail external to the works of art they had produced.[4]

Ginzberg reads Morelli's method through a Freudian optic, in which cultural stylistic constraints are at a minimum, and individual mannerism at a maximum, when the artist is most relaxed. While the two termed relation between individual manner and stylistic constraint implied here is typical for the intellectual milieu in which Morelli theorised, it was far from accepted that the two terms were necessarily antagonistic, such that only the recession of a consciousness of cultural constraints could allow for the personal manner to 'escape' and have its expression. On the contrary, Carl Friedrich von Rumohr's art-historical theory claimed that the great painters were those who had harmonized these two terms in a single, unified and universal expression.

Nonetheless, Freud's purported misreading must have been highly productive, for he mentions two distinct encounters with Morelli's 'method' which informed his thinking, as if it foreshadowed, if not constituted, something of a partial theoretical prototype.[5]. As a theory that the overlooked, marginal, residual, and habitually disregarded elements, rather than the culturally-determined focii of a production, can yield valuable information about the inner life and thus the singularity or identity of its producer, however, it does not translate at all well into modern (post-Lacanian) psychoanalytic theory, for whom the figure of the subject with a rich and highly individualised 'inner life' is just another way in which the objet a directs desire and avoids confrontation with the 'subjective destitution' to be found in confrontation with the subject proper: le sujet barré. Thus there is a sense in which Freud's rendering of Morelli's method not only does not presage or inform actually-existing contemporary psychoanalysis, but indeed presents it only with misconception and misinformation. Furthermore, Morelli's method appears far from practicable, and indeed was not used by Morelli himself. Rather, it appears in the form of a fantasy which Morelli had about himself, with enough self-consciousness to have at first concealed the name of its author, only later acknowledged. We might even speak of Freud's fantasy of discovery, of uncovering the origins of his own disavowed thinking. It's a rewarding exercise to 'discover' apparent precedents for present thinking in the detritus of memories of encounters and readings, but self-excavation is at least as much construction as it is uncovering. The past is always reconstituted in the present that it is the past of, as the neuroscience of plasticity and memory consolidation tells us: the only anchors to be found in a life-history are those summoned by the requirements of a present crisis in meaning. On the other hand, social history has a verifiable solidity that can be gauged through collective signatures and cultural deposits.

The problem of attributing 'the method', and the idea of a method, destined to be itself regarded as 'a cure' for the problem of misattribution, appears in this regard circular and threatens to spill over into a general epistemological problem of authorship and origins in general. However the mention of 'cure' is not merely rhetorical here: as Ginzberg notes, both Freud and Morelli were indeed physicians. The trio is completed by Conan-Doyle, a physician by training and the third figure included in Ginzberg's model of historical detectives, owing to the literary figure Sherlock Holmes' abiding fascination in the truth-bearing capacity of 'trifles'. Medical epistemology is based upon the identification of a malady through the observation and collation of 'symptoms' — the same term which Freud used in his developing metapsychology. Ginzberg goes further, then, than simply reading Morelli's method in a Freudian optic. Rather, he gestures towards a medical 'paradigm', in which symptoms form a system of signification, underlying both Freud and Morelli. We could broaden this intuition, and thus partially rehabilitate Ginzberg's exposition, against Hatt and Klonk, by further indicating that medical science and palaeology are both premised upon a broader context of empirical semiotics, which is precisely the direction in which Morelli was trying to move art history: towards a science of observation in which a series of empirically observed signifiers would indeed prove in themselves significant, productive of meaning-laden information, verification of identity and thus ultimately productive of knowledge and value to a community of peers. Morelli's desire to provide a self-contained empiricism, or at least a scientific method, for the practice of identifying art-work can be read both as an attempt to institute the same attentive observation of significant identifying details as that found in the taxonomy of fossils, and as a desire related to that of Freud in his early search for a method, close to that of medicine and the practice of physicians observing symptoms of illness, for an as-yet undeveloped science of 'reading the signs' of an unconscious psychology. The issue is one of stoically asserting a significance to the unassuming and insignificant: of carefully regarding the disregarded. For the doctor of medicine, the symptom is significant: given its constellation with certain other symptoms it may point to a cause. In a painting, sculpture, monument or work of art the overlooked detail can be significant: in concert with others it may even help to verify its origins. Freud's parapraxes, by analogy, reveal the operation of an unconscious desire and perhaps a repressed history (or what we could justifiably call a 'prehistory'). The palaeologist's found fossil bears markings or a form which is used as a signifier, read as a sign pointing to the catalogue and its taxonomy of prehistopric species. These semiotic systems indeed share a much broader and common epistemological paradigm, which is that of producing knowledge through the legibility of signs inscribed as painted canvas, sculpted stone, body, bone, speech or utterance.

Hatt and Klonk's historical precision in tracing Morelli's method to a certain palaeological influence may indeed identify a stronger element in Morelli's no-doubt mixed and syncretic thought processes, however the method itself is somewhat overdetermined by an entire historical paradigm of looking for clues and symptoms to be read as signs pointing to, indicating, or bearing revelatory content, about the provenance of a body they belong to. An iconological fever, in which all of nature and culture must be made to speak of itself, to produce from its own body a readable or intelligible account of its genesis, typifies the European historical period spanning from the early modern to the contemporary. The endless importance of trifles, the intense questioning of a parapraxic slip or lazily-drawn earlobe is a sub-current of that great tide. The search for a methodology is something that has always typified art history in this period; practitioners might well be compared with Duke Senior in the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare's As You Like It, who claims to finds 'tongues in trees, books in running brooks' and 'sermons in stones'. The hermeneutic problem, in Shakespeare's Arden as in reality, is that the Book of Nature is susceptible to heterogeneous readings. Is this also the case with an analogical Book of Culture(s)? Or does the historicity of human culture make a difference, make it approach something more stable and significant in itself? You can never really shake free of Hegel in this business.

[1] Ginzberg 1980:7
[2] Wind 1985:38 in Ginzberg 1989:97-98
[3] Freud 1959:270–71 in Ginzberg 1989:99
[4] Hatt & Klonk 2006:51
[5] Ginzberg 1989:99-100


Freud, Sigmund, 1959, 'The Moses of Michelangelo', Collected Papers, vol.4, Basic Books, London, pp. 270–71
Ginzburg, Carlo, 1980, 'Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method', History Workshop, No. 9 (Spring, 1980), pp. 5-36, Oxford University Press, available at accessed 21/11/2010
Ginzberg, Carlo, 1989, Clues, Myths and the Historical Method, Johns Hopkins University Press
Hatt, M. & Klonk, C., 2006, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods, Manchester University Press
Wind, Edgar, 1985, Art and Anarchy, Northwestern University Press

Explanandum and Explanans

An explanandum (L.) is a sentence describing a phenomenon that is to be explained, and the explanans is the sentences adduced as explanations of that phenomenon. For example, one person may pose an explanandum by asking 'why is there smoke?', and another may provide an explanans by responding 'because there is a fire'. In this example, 'smoke' is the explanandum, and 'fire' is the explanans.

As a siderbar, consider similar latinate terminology:

  • Explicandum — that which gets explicated vs. Explicans — that which gives the explication
  • Constitutum — that which gets made up, constituted vs. Constituens — that which makes it up, e.g. the constituents
  • Definiendum — that which is being defined vs. Definiens — that which constitutes a definition

In accounting for the differences between artworks it is not enough to produce an explanation which merely restates difference, as this would simply echo the explanandum. e.g. It is no use saying that the difference between Gentile de Fabriano's Madonna and Child with Angels (1425) and Masaccio's Virgin and Child (1426) 'lies in' the stylistic differences between late Gothic and early Renaissance modes of figuration. That would merely present us with a restated difference to be explained (an explanandum), and not an explanation (explanans).


Nor, according to the Marxist art historian Frederick Antal[1] does a difference in influence (regional, generational) upon the respective artists account for the essential differences: 'influences do not explain essentials'.[2]

For Antal there must be a fundamental cause of the differences, and as an 'orthodox' Marxist art historian, this fundamental explanation can only be given through an understanding of the economic basis of class society: a fundamental social antagonism expresses itself in the differences between Gentile and Masaccio's stylistic approaches; the rational, natural, frugal, sober and realistic style of the latter expresses the values of a newly prosperous and briefly powerful bourgeoisie asserting itself, while Gentile's more courtly, geometricised and ritualistic style expresses a conservative outlook more befitting the aristocracy.[2]

[1] Hatt, M. & Klonk, C., 2006, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods, p. 132
[2] Antal, F., 1948, Florentine Painting and its Social Background, 9.3.

Real Abstraction

The Marxian conception of Real Abstraction can be found all over the place; for example, in Simmel[1], Sohn-Rethel[2], Adorno[3], Toscano[4] and more generally, scattered throughout critical theory.

Marx wrote:

Within the value-relation and the value expression included in it, the abstractly general accounts not as a property of the concrete, sensibly real; but on the contrary the sensibly-concrete counts as the mere form of appearance or definite form of realisation of the abstractly general … This inversion, by which the sensibly-concrete counts only as the form of appearance of the abstractly general and not, on the contrary, the abstractly general as property of the concrete, characterises the expression of value. At the same time, it makes understanding it difficult.[5]


It is as if together with and besides lions, tigers, hares and all the other real animals, which as a group form the various genuses, species, subspecies, families etc of the animal kingdom, there also existed the Animal, the individual incarnation of the whole animal kingdom.[6]

In the second edition of Capital, we find the famous phrase: '[t]he equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract', while in the French edition Marx added a comma, continuing '… and only exchange produces this reduction, by bringing the products of the most diverse kinds of labour into relation with each other on an equal footing'. [7]

For Marx the mystery of real abstraction lies in how the production process (labour) is concealed in the exchange between commodities through the medium of their universal equivalency in exchange value, this latter (materially performed, practiced) abstraction being at the centre of capitalist life. Far from being an idea that floats free of daily practice, abstraction here is concrete and real, having determinate effects in social relations. Abstraction here is not something thought; it is something done.

[1] The Philosophy of Money, p. 78
[2] Intellectual and Manual Labor, p. 69
[3] Introduction to Sociology, pp. 31-32
[4] Fanaticism, pp. 186-190
[5] 'The Value Form', Das Kapital, pp.39-140
[6] Das Kapital 1st ed. p.234
[7] Le Capital I p.70

Against Banter

This was written partly as a response to an article I recently read in which alt-right trolls were compared with Kierkegaardian ironists. To the degree that trolling deserves any theoretisation at all, the argument seems initially seductive, but I have very serious reservations about it.

With the prospect of generalized irony as a feature of all language, a la Cleanth Brooks (who, in a definition that constituted a famous landmark in terms of its sheer scope, claimed that irony was simply the way in which a text registers the pressures of context), we have to face the extinction of a certain opposition of irony to serious language. That is to say, we must stop insisting that there is a clearly non-ironic use of language in which the speaker coincides entirely with the subject of the statement, standing completely within or behind it without residue, and entirely committed to the social meaning of the utterance. Rather, the gap between subject and subject of the statement must be seen to be operative in all language. Although, to be sure, this gap is not always 'operative' to the same extent, it nonetheless remains a fundamental non-relation between the subject and the subject. The paradigm of this gap's operation would today be the internet chatroom or below-the-line readers' comments sections, in which no-one can be sure that a participant is committed in any way to their comments, that they are not simply 'trolling' (or indeed trolling in a non-simple, multilayered or ambiguous, complex way). In such an environment, one sees the most ridiculously anachronistic and wilfully transgressive of political views expressed as if earnestly, and one sees the attempt to defuse or counter-argue as either 'taking the bait', 'feeding the troll', or 'white-knighting'. The 'better' player emerges in these comment streams as the one who can up the ante, amplify the trolling of others, and so on. The internet is couched as a space of freedom: principally the freedom of the anonymous to transgress, to voice or enact puerile fantasies detached from the meaty encumbrance of socialised identities with their materially-consequential responsibilities, substantial duties, bonds and relations; freedom from personal consequences, freedom from having to endure the returning effects of what one circulates. It might appear as if posting on the internet was a realisation of precisely that substancelessness, that 'infinity negativity', which Kierkegaard (after Hegel) criticised in the Schlegelian theory of romantic irony. Hegel and Kierkegaard both criticised romantic irony as being potentially limitless. After a certain point the ironic conscious is entirely free to dispose of all substantial (that is, normative, social, intersubjective, moral: 'political' in its modern sense) concerns, even those which might appear to further its own subsistence. This is where the line between 'constructive' (i.e. Socratic) and 'destructive' (Schlegelian) irony (as understood by Kierkegaard and Hegel) is often drawn.

While the possibility of anacoluthon (the abrupt interposition of a changed direction, e.g. of argumentation, position, etc.) and parabasis (the sudden shift to a metaregister) mark ironic speech, in Schlegelian destruction they leave nothing but the empty position of irony itself, as infinite negativity — according to Hegel. One drops bombs and dances onwards in the same floating dissociation from whatever is said, because whatever is said is merely noise or pixels, and can't really hurt anyone, or so the dangerous, evil ironist thinks. But while this criticism certainly functions to describe one of the ways in which today's trolls excuse their excesses, Hegel (and subsequently Kierkegaard) may have misunderstand Schlegel. We'll come to that later; first let's examine why Hegel and Kierkegaard are right about infinite negativity, but are nonetheless quibbling since it represents a position that is impossible to assume.

Such a position of infinite negativity should not be possible according to Wittgenstein: one can not enunciate a statement without context, use a totally 'private language' uncommitted to social meaning, etc. Language 'is', in a certain sense, nothing but the rules that constitute it: dependent for its status as meaningful on a system of social rules. Or, one can say with the conviction of the Saussurean school of linguistics, language is predicated on a differential system of meanings: meaning arises from differences, comparatives, relatives, and specific arrangements, not from positive terms.

From this perspective the idea of producing entirely uncommitted speech behind which stands no substantial interest is bogus: there is a process of selection — enchainment, arrangement, both syntagmatic and paradigmatic — to achieve a desired effect in terms of reception: meaning. Thus to speak is to incur responsibility for the articulation , the choosing and stringing together, that produces meaning, even if it is not 'meant', is ambiguous, open to interpretation, or was merely 'banter'. The speaker, tweeter, memer or troll are not simply the producer of locutions with illocutionary sense overlaid by a readership; on the contrary these groups encode perlocutionary force in what they produce, indeed depend upon it as the primary motivating factor. Just as WWE wrestling baits the audience, producing 'heat' by various mechanisms such as repeated 'heel' beatdowns on 'faces', in a predictable and controllable formula that does not fail to elicit the mass emotional response sought after, so is trolling a purposeful elicitation of contextual response. The troll is akin to a wrestling script-writer, a provocateur, except in one point: here the kayfabe is not an open secret to be 'suspended' (i.e. as 'disbelief') for the purpose of entertainment, but functions as a screen or excuse to be insisted upon, in order to pretend that the action isn't socially real, and doesn't generate real effects. Besides ritual beatdowns to characterise various wrestling actors as heels and faces (or to perform 'turns' from one to other), WWE sports entertainment utilises a panoply of stock characters, redolent of pantomime, as managers, coaches and trainers. In 2013, for example, the 'Real American' wrestler Jack Swagger was mentored by a character calling himself Zeb Colter (portrayed by Dutch Mantel), a racist and anti-immigration, Mexican-hating, welfare-bashing MAGA demagogue with a long luxurious Yosemite-Sam moustache and a Southern secessionist veneer (Swagger's logo clearly echoing a confederate flag). At the time it was obvious the Tea Party was being parodied. The audience simultaneously recognised Colter as a simulacrum and also consistently refused his performative efficiency, through booing, heckling and jeering, all despite a not-too-dissimilar version of this persona being voted into the office of POTUS just three years later. To an uninformed viewer, it might appear as if social attitudes had somehow swung from a liberal majority to an alt-right majority in those three years, or that the WWE audience represented an unduly liberal crowd compared to outsiders. But on the contrary, the WWE network is tight with the republican party; the chairman is married to a republican senator, and the show had actually featured Donald Trump in its 'Hall of Fame' segment, immortalising a face off between the latter and Vince McMahon. In other words, kayfabe itself can function in a more complex way than a pre-critical understanding might allow: as the pretence of a pretence. Trump would, more than any romantic ironist, better characterise the modern troll, who hides behind the screen of an assumed political kayfabe – a redoubled pretence of pretence – since he just so happens to really mean the things he 'jokes' about. This strategy of also meaning it was identified, with great wit, by the comedian Stewart Lee in a performance criticising the show Top Gear (more precisely its presenters). Not coincidentally, when Jeremy Clarkson first began presenting a new version of Top Gear hosted not by the BBC but online, he boasted 'no-one can fire me now… we’re on the internet, which means I could pleasure a horse'.

In other words, the alt-right (and the wider manosphere) is worlds apart from romantic irony. While it claims for itself the social disconnection, the infinite negativity, attributed to romantic irony by Kierkegaard and Hegel, alt-right sites such as Breitbart profit socially through the clicks and shares of their readerships. If the alt-right's self-appointed 'intellectuals' would like to believe they merely play with signifiers as punks played with swastikas, they are clearly mistaken; perhaps the illusions of omnivalence and omnivocity granted by the adoption of internet anonymity are all too captivating. However, they do not escape the obvious: they are white men, politically economic-libertarian, and their substantial interests are clearly visible. Whatever theoretisation of irony the alt-right may try to deploy, it is extremely deficient.

A careful reading of romantic irony can act as a corrective to Kierkegaard's and Hegel's warning-off. Far from floating free of social investments, romantic irony always implicates everyone: narrator, author, reader. The Early German Romantic theory of irony allows for no Archimedean point, no privileged or anonymous position from which all may appear as a joke, and from which laughter may erupt in a 'cult of kek'. Such an attitude indeed leaves one feeling that the alt-right must consider the interactive space of the internet to exist over and above social existence, rather than as an integrated part of the social world. Claire Colebrook clarifies:

Until Romanticism, the literary or rhetorical function of irony was seen as a special case within an otherwise simple and literal language of representation. Irony was deemed to be an ornament or trope within representational language. For the Romantics, however, it was only possible to have a seemingly simple and representational world through the forgetting and repression of the creativity and poetry of language. Irony – or the gap between words and world – was, for the Romantics, original. Speech and language originate or come into being only when ideas or concepts give form and imagination to the actual world; all language is essentially and originally figural, or different from the world it supposedly names. Literal language is the denial or forgetting of this gap. If we think of our language as a simple one-to-one label or picture of the world, then we forget the creative and disruptive birth of language. To see all language as ironic, the Romantics argued, would be to restore life to its once open, fluid and productive past. Life would no longer be frozen into the fixed forms of grammar and syntax, or reduced to what is sayable. Irony recognises a sense that is always other than what is said.

Once Romanticism established that the truth of life did not lie in adequate representation but in a questioning and imaginative play of representations – such as poetry – then it became possible to see literature as the privileged mode of human understanding. Literature would be the truth of life because literature was essentially ironic: adopting a permanently distanced and questioning attitude to all language and fixed positions.


Further, for the Romantics, this fall is one of ‘buffoonery.’ German Romantic irony was defined through a constellation of concepts, including, in addition to buffoonery, humour, wit and satire. The joke or Witz undoes the mastery of the subject, as laughter and nonsense disrupt logic and sense. Irony is related to buffoonery not just because subjective mastery is undermined; buffoonery falls, enjoys the humour of the fall, laughs from on high at the falling buffoon, and remains implicated in the fall. One can never master the ironic process, never recognise or stand above one’s finitude: ‘Irony is the clear consciousness of eternal agility, of an infinitely teeming chaos’ (Schlegel). The minute we see ourselves as other than what has fallen, as beings who can overlook and describe the fall, we fall further into smug self-recognition: ‘One can only become a philosopher, not be one. As soon as one thinks one is a philosopher, one stops becoming one’ (Schlegel). Irony must recognise that we can never overcome singular viewpoints and achieve a God-like point of view; we are always subject to a cosmic joke. For any idea we have of our selves or our world will be part of a process of creation and destruction that we can neither delimit nor control. If humour often relies on a feeling of superiority or elevation above life’s misfortunes, irony recognises – but never fully realises – the implication of all life in this chaos. The ironic attitude must not just take a delight in seeing the clown slip on a banana skin; it must not just laugh at this fall from human coordination into an animal or thing-like buffoonery. It must recognise that we are all part of this falling; we are always dupes and effects of a life with a power well beyond our control and recognition.


This brings us to the heart of irony and dialogue. To acknowledge poeisis is to acknowledge that the creativity of life can never be encompassed or reflected in an overarching point of view. Conscious activity is never at one with the forms it creates.

At the same time, Colebrook advises us that if language use is as primordially rhetorical (and thus catachrestic), as Paul de Mann claims, then it is also and by the same token unavoidably committed to some meaning. For Lacan this is also true; the demands of the gurgling infant are always already semanticised, always addressed to an Other, always already mediate and never immediate. Demand cannot be isolated from desire in practice. The encoding of perlocutionary force, the rhetorical gamble of language, is always there at the very beginning of language acquisition, not something super-added to it and from which one can then opt-out from as anonymous trolls seem to believe. All of this seems obvious to philosophers like Colebrook who, as part of their profession, practice thinking and address themselves to their thoughts, in what is a deeply social process. Reasoning is often said to rely on the weighing of arguments, searching for the most persuasive. Thought is, in this sense, never disinterested. Nor is the troll.

In Hegelian parlance, 'substantial' interests and the term 'substance' itself refers to the intersubjective (or 'ethical') domain of socially-shared morality, normativity, etc. It is the forerunner of the later idea of the 'socially objective' domain, as reified and misused by Stalinism. Today we tend to understand the socially objective domain simply as the domain of all our various forms and relations of social co-operation — it is the largely agreed-upon, although always culturally mediated, world of standards of taste and decency. It is precisely this realm, the realm of the rule (be it formal or informal) that the troll time and time transgresses or attempts to get others to transgress. In order to transgress it, however, one must first acknowledge its existence. We can discuss various forms of relation to the Big Other in psychoanalytic terms. We can approach it in terms of discourse analysis. We can discuss socialisation as a process. We can approach the hypocrisy (conscious or not) of the alt-right troll in many ways. We do not lack the tools to deal with the advent of the internet.

However, I believe that a direct comparison between the concept of romantisch ironie in Frühromantik and the absolutely modern phenomena of anonymous trolling on alt-right websites and sections of reddit is misled. Many theorists in the past have contended that romantic irony and post-modernism, particularly Derridean deconstruction, are related if not genetically connected. This argument always revolves on a secondary interpretation of deconstruction which inflates the 'play of the signifier' to the degree that the theoretical underpinnings of deconstruction, and its insistence on textual commitment are lost: Derrida expressly refuted the possibility that an uncommitted speech act could take place, and this is systematically forgotten whenever the 'free-play of signifiers' argument is invoked as a defence of offensive speech or language. A similar elision occurs when romantic irony is compared with trolling. Schlegelian irony is defined as an act of 'self-creation and self-destruction' not in a phenomenological or psychological register, but in a social one: the theory of irony is advanced in a particular historical juncture in which the productive capacity of art, and particularly poetry, freed from patronage systems and available to reason (contemporaneously leading the French Revolution) and its self-reflective possibilities, are becoming far more visible.

'The French Revolution, Fichte's philosophy of science, and Goethe's Meister are the greatest tendencies [Tendenzen] of the age. No revolution that is not loud and material will appear important to the person who objects to this compilation. That kind of person had not yet climbed to the high, broad point of view of human history'

– Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeumfragment 216

The situation of the Early German Romantics such as Schlegel is is a unique historical conjuncture, in which enlightenment reason, in the wake of Kant, and the arts (particularly the literary arts) encounter and affect each other. The comparison with the age of digital media and the sudden ability to self-author through providing 'content' for social networks is tempting, but ultimately misled. Today's digital aestheticism of the self is a world away from the intent of the Früromantik movement to make art announce itself as art. The misunderstanding can, in fact, be traced to how Fichte is read.

From reading de Man's summarisation of Fichte's dialectic of the self in the Wissenshaftslehre ('On the Concept of Irony', Aesthetic Ideology p.172) it becomes apparent that the frequent mischaracterisation of Fichte's system as a form of Subjective Idealism a la Berkeley, or as solipsism, stems from attempts to read Fichte's 'self' from a phenomenological, or even a vulgar psychological vantage. For de Man, the Fichtean self is purely linguistic, and its act of self-positing occurs not in experience or in the inner mental life of any individual but purely within language. The enunciation or marking of the I, the act by which language marks and posits itself as self-generating, is a linguistic act and not a subjective one. Fichte's non-I which is generated out of the linguistic I is the linguistic I's reference to the outside of the language it commands – a reference which can be seen, true to Fichte's system, to occur only within language itself; thus the non-I is generated from the I. It is only on the basis of this primordial linguistic act by which language refers to its own taking place (see the significance of grammatical shifters and deixis in Benveniste and in Agamben) that something like subjectivity in the usual, phenomenological sense, can follow. Here then we have something like a Lacanianism avant la lettre: the signifier precedes; the subject is constituted, or receives its being, from the Other (that is, from language). We must consider then the Fichtean 'self' as a presubjective or nonsubjective I, a purely 'formal' self-inscription or self-registration of language, a virtual point which through its singular self-indicative status, enables reference (and thus both subjectivisation and worldliness). The (Hegelian) criticism that the Fichtean 'I' is desubstantialised would thereby miss the point; it would be substantive – its materiality would be that of a language pliable and sensitive enough to register its own capacities. Nor would the (de Mannian) Fichtean 'I' pose for us some figure of inmost inwardness, or point of absolute subjectivism; indeed it would be radically desubjective and impersonal, but thoroughly social. Its detachment from any individual phenomenological field would be that of the narrative voice of an author writing a novel in the first person: the 'I' of the narrative need bear no relation to the psychological self of the author, it merely enables the unary trait of a linguistic voice through which some kind of minimal narrative consistency might be established, a feature that is a wholly separate matter to that of how 'unreliable' the narrator and the narrative may prove to be. The relation of Fichte's self to the 'self' envisaged in folk psychology would be strictly arbitrary. What we need to question, like Derrida, is how and when signification – the deferral of a signifier to another in some kind of enchainment whereby metaphysical presence is never finally achievable – can be said to occur. In other words, it is far from being the positivity of an extradiscursive realm which is in question, and much more akin to being the metaphysical basis of the positivisation process itself which is under fire here. What does positivity even mean? The posited, the positioned, and so on. Positivity, as Foucault surely saw in using the term, can only indicate the operation of language, just as the status of 'facts' can only indicate the operation of some factum, some fundamental act of making. Nothing permits us to summarise these Fichtean realisations (as Schopenhauer's vulgarisation did) as a form of subjective idealism in which a spider-like ego weaves the world purely out of its own mentation. At stake is not the physicality of the world nor the materiality of matter: indeed, far from this, at stake is a bewildering understanding that language itself exists materially as part of the world and not as a neutral medium that simply overlays and describes a world that pre-exists it.

The point of this discursus was simply this: a recognition of the social materiality of language. To speak, write, declaim in any way, is to enter a social space. One of Derrida's influential mentors, the literary theorist Maurice Blanchot, mused that he was never less alone than when writing. One is directly exposed to the the material sociality of language, one is indeed always already 'buried' within the social. Part of the structural affinity of the Früromantik movement's loose literary theory with these more recent observations lies in the ability of language to reflect and evince its own material status, which is to say, its historicality.

At this point it is necessary to state my own commitments and interests. I am currently studying Art History at postgraduate level and intend to focus my dissertation on forms of irony in visual culture. Given that irony has been defined right from the beginning as a phenomenon rooted in orality and literacy rather than in plastic and visual cultures, my problem will be to contextualise irony in artwork from an art historical rather than a literary theoretical perspective. Thankfully some of this work has already been done, although there is much to do.

Until Schlegel's famous expansion of the term, irony had been regarded in only two modes: the rhetorical-oratorial and the philosophical. Schlegel's redefinition and expansion of irony, leading to literary scholarship's embrace of the concept of 'romantic irony', made it possible for Strohshneider-Kohr's assertion that 'ironie ist Mittel der Selbstrepräsentation von Kunst' ("[Romantic] Irony is the means whereby art represents itself", Strohschneider-Kohrs, I., Die Romantisch Ironie in Theorie und Gestalltung, Tübingen: Niemeyer 1977 [1960], p.70) It is precisely this capacity of art to subjectify and identify itself qua art through the social mechanisms of romantic irony which, hopefully, will form the subject of my dissertation.

With this definition of romantisch ironie in mind, it seems to be wholly incompatible to compare the internet-based culture of the political alt-right anonymous trolling with anything happening in Jena in the 1790s-1800. On the one hand we find a developing theory of art's social reflexivity and an enlarged capacity for the expressive and experimental capacity of art (more specifically life as a productive, open poesis centred not on a transcendental self but on a larger, historical view of language); on the other hand we find a network of white supremacists posing as deconstruction-literate 'free-players' who don't 'get' Derrida at all, understand irony even less, and who all-too-conveniently happen to be politically aligned with some of the ridiculous and extreme transgressions they post online. All this while desperately fearing their anonymity will be broken and they will be outed to their employers and family. Banter, in other words, is deeply committed, deeply politically egregious, and a long way from being in any way self-reflective.

The Politics of Form

(This is an edited version of some work I did at undergraduate level some years ago)

The Politics of Form in Giacomo Balla's Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) and Hans Haacke's A Breed Apart (1978)

Figure 1: Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed by Giacomo Balla, 1913

Figure 2. A Breed Apart, 2nd Image, by Hans Haacke 1978 From Perry, G. and Wood, P. (eds.) 2004, Themes in Contemporary Art, Yale University Press: New Haven and London in association with The Open University: Milton Keynes, plate 1.1, p.22

Figure 3. A Breed Apart (all seven images as conventionally exhibited) by Hans Haacke 1978

Figure 4. Abstract Speed Triptych (speculative reconstruction), by Giacomo Balla 1913


This essay proposes that certain formal attributes of a work of art can project a political dimension upon the screen of its reception, offering a politicised position to the viewer. More precisely, the two very different works of art Abstract Speed: The Car Has Passed (by Giacomo Balla, 1913, see fig.1) and A Breed Apart (by Hans Haacke, 1978, see fig. 2) will be compared in terms of how they put to use formal techniques for quite different political purposes. The degree to which political themes are present in these works will be assessed. The political context of both artists will be considered as well as a brief commentary on the development of their artistic techniques. A formal and visual analysis of each work will attempt to draw out the ways in which their artwork amplifies or contests the politics of their age, and situates the viewer.

The critic and media theorist Franco Berardi characterises the twentieth century in Europe as the “century that trusted in the future”, in its early years presided over by a utopian Futurist vision (Berardi 2011 p.17). By 1977 this faith had imploded into the dystopian nihilism of Punk, proclaiming 'No Future' (Berardi 2011 p.17). Berardi's periodisation dates are highly significant with respect to the two artworks examined here. Balla's Abstract Speed series of paintings from 1913 mark the artist's 'fully-fledged' entrance into the Futurist circle (Humphreys 1999 p.36), while Haacke's A Breed Apart, produced in 1978, marks a definitive moment in anti-establishment institutional critique.

Balla in Context

As Robert Hughes notes, the speed with which culture reinvented itself in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th seemed 'almost praeternatural' (Hughes 1980, p.15). More than one writer has noted that the inauguration of Futurism coincided with the arrival of the first moving assembly lines (Meikle in Schnapps 2009, p.62; Berardi 2011, p.19). However, Fordist production processes and Taylorist 'scientific management' of labour time had not yet reached Italy. During this period, the cultural memory of the Risorgimento was still recent, and the economy was still largely agricultural (Berardi 2011, p.21). The infamous racing car of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's Futurist manifesto, with its 'explosive breath' and seeming to run 'on machine gun fire' (Marinetti 1909 in Harrison & Wood, p.147), would not have been produced with the 'beauty of speed' but hand-assembled 'using traditional craft techniques' (Meikle in Schnapps 2009, p.62). Italian Futurism looked, initially at least, beyond national borders and saw urban life in the industrialised nations changing radically and rapidly.

For the poet Marinetti, the inventor of Futurism and later a Fascist demagogue, the velocity of machines represented freedom from history, the power to redraw the map of Europe, and to replace 'the old sickly cooing sensitivity of the earth' with 'iron bridges', piercing 'surgical trains' and enormous turbines – the 'new muscles of the earth'. For Marinetti war was 'hygiene', and speed was 'beauty' (Hughes, 1980, p.43). Marinetti's lyrical bombast may seem extreme but it can be considered to have both expressed and contributed towards a particular 'structure of feeling' in which its artistic statements were 'all the time lived' (Williams 1977, p.128-29) in everyday early twentieth century Italian life. Futurist painting was an attempt to translate or embody this structure of feeling in a visual medium (Hughes 1980, p.43).

It is important to note while Balla had signed Marinetti's Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting of 1910, there was political distance between them which only widened in later years. Balla is described as subscribing to a form of 'humanitarian socialism' (Humphreys 1999, p.22). Nonetheless, his 1913 Abstract Speed paintings can be said to express something of the cultural 'structure of feeling' of 1913 Italian society, and of Futurism's love affair with acceleration, economic accumulation, state expansion, nationalism, novelty, violence, and machismo.

By the time that Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed was created, Giacomo Balla—with experience of composing music and of his father's professional photography—had already spent considerable time producing work which responded to the advent of cinema and to the innovative chronophotography of Marey and Muybridge (Humphreys 1999, p.34; Martin & Grosenick 2006, p.15 & p.42). Balla extended the points of paint (of the divisionist technique) into lines, and multiplied the representations of a subject. His 1912 works, for example, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash and Rhythm of the Violinist are 'mechanically analytical' attempts to capture and represent motion in a painted medium (Humphreys 1999, p.36).

In the English language the word 'form' adumbrates a number of ideas which, for example, in ancient Greek, were different (e.g. morphé, eidos, schema, rythmos). Thus, morphé and schema denote form as something fixed and unchanging, whereas rythmos specifically refers to a form 'acquired through motion' (Benveniste 1966, pp.327-335). According to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Marey and Muybridge had attempted to capture rythmos in their photographic innovations; likewise this thesis can be extended to Balla's analytic works, such as the Girl Crossing a Balcony (1912-13) and Speed of a Motorcycle (1913). However it is important to keep in mind an important distinction between the nineteenth century chronophotographers and Balla's painted motion, which is the specifically Futurist context of the latter. Balla put his techniques in service to the commodification and politicisation of speed and motion.

Balla's spiritual interests in Symbolism and Theosophy may also have guided his experiments with inter-penetrating complementary colours and with a kind of visual synaesthesia of musical and sonic effects. The latter, concerned as it is with the dynamic propagation of sonic waves through time and space, was in likelihood strongly related to the use of 'force-lines' proposed by the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting (Humphreys 1999, p.36). The combination of the influences detailed above prompted Balla to give visual artistic form to such concepts as machinery, motion, force and speed, dramatising in paint a sense of the accelerating rhythm and tempo of urban European life.

Haacke in Context

Pierre Bourdieu, a theorist that has collaborated with Hans Haacke (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994), characterised the latter's work as similar in effect to Karl Krauss' incitements, which 'provoked his adversaries to make mistakes, or show themselves up' and which 'turned the forces of his adversaries against them'. (Speller 2011 p.144). More specifically, in A Breed Apart, Haacke uses 'discursive montage' (Speller 2011 p.144), a way of combining different registers of language with visual elements, as institutional critique.

The combination of photographic visual elements and text, according to Linda Hutcheon (1989, p.126) creates a multi-registered semiotic system in which the meanings produced by the Piercean indexicality and iconicity of the photograph form an 'interference fringe' with the meanings produced by the symbolic nature of the accompanying text. This 'interference' challenges the reader/observer on several levels; firstly it demands that text and photograph not be considered as independent sign systems, and secondly it demands some kind of synthesis in a new overall meaning. The emergence of this new meaning in the reader/observer can be said to constitute the 'conceptual art' of the work.

Haacke's technique in A Breed Apart can be identified as taking one of two forms: in parts two, four and six (see fig. 3) he presents a familiar photograph (such as might be used in advertising) and unsettles their conventional meanings through the content conveyed by accompanying text, whereas in parts one, three, five and seven (see fig. 3) he accompanies an disquieting photograph of armed policing or political arrest with a paragraph of text designed to read like a cheerful press release. Thus within the work as a whole a duality of both forms of mediation emerge: text critiquing commercial photography, and photographs critiquing commercial literature. What is constant in both of these technical movements is that the familiar and the unfamiliar collide, re-framing a hitherto innocuous-seeming commercialism in terms of its connection with the political tensions of Apartheid.

A Breed Apart both says and shows what is in everyday advertising necessarily omitted. It effectively suggests that the commodification of a vehicle is above all a process of eliding the process of its production and the associated social and political structures which enabled this process. Advertisement then appears disingenuous, presenting products as if they had magically appeared via the goodwill of the brand alone, alienating consumers from the real material processes. Pierre Bourdieu cites Brecht's estrangement effect as an influence on his ideas of 'une politique de la forme' (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994 p.84) and on Haacke's critique of 'symbolic capital' (p.89). Brechtian verfremdungseffekt was itself partly inspired by the literary criticism of the Russian Formalist school, particularly Shklovsky's identification of priem ostranenie—the 'estranging device/technique' in Art as Technique (Shklovsky 1917 in Lemon & Reis 2012, pp.). It is not immediately obvious that devices sometimes called 'alienation effects' can be used by a viewer to disalienate himself or herself 'in and through the consciousness of alienation', but this is indeed an effect of defamiliarisation (Lefebvre 2014, p.45; Shepherd & Wallis 2004, p.185; Gordon 2006, p.389 n25)

As can be witnessed from the above, the context in which Haacke produced his work is one heavily influenced by literary factors, theory and theorists—particularly Bourdieu—and so his use of the creative interface between text and images is hardly surprising. What makes A Breed Apart stand out from more 'playful' works of conceptual art is its explicit political targeting. Haacke challenges the formalist, aestheticist idea (such as that expressed by Clement Greenberg in his 1965 article Modernist Painting) that specific political messages and historical references 'contaminate' art. Instead, the formal qualities of Haacke's artwork are a political message, while political message would be impossible without form (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994 p.90).

Haacke's use of the tagline 'A Breed Apart' reveals how his raw materials (here, the stuff of advertising, its phrases and imagery) is always already 'contaminated' politically. In some regions of its transnational enterprise Jaguar used this phrase to generate distinction for itself as a brand, since as part of a vocabulary of separating birthrights or pedigrees in bred sporting animals it carried the suggestion of virility and heightened potency. However, the same language when applied to human beings immediately deflates any symbolic capital, as it can easily indicate racist segregation, which is precisely what Haacke wanted to bring into focus in this work. When the phrase is conjoined with photographs of Apartheid politics, its 'official' meaning slides uncontrollably towards a condemnation of advertising's complicity in and proximity to institutionalised racism.

As alluded to in the introduction, the fact that A Breed Apart was produced in the year 1978 is important. If 1977 saw the rise of the Punk movement and the appropriation of Lettrist and Situationist techniques of détournement (Debord 1981 in Harrison & Wood 1992, pp.701-710) then Haacke's art of the following year also follows this wider social pattern of anti-establishment critique. However, since 1978 techniques of re-appropriating establishment material have themselves been re-appropriated and today there exist 'cool-hunting expeditions'—marketing practices whereby advertisers scour ghettoes for 'edgy' new style ideas for commercial product placement. This highlights the historical specificity of Haacke's A Breed Apart.

In terms of situating the viewer, Haacke combats what Bourdieu calls the 'symbolic domination' of both corporate and state patrons and sponsors whose strategic goal has been to seduce and manipulate artists into neutralising criticism of their policies and products (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994, p.16-20). While this may seem like a return to a modernist argument, concerning the autonomy (versus heteronomy) of the artist, it deeply concerns what the viewer is able to view since it bears on the economic and social conditions of possibility for the production and exhibition of artwork.

Visual Analysis of the Seen Artwork

As currently exhibited at the Tate Liverpool gallery, The Car Has Passed hangs in a corner of the DLA Piper series 'Constellations', in which artworks are arranged not chronologically but according to how they were 'triggered' by other works. According to this arrangement, the 'constellation' Balla's work belongs to is dominated by Henri Matisse, through a series of 'correspondences' including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jean Metzinger (Tate 2014a). In terms of physical location, Balla's painting hangs between Natalya Goncharova's Gardening and an exterior window, appearing almost peripheral to the exhibition.

While Balla's delineation appears sharp and fresh in photographs of the work, this is misleading, as closer inspection of the work (which is smaller than might be imagined, at 502mm by 654mm [Tate 2014b]) reveals a roughness to the lines and particularly to the shading that follows them. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the pink of the bottom left force-line, where the shading appears granular and smudged in the areas where it is crossed transversally by other force-lines.

The back and top of the pictorial space is marked out somewhat conventionally by a deep blue sky, backgrounding a row of three intersecting geometrical hills, functioning both as a distant landscape and, through shallow modelling following arched and ogival shapes, abstractly foliate forms. A stylised off-white road dominates the lower half of the painting, appearing to issue from a traditionally perspectival and foreshortened vanishing point, albeit a vanishing point plainly inconsistent with the other elements of the painting. The illusionistic depth of the picture is complicated by the unusual, non-realist placement of the road, the abstractness of the landscape, and by the force-lines which criss-cross the surface. The perspective and sweep of the road suggests depth but remains un-modelled. The effect of these complications and dualities is to both invite and to bar the viewer from entry into illusionistic space. The force-lines, which abstractly represent the sonic aftermath and exhaust trail of the titular passed car, oscillate between two modes. Firstly, they appear as an inviting veil or curtain superimposed on a scene with depth; secondly, as a radical partitioning of that scene into more 'painterly' and flattened sections. A hint of 'analytic' Cubism's influence is discernible here.

If understood as the third image in a triptych (see fig. 4) the background in Balla's Abstract Speed series develops narratively from being darkened and obscured by the noise, speed and lines of force of the 'car' in the leftmost and central paintings, yet survives intact and bright in the final image (in which 'the car has passed'). This demonstrates political differences between Balla and Marinetti's regarding Nature; whereas Marinetti has written bitterly of 'the old cooing sensitivity of the earth' and of destroying the Earth for the sake of the machine (Hughes 1980, p.43), Balla's painted landscape still remains intact despite the energetic advent of the motor car.

In contrast to the heavier, darker and angrier lines of the two other paintings that purportedly make up the Abstract Speed triptych (Tate 2014c; Guggenheim 2014), particularly the second (Abstract Speed: Speed and Sound, see fig. 4) with its smaller, scatter-gun force-lines, The Car Has Passed is dominated by the generous and open curvature of its force-lines, which seem almost serene in comparison. Seen as the denouement of a three-painting narrative, 'the car' has indeed 'passed', and what remains in its wake is only the cursive flourish or signature of its speed, as gently descending fumes and waves of air pressure that look set only to disperse further. The palette of blues, greens and pinks is cooler and more harmonious than that of the other paintings, but it is important to note that tensions are still present.

The conventionally-ordered, simplistic and even naïve composition of The Car Has Passed in terms of colour (a receding blue sky, a row of dark green hills, an illuminated foreground) appears very much to be a deliberate concession to classical bucolic or picturesque ideals of rurality and Nature's beauty. It is important not to overstate this, because when presented abstractly, these ideals are indeed analytically flattened, revealing the stasis and schematism of the ideals of pastoral hills and idyllic blue skies. Balla no doubt painted with a full awareness of this contradiction: on the one hand 'musically' appreciative of harmony and cyclic returns to cadence, but on the other hand recognising that forces of excitation and disturbance are required to prevent stagnation and inaction.

The overall effect on the viewer, bearing in mind the social context, is to galvanise a belief in the necessity of progress, without undue sacrifice of certain ideals regarding national territory. The emotional atmosphere—or, using Williams' term, 'structure of feeling'—generated and conveyed by the painting is complex and contradictory if considered logically, but in terms of emotion it is powerfully motivated. At the centre of the issue, although absent from the painting, is the driver and his driven nature—as Marinetti's masculinist chauvinism made clear, Italian Futurism required men do the driving—so that any winged Victory for the motorcar and the machine age only masks a paean to the will and might of man over nature. It is hard to filter out Marinetti's populist rallying cry to unite in mastery of the aggressive energies unleashed by new technologies elsewhere in Europe, to contend for a superior place there. Yet the message suggested by Balla's abstractions stands slightly apart from that Futurism, in that Balla's vehicle seems in the end just a vehicle, to be dispensed with: a technical means of interrupting and rousing people from inactivity, while the true object of national desire was a kind of spiritual evanescence that only the vehicle's speed could facilitate.


Today we can speak easily of a fetishism of speed, in which the actual production and technical mechanics of a vehicle and its engine have been obscured and mystified by the commercial imagery of open roads, responsive controls and breathtaking experiences which pique modern desire. In retrospect, Balla's Abstract Speed appears as a proto-advertisement, linking a luxury item—too fast to see—with the anticipation of collectively fulfilling these kinds of desires as a nation. Balla's work prefigures those modern advertisements from which the product is often absent but nonetheless virtualised through its traces and effects: that is, in its 'lines of force'. Through the imagery and ideologies used in advertising the collective desires of an audience are commodified and sold back to the audience in the form of a product or brand. As such, the painting not only proved prescient but situated the contemporary viewer as part of a much larger collective desirous of a certain future, which is to say, as being on an emotional level politically complicit with international competition, an increasingly corporatist state and its means of economic accumulation.

An interesting visual parallel emerges when comparing the second of the seven images in A Breed Apart (fig. 2) to A Car Has Passed. Ignoring the text, the photograph of the car interior establishes the seating as high-quality, fashioned and modern, capturing its curved lines as 'symbolic capital', indicating ownership of such a vehicle denotes 'distinction', 'taste', and a modern 'life in the fast lane'. The same curves mark Balla's painting, appearing there as lingering traces of exhaust traces and force-lines. These curves (which in the masculinist and sexist mindset can no doubt evoke a yielding femininity supportive of, but absent from, the fast lane) echo in Balla's work the abstract voluptuousness of his landscape; there too they are part of the attempt to generate value or symbolic capital. However, in Haacke's work, the pointedness of the accompanying text destroys whatever imagined comforts the curved caresses of the interior upholstery might have conjured; the point is to deflate the generation of symbolic capital.

Both artworks examined attempt to engage the viewer / reader actively in the production of meaning, conveying a political dynamic or tension in which the viewer / reader will take up a position. There is in both works an implicit appeal to the popular, that is, to the people. In Balla's work the overall movement is towards mythologisation, commodification, and the generation of symbolic capital or value, which involves the exercise of the imagination in projecting a sense of the future. This future is not explicitly nationalised, as in a later work (Long Live Italy, 1915—a highly patriotic, literally 'flag-waving' painting utilising the Italian colours), although the abstract rolling green hills hint at some nationalistic attachment to the soil. In Hans Haacke's work the overall movement is towards de-mythologisation, which undoes the imagery and glamour of the advertised vehicles to reveal the political implications of advertising and the selectivity of what is shown by it.

Balla and Haacke certainly share a destructive urge, although clearly there are clear differences in its expression. A Breed Apart sets out to destroy the mythologising, fetishising use of images by advertisers and to wound the tradition of advertising by turning it on itself. Balla's Abstract Speed: The Car Has Passed stages the destruction of history through the phenomena of escape and passage towards the future (although preserving nationhood, and perhaps to some extent, an idealised countryside).

With Futurism, it is as if the machine merely by its novelty will accomplish marvels—there is in Marxian terms a 'commodity fetishism' at work; Haacke shows on the contrary that sordid human political machinations and their deliberate obscuration hold together the media edifice which broadcasts the marvels and modernity of machines to its consumers.

Although working in different directions and very different contexts, both Haacke and Balla make use of formal devices as means of politicising their artwork. This is not to say that such devices are politically neutral, like technical instruments that remain innocent and uncontaminated by whatever specific uses they are put to. On the contrary, they are in Bourdieu and Haacke's view always indissociable from the political context of their use, but their political meaning changes according to that context.


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