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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Harrison, C. & Wood, P. [eds.] 2003: Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, New Edition, Blackwell: London.
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Martin, S. & Grosenick, U. (ed.) 2006: Futurism, Taschen: London
Meikle, J. L., 2009: 'Materials' in Schnapp (2009) Speed Limits, The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, The Canadian Centre for Architecture and Skira: London, pp.58-73
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
Schnapp, J. T., 2009: Speed Limits, The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, The Canadian Centre for Architecture and Skira: London
Speller, J.R.W., 2011: Bourdieu and Literature, OpenBook Publishers: Cambridge
Shklovsky, V., 1917: 'Art as Technique' in Lemon & Reis [eds.] (2012) Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, University of Nebraska Press
Tate 2014a: [webpage] Constellations, retreived etc
Tate 2014b: [webpage] Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed,
Tate 2014c: [webpage] Catalogue entry,

Whose determinism?

In early and mid-twentieth century debate, the problem [of the relationship between the economic 'base' and the 'ideological superstructure'] was understood to be that this model was crude and reductive: superstructural phenomena, such as art, were supposed to be read off as a 'reflection' of economic circumstances. In the face of this some Marxists (…notably Gramsci) produced versions of the theory of ideology which loosened in certain ways the ties between base and superstructure. Thus for Gramsci ideology was a matter of 'hegemony' – the way in which a particular group and its ideas might come to be dominant in a complex and shifting field of class conflict – rather than being merely a simple reflection of the economic base. While this had the advantage of making the Marxist theory less crude, the disadvantage (or so it may seem) is that the theory becomes much less precise. Indeed, if there is a kind of autonomous struggle taking place in the ideological realm then it is no longer very clear what the Marxists' insistence on the primacy of economics amounts to – perhaps not very much more than a commitment to a certain political position and set of social values.


While some artists may be conservative, others… are… consciously revolutionary, while still others, it seems, have no obvious political position one way or the other. Can the Marxist theory accommodate all three possibilities? And, if the answer is yes, does not an even more profound problem present itself: if Marxism can find a place for every phenomenon, does that not make it unfalsifiable and (as Sir Karl Popper famously alleged) something that has more of the character of religion than of science?

— Hatt, M. and Klonk, C., 2006, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods, Manchester University Press (emphasis added)

While reading this chapter of Hatt and Klonk for MA Art History, I took particular exception to this piece of argumentation.

As Marxist Anthropologist Maurice Godelier has pointed out, 'superstructure' is a spectacularly bad translation of the term 'Uberbau' (Godelier, M. 2012 The Mental and the Material, Verso, p.6). This is all the more apparent when considered in the context of the metaphorical usage Marx put it to. The relationship between Grundlage and Uberbau (often translated as 'base' or 'infrastructure' and 'superstructure') in the German language is that between the foundation of a building, below ground, and the building itself. There are no 'super' structures here, only the necessarily sunken foundation and the perfectly normal, quotidian, structure it supports. Furthermore, it is in the Uberbau, as a ground floor everyday building that we live our lives, not 'in the basement' (ibid.). To point this out is to attempt to demolish those deep-seated prejudicial twins of misreading which would either render 'superstructures' as some kind of airy-fairy imaginary order which floats above society miraculously ordering it (which would constitute a return to idealism), or to an entirely servile, if material, 'cultural appendage' to society wholly determined by economic forces; rather the Uberbau is the 'built environment' of society itself, constituted and reproduced by the material practices of everyday life. This level of material practice is, in the sense elaborated by Althusser, ideological, meaning not 'informed or constrained by erroneous thinking', but comprising of varying institutional structures or practical regularities, which furthermore are generated, disseminated, ideologically reproduced and to some degree policed by what Althusser calls 'apparatuses'. Foucault will also refer to apparatuses (dispositifs) when he maintains, like Althusser, that a certain subjectivity is produced by a particular kind of apparatus. The point to stress here, in both Foucault and Althusser, is the relative autonomy, even the historical contingency, of institutional structures. Far from being entirely determined by an economic base, the everyday Uberbau is a place of contestation, the site of ideological struggle and social antagonism, not merely its reflection or expression.

Marx was not the economic determinist some might portray him as, nor are most Marxists. The direction of causality is certainly not fixed by the metaphor of a building supported by its foundation; Marx is no more saying that economics 'causes' the culture of society, any more than a foundation 'causes' the shape of a house. Nor is he restricted to the argument that the metaphor might itself suggest as its meaningful limit, in which the form of a foundation conditions the kind of building it can support in a unilateral manner. Indeed Marx himself has furnished us with examples of how political acts occurring at the level of the Uberbau may impact and affect the development of productive forces at the level of the Grundlage (economic base) [Singer, P., 1980, p.56]. Were Marx a thoroughgoing economic determinist, this would not be possible within the confines of his work.

It is true that Marx does at times adhere to a teleological model of history in which a sense of purposiveness remains and sometimes speaks of the Uberbau as expressing 'the unconscious' of history. However, to subsume all moments of Marx within a kind of over-arching economic eliminativism (in which nothing happens but for ultimately economic reasons) is a misunderstanding. It could even be said to be an anachronism borne of current neoliberalism's own disavowals. Indeed, it is only within the last few years that a minister of education could write in a white paper that the purpose of higher education is ultimately to 'generate value' and is to be set in view most aptly in terms of such an investment. It is interesting that the more a purportedly 'Marxist' economic determinism is fervently rejected on a cultural level, the more it is embraced – in inverted, reactionary forms such as 'austerity'– as actual policy at the level of governance; in this way a generalised criticism of a deterministic Marx seems to mask the very deployment of a reactionary economic determinism. Do government departments such as the 'nudge unit', which attempts to remould subjectivities and society in general by attempting to push people's economic behaviour in certain directions, not bespeak a deterministic outlook, do they not presuppose a certain commitment to the direction in which an economy ought to be going? Is it not teleological, if not outright anthropomorphic, today, to allow financial markets to 'decide' best policy (right up until the point when bankrupting all major financial institutions in the western hemisphere is no longer justifiable as 'best' practice, and politicians must decide that things simply ought to be going differently)? Would this moralised economic teleology be any more acceptable, any less 'religious', than orthodox Marxism, on Hatt and Klonk's account?

It is inaccurate to reduce orthodox Marxism to economic reductionism in the way that Hatt and Klonk seem to want to; their argument that, were ideology autonomous and therefore economic determinism inarguably disproved, would not in the least entail a refutation of Marxism. Rather it only entails the refutation of a supposed Marxism that was contained entirely within economic determinism, which is something that would remain to be shown.

Understood in this way, it is possible to argue that Hatt and Klonk's understanding of the base/superstructure model of earlier Marxist art historians may either comprise of genuine criticism aimed at a vulgar, although perhaps widespread, mistranslation of Marx which those art historians adhered to, or consist of a 'straw man' argument in which a crude understanding of traditional Marxism has been retro-fitted onto those art historians by Hatt and Klonk. Either way, the base/superstructure model of a society determined by an economic base, which seems to dog Marxism more from non-Marxist critics who do not read Marx in the original and receive their understanding third-hand, than from Marxists who translate the original for themselves, must be at all cost jettisoned. That Hatt and Klonk read this as actually jettisoning Marxism itself only compounds errors made along the way.

Overcoding and Iconology in Transcultural Contexts

Some comparison between the semiotic notions of coding, overcoding, and undercoding (Eco, U., 1976/1979, A Theory of Semiotics) and Erwin Panofsky's phases of iconological insight (Panofsky, E., 1939, Studies in Iconology) seems possible. In particular, the two movements accomplished in Umberto Eco's given coding-overcoding sequence (p.134) would seem to correspond to the first two stages, i.e. the pre-iconographic and iconographic phases, in Panofsky's three staged iconology. In the first stage we have a purportedly 'innocent eye' that merely inventories the more conventional signs ('here is a woman bearing a pair of eyes in a golden saucer'), and then at some indeterminate point, the possession of iconographical knowledge (one could also say 'cultural knowledge' or 'cultural familiarity') would determine the onset of a second stage. In that second stage the rules of the first code still operate to identify the elements, but become the basis of a further rule that determines their applicability, in effect telling us how to apply them ('here is a conventional image of St. Lucy'). In some respects one may even say that the meta-rules or overcodings provided in the iconographic phase serve to suspend the usual operation of the first, 'innocent-eyed' layer of codings.

If we read Panofsky alongside Eco, we can say that according to Eco's definition of overcoding:

While iconology recognises a specific arrangement or organisation of items to refer to a particular icon or theme, it is only through the 'innocent-eye' coding of these individual elements or items that they first become recognisable. Iconology thus practices an overcoding on the basis of this coding, a further rule to its rules; first it recognises (de/codes) the items but then, on top of that, it recognises (de/codes) their specific arrangement, their co-occurrence or constellation, as having further specificity on the plane of cultural meaning.

Thus, in the case of the image of a woman carrying her eyes in a saucer, which Eco gives (and here is an example) the first level of coding is composed of the conventional elements {woman, saucer, eyes, carrying}, but a further recognition of a more specific, rarer coding or convention is needed in order to see that, in the arrangement of these elements in the context of a certain kind of image within a certain cultural history, we find ourselves before a very specific though conventional figure or symbolic representation of St. Lucy. Suddenly, the woman is no longer a woman, the eyes are no longer (just) eyes. Through the constellation with the eyes she holds and the golden saucer that bears them, against a background of cultural knowledge, a further, symbolic figure appears. If not exactly nullifying the conventional coding on which it was initially dependent, this new image certainly pushes it to the back burner. This is so because a new and different register or context has opened — the iconological — and the 'innocent' register, a necessary step but lacking overcoding, has been superseded. At least, this would be the standard reading of the iconological hermeneutic translated into Eco's semiotic terms.


However, as with the standard criticism of Panofsky's stages — the 'innocent eye' is retroactively constructed as a virtual position we were never really in (i.e. free of cultural associations) — it is also possible to hold a critique of Eco's overcoding. Are we not always already looking for a referential context when we first approach an image, approaching its elements only as features within a synoptic whole, rather than already having broken it down into recognisable atoms of reference to be reassembled? It can be argued that on first approach there is not an empirical stock-taking of discrete elements, but that the initial approach beholds first their ensemble.

In other words, on the first approach we are already operating in the realm of overcoding, rather than coding. This is perhaps tantamount to stating that we are already acculturated, socialised, and thus iconologically operative, when we first encounter the image. If so, then is this encounter nothing other than the site where cultural differences, rather than monocultural confirmations of 'competence', might appear?

The problem with the transcultural (or multicultural) audience regarding the monocultural icon is that according to Eco such an audience 'undercodes', that is to say, 'in the absence of reliable pre-established rules' (p.135), such an audience guesses at a general cultural meaning, constructing a 'rough' coding. Thus according to Eco, 'images produced by an alien civilization… are understood by way of undercoding' (p.136). Clearly this statement is insufficient when read in the light of an always-acculturated audience, which is to say, an audience for which 'reliable pre-established rules' always exist: it is not that these rules of decoding are unreliable, nor under-established; it is simply that they are culturally different to those of the artist and of his or her attendant iconologists of the same culture. The criterion of 'reliability' in determining the subject of an image would then come down to this rather dismal question: as a foreigner, are you culturally competent enough to understand what the artist is representing? Here it is appropriate to ask why this sharing of cultural context with a posited presence or intention is considered the 'reliable' overcoding, whereas an equally acculturated audience from a different ethnic or social background, bringing a variant overcoding, is not reliable. Why are these other kinds of overcoding to be regarded as deficient, as 'undercodings'? Clearly one reason is that they would not necessarily fall into line with, i.e. reproduce, the existing discourses of existing powers. And here we are mired with the problem of a monoculturally-embedded authorial intentionality, which only a panel of cultural hierophants are sufficiently equipped to divine for an 'ignorant' laity. This audience, it would seem, remains constitutionally uninformed by its divergent cultures, and can only graduate from its alien undercoding to 'proper' overcoding by a passive process of learning from those experts who write the official cultural history, and produce the proper knowledge. Certainly there are problems of cultural imperialism here.

I thus propose to replace Eco's problematic conception of undercoding — specifically in this transcultural instance — with what we might choose to name contestant overcoding. And in principle, all overcoding — including those instances in which the authors of artworks themselves accompany their work with cultural explanations — can be shown to be contestant overcoding.

In this way it would be possible to bring together a conception of contestant overcoding with that of hegemony (in the case of Gramsci) and of enchainment (in the case of Laclau) to provide a theory of meaning in which differences of interpretation can co-exist, if often antagonistically.

Objectivity versus Disguising the Neoliberal Subject as A-subjective Expert

These days I'm more and more frequently finding important political insights in the most unusual of places.

In 'A Very Short Introduction to Objectivity' [1] Stephen Gaukroger rightly draws an important distinction between 'objectivity' in a scientific sense and its pseudo-scientific use to indicate an attempted process of desubjectification in the human sciences and in political, ethical and aesthetic domains.

Neoliberalism, at least in its theoretical sense, proposes such a desubjectification process in the field of economics: to remove the human subject who decides policy, in fact the very dependency on human judgement itself, from the economy, thus linking the shaping of policy directly to the functioning of markets (called, misleadingly 'consumer choice', as if it were simply a matter of the spontaneous freedom of a neutral ahistorical mass). Such a proposition capitalises highly on the pseudo-scientific usage of 'objectivity' — and its conflation in the popular imagination with scientific objectivity — as pointed to by Professor Gaukroger.

The values that have come to be associated with objectivity, such as impartiality and lack of bias, have not only been seen as guiding scientific enquiry, but have been extrapolated into the social and political realms, underpinning notions of fairness and equality. […] Here we face a important problem in our own culture's aspirations to objectivity. Its pre-eminence as a goal has resulted in other values masquerading as it, despite their having no relation to it and, in fact, serving to usurp genuinely objective judgements. What is often referred to as 'number-crunching' – the reduction of decision-making to quantification and measurement, and the exclusion of anything that cannot be treated in these terms – is a prime culprit here. Appeals to objectivity have been used to vindicate a culture of management in which targets are set so that standardized results can be generated, statistically analysed, and compared. Such practices are not necessarily subjected either to reasoned judgement or to the empirical evaluation of particular cases but typically bypass any form of independent or object reasoning at all. The idea that decision-making can be mechanized trades on a fundamental misunderstanding of objectivity, namely that it consists in removing, as far as possible, all elements of judgement from the interpretation of data. This supposedly eliminates individual prejudices and biases from interpretation and decision-making, offering something untouched by human brains, as it were. This is a widespread misunderstanding and a dangerous one. A recent example is the rejection, in government circles, of thinking about what universities should be teaching in favour of a model of consumer (student) choice. Competition theory suggests that consumer demand will produce judgement-free results, without reflection on the aims of pedagogy and education in our culture, and their role in fostering the values of our civilization. A methodology that bypasses the assumptions, values, and beliefs that inevitably accompany the exercise of judgement thereby makes claims to neutrality and objectivity. Standardized decision-making procedures stand in for reflection on the nature of the problem for which the decision is sought in the first place. Wholly misconstruing the nature of objectivity, they employ pseudo-scientific means of bypassing understanding and evaluation in favour of something that is deemed to transcend bias and prejudgement.

Of course this conflation at the heart of neoliberalism leads to glaring contradictions, as when MP Nicky Morgan argues the case for the forced transformation of all state schools into business-led academies with the line that 'being a parent is not enough to be a school governor'. According to Morgan, one must be a business-minded individual in order to be able to grasp the good. This clearly departs from the theoretical idea of neoliberalism as a process of removing human political subjectivity from the process of shaping human culture and instead centralising supposedly neutral (or at least 'natural') markets. On the contrary this centralises a certain culture of businesslikeness — or in other words, actual concrete businesses represented by individual business-leaders. In this respect neoliberalism, in the actually-existing formation we are presented with today, should not be looked at purely as the attempted market-mechanisation of government, but rather as the attempted installation of a particular, political subjectivity, the subject of business, as the central co-ordinating power in government. Thus neoliberalism in its practical manifestation never eliminates the human from the process of government (as in the wet dreams of libertarian free market fundamentalists and certain, misanthropic, political posthumanists) but rather achieves the installation of particular humans — business-leaders, with the corresponding subjectivity — in that role. It is in no way the elimination of bias, and indeed it is the entrenchment of bias towards the political outcomes of the business-centred right wing of politics.

The elimination of human judgement, of the political subject, and its replacement with systems drawing their data from markets is in any case utterly disastrous. Look at what happened with Microsoft's recent attempt at AI, quickly withdrawn from public view. The idea that an openly scouting bot perusing the 'market of ideas' and conversations of the internet would somehow arrive at a representative view of humanity, rather than rapidly devolving into a holocaust-denying, genocidal anti-semite does not take into account the always-already-biased nature of markets, the way they are not simply snapshots of reality but artificially constituted by synthetic scarcification and allocation of resources, etc. As such the political human subject turns up there in a distorted, inverted or fascistic form, wreathed in all the ideology that drives a purely marketised semblance of co-existence.

The same mistake is made: the naiveté which simplistically holds that markets within a capitalistic frame are capable of mediating, expressing or reflecting human desire; that a market which sells as many doses of poison as it does apples obviously indicates a human 'preference' for murder; that, while 'the demand' is there for them, we should produce AK-47s for export. That this is what we want, the market said so. This is not data, gathered as given — nor is this merely pricing signals — it is the message of the medium itself, commenting on its own process of social reproduction, its own ideological grounding. So between neoliberalism as the centralisation of markets in decision-making in an imposture of a desubjectified mechanised democracy (of sellers and buyers), and neoliberalism as the in-actual-fact assault upon democracy (of political human subjects), there lies nothing but an unpitying violence. Even if it worked, it wouldn't.


[1] Gaukroger, S. (2012) A Very Short Introduction to Objectivity, Oxford University Press, pp.2-3

Why your intellectuals are not my intellectuals

I'm rarely in favour of clinical pathologisation, but insistent nostalgia and an unusual attachment to the fantasy of British Values might well be considered an illness, particularly prevalent amongst the privately educated group of people who become politicians. One can palpably trace the line of affective, deeply melancholic loss suffered in adulthood to the division and pressure of education severed completely from any socially nurturing principle, itself rooted in the model of a deeply patriarchal schism in the familial household. It is clear that the symptom becomes the fetish that sustains the fantasy of what was 'lost': one must perform the loss in order to enjoy what is missing in it, subtract any kind of potential for human advancement from the social domain, isolate and privatise it, or else the faceless rabble will prevent you from enjoying the tender, lonely ache of your own 'social' calling. Such seems to be the formation of a British conservative subject position.

If it stopped there, however, it would be easy to point to in the form of particular or individual subjectivities. Rather, it pervades society as ideology. It soaks into all social layers. Nostalgia particularly afflicts the poor, where it finds populist right-wing support (not least from mass media) in the form of patriotism, xenophobia, racism and all forms of bigotry. It distorts and warps what influence the left has had, leading to mangling of theoretical categories in the production of inconsistent and wholly meaningless monsters such as 'the white working class' as brandished by salivating 'kippers. Again, this is fairly easy to identify; but what about the way the nostalgia of political conservatism affects the more widely educated?

Here, the late Ellen Meiksins Wood's concept of 'the abuse of civil society' has a poignant aptness to contemporary Britain, as presented by Jacobin magazines' The Retreat of the Intellectuals. In this piece, Wood outlined the way in which civil society as a concept once amenable to the left came to fog relations of exploitation and class. Today we see the fallout in the way that humanitarianism, and not socialism, is the dominant signifier of social good. Through this shift it is possible to argue that, for instance, celebrity-driven media 'campaigns' are more progressive than political demonstrations on the street — a position it is only possible to take if class antagonism has been completely obscured. It is also obviates the need for organic intellectualism, requiring only that a celebrity have a media-savvy agent capable of projecting a differently nuanced branding. It does not proceed in anything like a bottom-up fashion but instead commands and directs support. A celebrity that appears in a staged and produced sound-bite advocating social justice may reach more people and penetrate many social layers, but it does not do so from within the social composition itself. The principle of democratic self-government which is supposed to underpin civil society is not supposed to mean waiting for inspiring celebrity videos to rouse a flurry of petitions on a disconnected issue-by-issue basis with no articulation of class; the mobilising force cannot be other than the self-determination of class itself. Otherwise, as Wood puts it, we are left with a 'mockery' of civil society and the idea of democracy. Indeed, what we are left with is the neoliberal appropriation of the military concept of the 'campaign' — as a means to create, identify and expand markets. It is not with each other that these markets are at war, they merely 'compete' — a wholly unanimous affair; the undisclosed military element behind any media or ad campaign is ultimately at war with human desire, and its possibilities for social self-determination in other, non-capitalistic, forms of social co-operation.

It's rather unfortunate that we prefer celebrities to intellectuals. Even our 'public intellectuals' are far more akin to (if not actually) celebrities than sites of expression for organic, social intelligence. That is to say, it isn't unfortunate in a haphazard way, as if it were an unlucky accident. Indeed it's entirely the kind of product that neoliberalism intends. It's unfortunate that this is what our current social situation produces under the name of intellectual. It's very difficult to look at Richard Dawkins or Stephen Fry, for example, and see something like an organic, social intellect coming to expression through them. It doesn't. What comes to light is merely the self-assurance of an expert, a repository of sanctioned lore, at best perhaps a technician or curator. That's what neoliberalism requires and produces, not intellectuals.

I don't know if this is a particularly British problem, but it is reflected even within the university, and particularly in the still-lingering emphasis on Fregean, Popperian and Carnapian argumentation prominent in philosophy departments, and the almost universal shunning of continental philosophy. It is likely that sentimentality, traditionalism and nostalgia drives this emphasis in a largely unexplored and unacknowledged way. In particular, the British Humanist Society and the general institutionalism of the Royal Society enjoy a strong influence that goes by without criticism. These and other historical biases pervade the notion of the intellect that the public of the UK inherit today, so that, for example, the 'clever' commenter in a string of replies on a discussion of ideology is still regarded as the one that points out the role of conflicting religious views in the history of war — and not the one that points out the social stratifications on which these conflicts are parasitic. Indeed the regard for intelligence seems to begin and end (all too abruptly, and without further historical elaboration) with the enlightenment critique of religion. In popular articulations, an intelligent critique of capitalism is wholly lacking. This is ridiculous, because much of the critical acumen and precision of thought that is exercised in the former could be applied — and in a sense is even more applicable, relevant, and appropriate — in the latter. It's always bothered me that humanistic 'public intellectuals' — who appear never to have advanced further than the enlightenment critique of religion in their philosophical education — who would vomit at the idea of surrendering human self-determination to a deity in the sky will nonetheless roll over in the most supine acquiescence before a neoliberal agenda, that is, to the utter subordination of human education — surely the acme of all endeavour — to the rule of financialised markets. It's bothering because these people are supposed to be intelligent, yet can't see the contradictions in the way they have made their own position one of irrelevance, of always fighting a past already overcome. It's as if they stopped reading anything published beyond the mid nineteenth century, perhaps apart from the odd 20th century retrospective.

So today, as a government which basically tells seven million students 'fuck off, you're too poor to deserve state-funded education' handwaves their protest, financiers rub their hands in glee at another social group they can capture and thus socially direct, and the BBC signally fails to care, we should read our situation as one that is so pathologically mired in British nostalgia for the good old days that it cannot recall that intellectualism means thinking socially forward, not backward.

Is Capitalism a Hyperobject?

The problem of the finite human mind attempting to grasp the Absolute is an old problem that was recognised – in Frühromantik, for example – as an antinomy, being on the one hand a logical impossibility and on the other, an ethical necessity (or at least, imperative). Friedrich Schlegel’s ‘romantic’ response to this deadlock was philosophical irony, a sensibility I will write about on some other occasion.

Today something of the structure of this problem persists, in a rather more materialist register, in the attempt to cognitively map the known. I was about to write ‘the known universe’ but this suggests a determinate unity that, in the fallacious sense, begs the question of whether such a map is possible in its singularity. We cannot solve a problem by merely approaching it as a thing already solved. Problems – that is, theoretical tensions – are not resolved merely by regarding them as such. In this sense it might be worthwhile jettisoning the idea of a universe, in the sense of a continuous extension in which everything from the Planck length to the ’size of the known universe’ is included, especially if all things within this extension are considered to be in some sense explanatory (both of each other and of the whole) in some causal way. The existence of vacuum energy or superclusters can no more ‘explain’ biscuits or tennis than a mute gingernut or tennis ball can. Even rejecting a purported ‘theory of everything’ one has still has to face the fact that we have not mapped out the human world – the tiniest fragment of the smallest crumb it seems – and what we know about it. Life and living systems are complex; human life is no exception. The enormity of the ecosystem, or even just the human impact upon it, seems beyond our ability to represent it. At an even more immediate level, we have no cognitive map of capitalist economy, which we are intimately embedded in. Compared to this, the intricacies of the human genome are a breeze to decipher. Indeed it will probably turn out to be much easier and simpler to map the empirical data of all scientifically observable domains than it will to map out any single sphere of human relations involving a non-positivist or symbolic register. Consequently, such unmapped complex vastitudes have earned the name of hyperobjects. With hyperobjects of the type ‘global capitalism’, ‘the anthropocene’, ‘the economy’ or even just ‘neoliberalism’ we are returned to antinomy-like situations similar to those that the romantics faced: while direct or immediate comprehension of a hyperobject is beyond our capability it is at the same time demanded of us to recognise its circumscribing reality, and it thus becomes a matter of ethical duty to somehow locate ourselves within it and in relationship to it. The production of theory becomes morally imperative if we are not to acquiesce to the vicissitudes of an animalistic nihilism in which one class of people get to play zookeeper.

The Modal Collapse of Neoliberalism: when anything less than an optimal return is somehow insufficient

By now we are all familiar, or should be, with neoliberalism. We know it is essentially a form of capitalism in which certain parts of the state are privatised, either overtly or in effect; in which the role of social development is given over to business leaders and private investment, and key state services are increasingly both managed, and delivered through the private sector, whose gladiators are supposed to be constantly in combat for the prize of a contract. We also have become familiar with the often euphemistic business language which describes certain features of the neoliberal apparatus, particularly the ideological image of its public-facing front-end: 'just-in-time' stocking, 'service-oriented' architecture, 'minimal infrastructure'. Given such imagery, one would imagine a highly efficient, waste-minimising system 'revolutionising' and supplanting the supposedly wasteful, costly, bureaucratic and inefficient redundancies of the Keynesian economy and its old industrial-based Fordist methodologies. Familiar too are the political incentives offered up as evidence of neoliberalism's social value: primarily public 'choice', a way of making the injection of competitivity at all levels of state business–via triage of multiple competing providers–appear as a provision rooted in concern for the individual consumer and her freedom. Wrapped up in the philosophical doctrines of preferentism and the economics of public choice theory, neoliberalism's actual motivation of centralising markets in the role of social governance cannot but appeal to a society in which the fetishisation of commodity has irrevocably obscured anything like a production process or the value of social labour.

The ideological components of neoliberalism are by now diffuse and widespread throughout our lives. My son's high school sends me emails addressing me as a 'customer' rather than as the parent or guardian of a pupil; likewise, social housing projects no longer speak to residents but to 'service users', or, once again, 'customers'. While custodianship of human social relations falls by the wayside, there is a general increase in guides, custodians and curatorships of products, with 'experts' available on every webpage to instruct the feckless masses in how to spend their wages.These trends act as 'signs of the times', illuminating a much wider context than education, housing and retail, in the generalisation of the human subject as the privileged holder of a customer number. Neoliberalism means monetisation, marketisation, and somewhere in that process no doubt, financialisation. While all true, this is a tired analysis that has been repeated often enough for theorists to now be scrabbling over novel and inventive ways to best characterise late capitalism, as if it were a competition for the most apt observational comedy routine.

My own contribution to this growing library of descriptive identification is very small to date, and has consisted mostly of quoting others who do it much better. I'm not, as a rule, very quick off the mark when it comes to identifying practices and trends, and tend to let fly with a keyboard at around the same time as Minerva's owl is returning home, breakfast safely tucked in beak. A thought has occurred to me recently however, and it concerns not so much the actually-existing state of neoliberalism (as a variety of capitalist economics) but rather more reflexively, neoliberalism's own ideological expectations of itself. I would wager that many of those caught up in neoliberalism's expectations, either in frantically trying to fulfil them, or in the pervasive transmission and reproduction of them, are by now so deeply immersed and enmeshed in their doctrine as to no longer be capable of the same sorts of judgement that were possible forty or fifty years ago.Less cryptically, lets say that there has to come about a certain collapse of logical modal categories in order for neoliberal ideology to function smoothly. In particular, neoliberalism's demand for the 'optimisation' of efficiency and the 'excellence' of resultant delivery must play havoc with the very basic ontological operator of sufficiency. In modal terms the sufficient is the just adequate, the 'barely' sufficient or satisfactory in order for a certain ontological consistency to continue or reproduce itself. My point is that if the optimal functioning of a system is demanded by neoliberalism as the normal level of its sufficiency, then the actually sufficient becomes indistinguishable from the insufficient, or the deficient. What this somewhat abstract shift and consequent indiscernibility of modal categories under neoliberalism excavates clearly is a situation under which objective evaluation through the mediation of clearly separated classical ontological categories must fail: we are left with a metric in which sufficiency is meaningless because the ideological figure of optimisation has supplanted it, rendering the rest a grey zone in which sufficiency and insufficiency are indiscernible.

In a certain sense, this was always obvious of capitalist growth-centred expansionist economics, and neoliberalism merely names the age which, to date, most visibly illuminates or demonstrates this truth. Capitalism can only survive if it can produce markets for itself, which means it must appropriate everything, even its own putative social goals (such as optimisation) as a means to surplus and self-reproduction. If that involves destroying the very intelligibility of those goals, i.e. their goal-like nature, in taking them on as basic assumptions of the system, then so be it. Logical modality is no obstacle for the juggernaut. Capitalism was never driven by the achievement of the satisfactory, by the production and the distribution of the sufficient, but by the principle of satisfaction, which is to say surplus satisfaction, the private profit of a class. I would bet that the more closely neoliberalism is analysed, the less of a new phenomenon it will appear; for all the talk of cognitive capital, precariat and new forms of exploitation, the fundamental categories of Marxist analysis seem to always re-emerge as the most adequate ways to discuss and critique it.

The Undone Button

The visibility of the ideological state apparatus does not remain constant but ebbs and flows. Its visibility is particularly heightened, argues Richard Seymour, when something challenges it.

In this case, the rise to political prominence of a socialist candidate, to the extent that the leadership of Labour is once again aligned with its founding mission, and firmly opposed to austerity, poses a threat to that hegemony over discourse in which the economic policies of George Osborne and the Conservatives can no longer be considered as unmarked. By 'unmarked' — a term from semiotics — we designate the term within a paradigm which dominates the alternatives, by appearing in the form of consensus, the norm, the 'common sense' or 'realistic' option. It forms, as it were, the 'generic' choice just as 'man' can be used as the generic noun despite its place in a paradigm in which exist other possibilities for the generic noun — possibilities which then become 'marked' by a series of differentiations from 'man'. To a large extent, the triumph of neoliberalism over the past 30-40 yrs lay in the way it neutralised (and normalised) the right wing economics of a particular school to the extent that they assumed an unmarked position. We see the legacy of this process (which correlated perfectly with the Blairite practice of political triangulation) today in the way that written articles across the media persistently premodify Jeremy Corbyn as 'left wing', but leave David Cameron unmarked. What a groundswell of support for Corbyn has achieved, however, is to question the assumption that this way of setting the political field in view (a 'way of seeing' entrenched by neoliberalism) is a true reflection of the actual state of affairs in absolute political terms. In other words, the shift in support evidenced by the election of Corbyn to Labour Leader opposes and to some extent brandishes the power to shatter the ideological illusions (and practices, ways of seeing and of speaking) of neoliberalism.

Articulated with this opposition to neoliberal hegemony is the appearance of a faultline within the assumed consensus of neoliberalism itself; we now witness the appearance of several articles issuing from voices within establishment economics demanding it be recognised that there is nothing particularly radical about Corbyn's proposed policies. In other words, hegemony can take the form of a battle over what is and what is not to be considered 'mainstream', and it is slowly becoming recognised that the relatively mild social democratic reforms that constitute Jeremy Corbyn's economic proposals are far from outlandish but form the very bedrock of the Labour Party raison d'être. While 'New Labour' gets stuck in a delicious trap of its own making, unable to do anything but fall back to its Thatcherite 'no alternative' line (against the evidence of the IMF itself), and looking increasingly irrelevent, the Conservative party no longer appear as if they can so commandingly occupy, or have exclusive rights to, the full field of economic possibilities or even the most realistic, normal position. This change, which we would not be amiss in calling the 're-politicisation of the appearance of politics', is what the old order, the neoliberal consensus, cannot tolerate, and which so provokes it. The expositive, revealing experience of suddenly seeing the reigning economic model politically situated once again is akin to it being divested of 'security', of it being 'exposed' to inspection and scrutiny, and criticism. No wonder then that such a challenge provokes a response smacking of the return of repressed : panicky, hot-tempered, moralising, somewhat delusional, and very much ridiculous.

Another symptomal artefact of the response to challenged neoliberal hegemony must surely be the increased obsession with the minutiae of ritual, the performance of practices of respect, from dress code to singing of anthems. Predictably, such a pathological response attracted notice:

Millions have their #TaxCredits slashed. Media thinks Corbyn not singing the national anthem is more important.

— Welfare Weekly (@Welfare_Weekly) September 15, 2015

Media round-up: Corbyn silent during national anthem – it's an outrage! 3m poorest families to lose £1k a year in tax credits – all's good.

— David Schneider (@davidschneider) September 15, 2015

Perhaps the most telling response belonged to those who focused the entire array of their fault-finding acumen on the way Jeremy apparently left his topmost shirt button undone. It were as if the future were staked on a unique point, a master signifier or quilting point (point de capiton) that held the symbolic world together, in the form of Jeremy Corbyn's top shirt button.

The quilting point is that which is grasped for feverishly by neurotics, particularly those in fear of entering a psychosis. In a panic there is a desperate attempt to prevent the sliding and slippage of signification by the demand that things ought to be 'the way they ought to be' — in other words, a futile grappling for a foundational moment that will serve to cover over the circularity and lack within language (i.e. within the Other). An anxious rush of prescriptive demands quickly ensue in an attempt to sew the symbolic order back onto a stable signifier.


Of course it is not the empirical button itself that counts here; Tony Blair has appeared numerous times in shirts worn more casually than this, and indeed for a time the purposeful adoption of a casual style became a common part of the neoliberal managerial 'skill set', along with bosses who would pretend to be your friend and lend a sympathetic ear (while firmly opposing your membership of an established union). What mattered was the symbolic context, the intolerable eruption of popular support for Corbyn against the contingent background of dutiful grovelling to establishment rituals at the Battle of Britain ceremonials, bringing to a head an absolute clash of discourse.


I remember the 1980s vividly, particularly the culture. During that time, swathes of the British population tried to present themselves as intensely self-interested. People went out of their way to convince you not only of how selfish they were, but of how selfish was the human being as such.

If you think about that you will see the ridiculous performative contradiction at the heart of any such enterprise: it is the very effort to expose to social view how normal selfishness is that destroys its very mundanity, its very normality. If it were simply a natural human constant, why would selfishness need to be performed and re-performed, and to have this re-iteration exposited and exhibited, almost as if didactically? Here one witnesses not self-interest as normality, as part of a securely 'natural' background condition, but as the foregrounded excess of a strenuous (even anxious) attempt to normalise it. Every attempt to show or reveal self-interest as timeless human nature begins with (and ends with) the excess of a performance staged within a historical culture.

This is why the cynical critique of 'consumerist' society, alleging individuals simply too self-interested to participate in collective projects, is very far from deserving the name of realism. Indeed this kind of cynicism, far from accurately tracking some kind of general truth, is an ideology springing ultimately from the philosophical anthropologies embedded in a historically specific series of liberal economic theories.

As Above, So Below

It's interesting that the Labour Party line at present is essentially Thatcherite anti-democracy: even if the people want anti-austerity, it cannot be offered to them; there is no alternative. This effectively positions the Labour party (insofar as it is strangulated by New Labour elements and the catachrestically named 'Progress' think-tank) to the right of even the IMF.

What a complete disgrace: a party that argues away its own oppositional power with the claim that the policies of their supposed enemy, the economics of Cameron and Osborne, are insuperable. Such a stance would be unsupportable against popular dissent; if it could be demonstrated that the will of the people had no democratic representation, that there was a terrible 'democratic deficit' at work, then that would amount to an admission that parliamentary politics is deeply broken. That would be a problem for the Labour Party. It would, in effect, deligitimate parliamentary politics, and thus the LP itself.

Enter Cruddas' dubious research company intending to show that people don't want anti-austerity. Showing us that 'black is white because it said so in the paper' is not an absurdity but the way things work. Manufacturing consent. Flexing the muscles of 'Rovean realism', proving that consensus reality can be constituted only from above. Telling us what the symbolic Other believes is precisely the way to tell us that our principles and desire don't matter; that we are only isolated individuals and can never amount to a consensus. 'Public opinion' as the construct of such research companies is a missile in the hands of political rhetoricians and orators, aimed at an audience keen to know what 'everyone else' thinks. This missile's payload will be policies no-one in particular has mandated, but which a mass dissemination of everyone else's opinion apparently has.

Let us recall that the big Other does not exist. There is no consensus, only dissensus. The Lie nonetheless functions, as it always does; the power of the Big Other resides precisely in its inexistence — its power or efficacy being both performative and relatively autonomous. A battle in that field — the murky field of the 'effectively true' — is always taking place, and we are at present losing quite utterly. The connection to a 'real movement that abolishes' stuff is lacking on the side of representation, just as whatever real movements exist lack representation. We have abandoned a Labour Party and an electoral politics that has abandoned us. Corbyn's fight inside the LP mirrors our own political struggles and may even stir them somewhat, but it doesn't quite touch them.