Lies, Lawlessness and Disbelief 1. Thinking Art and Capital: Conceptual Capitalism and Risk Management, is the first of five essays by Canadian artist & critical thinker, Katie McCain. McCain discusses how capitalism has become on the one hand all encompassing and on the other utterly unreal. Arguing that we need to be prepared to think the impossible so that resistance is able to grow.
An Attempt at Thinking Art and Capital: Conceptual Capitalism and Risk Management
this sentence is a lie
Capitalism is no longer the simple fordist system of production and consumption. It has, in its post-fordist lifetime become a more and more complex and intangible form. Today, it is a conceptual capitalism that has become unmoored, free floating, and all encompassing. As it continues, capital has the amazing ability to subsume everything it encounters, including criticism and resistance. This proliferation seems to leave little room to resist – there is no longer a way to step outside and critique, since the death/failure of really existing socialism, but this means only that critique must come from within, which is no small feat. It is a method riddled with paradox and self-defeat, but this perhaps reflects the nature of capital itself – as a system it offers up many moments of fissure or collapse that can be manipulated. The vastness of capitalism and the complexity of the bureaucracy necessary to hold together a system of “order” that directly contradicts chaos theory inevitably begins to circle and break down. It is these moments of circuity, of fissure, that this essay will focus on.
Contemporary capitalism is conceptual capitalism – it runs on the idea of money in the form of loans, mortgages, hedge funds, junk bonds; it is fictional money and a fictional market based on an elaborate system of risk management, which implies some intrinsic (but impossible) knowledge of the future. It also seems that this fictional market can be bolstered by belief alone. ‘The financial crisis of 2008 showed enormous sums of money spent not on a real, concrete problem, but rather to restore belief in the market. Capital, in all its intangible forms, is the Real of our lives’.
If what Žižek states is true, and capitalism can be equated with Lacanian theory of the Real, it again seems to close down access to it further still. It is opposed to reality, which encompasses the Imaginary and the Symbolic and it is located beyond them, out of reach, but exerting influence. It is undifferentiated, without fissure, always in its place. It is impossible to imagine, to verbalize, to integrate in the Symbolic order. But perhaps this impossibility is the moment, the fissure, which can bring about its demise.
The signification of the Real is attempted in the Symbolic order, but is impossible. The Symbolic structures everything, and through repetition is subject to the death drive. That is, in its constant return to enjoyment the Symbolic transcends beyond pleasure in search of death. This could be seen as some radical call to accelerationism, a desire to weaponize capitalism against itself, and in a way it is, but not in the apocalyptic sense that accelerationism implies, pushing it to its extreme. Rather, a radicalism could exist in simply exploiting these impossibilities, finding weak points in rationality, and the supposed rationality of capitalist systems, in its inherent bureaucracy.
This Symbolic capitalism is contingent in regards to the Real; it does not spring from it, but is created out of a desire to verbalize the impossible, to understand something that is impossible to understand, to socialize this intangible system. It could be said that it is impossible to speculate on the origins of the Symbolic once it is in place, generated as it is from a primal prohibition, a negation, le-nom-(non)-du-pere; once capitalism is in place, it becomes impossible to see an alternative to the universe it creates. This is mostly due to the all-encompassing nature of conceptual capitalism. Perhaps then, the ability to catch it in a paradox, in a state of bureaucratic failure, could open up a space to trip it up and think other and could offer a passage a l’acte.
other other other say it three times in the mirror
Employing the idea of a contingent conceptual capitalism, that is, one which is not necessary, which is indifferent to existence, one can argue that in fact it is very possible to think of the other to capitalism. It is logic and rationality that trips it up, that prevents any thought of the alternative, just as it is strictly impossible to think infinity, or an ancestral time prior to human existence. Science can prove facts about both ancestral time and descendant time (prior to and after the death of consciousness), but philosophy is paradoxically stuck with the idea of a relation to the world before or after the existence of thought. How can thought think the death of thought? According to Hakim Bey it is impossible to really conceive of death – it appears rather as ‘an unpleasant vagueness’ – the death considered is never actual death. Similarly, how can one think anti-capital from within conceptual capitalism? If it is permitted that both the universe and capitalism are contingent, and therefore completely indifferent to human existence and human thought, then the possibility for alternatives opens up.
A speculative and realistic approach to thinking capital can restore our ability to resist.
Once it is granted that the tension between equality and liberty cannot be reconciled and that there can only be contingent hegemonic forms of stabilization of their conflict, it becomes clear that, once the very idea of an alternative to the existing configuration of power disappears, what disappears also is the very possibility of a legitimate form of expression for the resistances against the dominant power relations.
If conceptual capitalism encompasses everything, there is less and less physical space for resistance, unless resistance moves into the conceptual realm as well. The idea, the imaginary, the psychical: these all offer a variety of forms of resistance to a boundless capital. For the concept, in its true dematerialized form, is capable of altering systems, of bolstering illogic, of predicting the future. It is the very boundaries of thought, beyond which lies psychosis (the lack of the Symbolic, or capital) that prove to be integral in terms of non-knowledge and the unknown, a knowledge of the unknown, or a thinking of the impossible. Perhaps lies, fiction and the radical un-real can be the site of production for a capitalist alternative.
Ideas are characterized as both distinct and obscure. They are distinct insofar as they are perfectly differentiated via the reciprocal determination of relations and the complete determination of points – but obscure because they are not yet differenciated – since all Ideas coexist with one another in a state of virtual perplication.
Ideas are simultaneously two things, distinct and obscure. Graham Harman introduces the idea as something not only possible, but actual insofar as an idea is thought as an image. This introduces all things possible to the realm of the actual, even if only in thought.
The contemporary mantra of risk management as a fundamental economic strategy is in itself paradoxical. If, in fact, a risk could be managed, then it would not really be considered a risk. This term depends on the belief in an organized system of capitalism that extends both directions through time – the idea that it is a constant that can be depended upon, is predictable, forever. In fact, the amount of bureaucracy that goes into even the tiniest element of conceptual capitalism manifests itself through many circular moments, many points of fissure. In compatibility with Gödel’s Theorem of incompleteness, no system can be totally defined without incurring some kind of paradox. There will always be statements that are true, but that cannot be proved within the system. If the system is capable of proving certain basic facts, then one particular truth the system cannot prove is the consistency of the system itself.
Risk management is nothing more than a reaffirmation of our collective belief in the predictive qualities of financialization, our collective consent to the idea that an intangible, unmoored, all-encompassing economic system can be predicted. In fact, prediction alone is a falsity that humans fall prey to frequently; the notion of the future as anything other than a continuation of the past is a mental operation at which the mind continues to fail. When thinking of tomorrow, the mind just projects another yesterday. The future, or rather a human relation to the future, is deemed philosophically impossible. After all, how can consciousness think something devoid of consciousness?
It is impossible for thought to think an object or event in-itself – in this sense, thought can only experience a relation between the subject and the object-as-given. Lacan argues in his fifth discourse that we do not derive libidinal enjoyment from object relations, but rather it is capital’s link of subject-to-object that frustrates and isolates the subject. Capitalism is successful in the sense that it produces a continual desire, but no longer satisfies it, which for Lacan – and a world full of neurotics – falls in line with our drives.
Lacan also reorients Marx’s analysis of surplus value. An older, more tangible form of capitalism sold objects for more than it cost to make them. This ‘surplus value’ is what Marx stated that the capitalists stole from the proletariats – it was used by the capitalists for leisure or libidinal enjoyment. Now, capital demands this surplus value to be re-invested at the level of production to create an unrelenting, perpetual motion machine of production and consumption of money by a business in-itself. We are now, according to Lacan, all proletariats, subject to the will of capital that has taken over the role of master from the capitalists themselves.
The debt circulates on its own orbit, with its own trajectory made up of capital, which, from now on, is free of any economic contingency and moves about in a parallel universe (the acceleration of capital has exonerated money of its involvements with the everyday universe of production, value and utility). It is not even an orbital universe: it is rather ex-orbital, ex- centered, ex-centric, with only a very faint probability that, one day, it might rejoin ours.
This faint probability is the only thing tying us to capital.
Adorno, Theodor.W. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E.B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 2005. First Published 1966 by Suhrkamp Verlag.
Associated Press. “Romanian Witches Curse Latest Government Clampdown,” The Guardian, February 9, 2011, main section, 20.
Bartlett, Monica Y., Aida Cajdric, Nilanjana Dasgupta and David DeSteno, “Prejudice from Thin Air: The Effect of Emotion on Automatic Intergroup Attitudes.” Psychological Science 15, no. 5 (May, 2004): 319-324.
Baudrillard, Jean. Global Debt and Parallel Universe. Translated by Francois Debrix. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/jean-baudrillard/articles/global-debt-and-parallel-universe/ (accessed April 4, 2011).
Baudrillard, Jean. Radical Thought. Translated by Francois Debrix. Edited by Sens & Tonka. Paris: Collection Morsure, 1994.
Bey, Hakim. T.A.Z.: Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. New York: Autonomedia, 2003. First Published 1985.
Bradley, Will. “Guarana Power.” in Self-Organization/Counter-Economic-Strategies, edited by Bradley, Hannula, Ricupero and Superflex, 311 – 333. New York: Steinberg Press, 2006.
Brassier, Ray. “I Am a Nihilist because I Still Believe in Truth” Interview with Marcin Rychter. Kronos: March 4, 2011 http://kronos.org.pl/index.php?23151,896 – accessed: march 23rd, 2011.
Brassier, Ray. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, 2007.
Critical Art Ensemble. Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health. New York: Autonomedia, 2006.
Declercq, Frédéric. Lacan on the Capitalist Discourse: Its Consequences for Libidinal Enjoyment and Social Bonds. Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society 2006, 11, (74-83).
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books, 2009.
Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings: 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1966.
Groys, Boris “Art and Money,” E-Flux 24 (2011), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/226.
Harman, Graham. Circus Philosophicus. Winchester: Zero Books, 2010.
Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1979.
Holt, Jim. “The Way We Live Now: Against Happiness,” New York Times, June 20, 2004.
Horizon: What is Reality? Documentary. Directed by Helen Shariatmadari. BBC: ep. 9, 2011.
Huberman, Anthony, ed. For the Blind Man in the Dark Room Looking for the Black Cat that Isn’t There. St. Louis: Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 2009.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. London: Vintage Books, 2007. First published 1932 by Chatto & Windus.
Kafka, Franz. The Castle. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1964. First published 1926 by Das Schloss.
Kurant, Agnieszka and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “Unknown Unknowns: A Conversation between Agnieska Kurant & Nassim Nicholas Taleb about the Benefits of Uncertainty.” Frieze, September 2010, 127 -135.
Lacan, Jacques. “Seminar on the Purloined Letter.” Yale French Studies 48 (1972): 39-72.
Lacan, Jacques. The seminars of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Ed: Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1991.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. “Feminism, Marxism, Method and the State.” Chicago Journals 8, no. 4 (1983), 635-658.
Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. London: Continuum, 2008.
Mouffe, Chantal. The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso, 2000.
Noys, Ben. Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.
Place, Vanessa and Robert Fitterman. Notes on Conceptualisms. New York: The Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009.
Stephen, Kylie. “Sexualized Bodies.” in Real Bodies: A Sociological Introduction, edited by Evans and Lee, 29-45. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. 2002.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2007.
Thacker, Eugene. “Nihil Unbound” review of Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, by Ray Brassier, Leonardo 42: no.5, (2009): 459-460, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/leonardo/v042/42.5.thacker.html (Accessed April 2, 2011).
The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom? Documentary. Directed by Adam Curtis. BBC Two: March 2007.
Trotta, Roberto. “Dark Matter: Probing the Arche Fossil.” Interview with Robin Mackay. Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development 2 (2007): 83-169.
Vidal, John. “Bolivia Enshrines Natural World’s Rights with Equal Status for Mother Earth.” The Guardian. April 11, 2011. Main section, 15.
Weaver, Matthew. “Romanian Witches to Cast Anti-Government Spell.” The Guardian. January 7, 2011. Main section, 23.
Wilson, Eric G. Against Happiness. New York: Sarah Critchton Books, 2008.
Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. London: Verso, 2009.
Žižek , Slavoj. The Iraqi Borrowed Kettle. http://www.lacan.com/zizekkettle.htm (accessed April 4, 2011).
Žižek, Slavoj. What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know that He Knows About Abu Ghraib. (2004) http://www.lacan.com/zizekrumsfeld.htm (accessed April 4, 2011).