Dmitry Vilensky: The theme of our number is formulated in the style of “crude thought,” which often asks art or critical reflection a simple question: “What’s the use of what you do?” This question can, of course, provoke a quite negative reaction: it might be regarded as completely out of bounds, naive or just meaningless. If we take a closer look, however, we’ll find that it is both legitimate and essential. It is clear that when we analyze it, we arrive at the traditional problem of the difference between the exchange and use values of everything produced by human activity. Today, we can hardly take seriously the idea that art’s importance has to do with its anti-functionality, with its eluding attempts to instrumentalize it on the part of the culture industry or direct political action. The idea of the modernist object’s “silence” is merely reinforced by the astronomically high price it commands on the market. The idea that art should dissolve into life, that it should be totally abolished in favor of daily life’s most basic functions, can likewise hardly be taken seriously. Based on the opposition between “to have” and “to be,” this old rhetoric risks descending into pure moralizing. How can we today find a way to continue not only the project of Bildung—the process of individual development via aesthetic education (despite all the obvious sympathy for it)—but also find a new continuation for the project of art and thought as a “coming out under the open sky of the sense of solidarity” (Schiller)? From Schiller’s time on, the goal of art as aesthetic education was the harmonious development of the individual, the formation of a whole man capable of creativity. This concept, however, was oriented toward the individual bourgeois subject: in the final analysis, it leads to the formation of the egoistic individual. It is clear that a return to this concept today would be reactionary, which is exactly what the last Documenta proved.

At the same time, I think that there is a general consensus about Andre Gorz’s statement that today’s decisive battle is shaping up around the production of subjectivity. This statement brings us back to an important starting point for this number—the analysis of Soviet Productionism, which in the starkest form posed the question of a program of “life-construction.” As Boris Arvatov declared in his book Art and Production, “Art as an immediate and deliberately employed instrument of life-construction: such is the formula for the existence of proletarian art.”

Can we share these sentiments today? And where today can we find a way to continue the project of proletarian art? On the one hand, we are living during the prolonged transition to post-Fordism and knowledge capitalism. The farewell to the conveyor belt unties our hands—but where today is that factory the Productionists dreamed of? What once upon a time was a source of hope for progress and emancipation turned out, historically, to be a reactionary phenomenon that had to be overcome. The formation of “new social subjects,” whose analysis Italian operaismo undertook in the sixties, is the complete opposite of what the Productionists hoped for. The natural exodus of workers from the factory began, and along with it the “assembly line/collectivist” model of subject formation and the forms of its political organization also began to collapse. Where today can we find that factory, or those means of production, whose seizure would supply us with a maximally precise emancipatory impulse?

Today this factory is ubiquitous. The development of capitalism allows us to see the production of false subjectivity in the totality of capital’s practices, which are now realized everywhere: in the thick of daily life, in institutes of culture, in the very networks of social interaction. The factory is nowhere and everywhere. It is this understanding that opens up new zones of struggle, not simply for non-alienated labor and knowledge, but also for desubjectivation and the break with labor.

In this new situation, although I have a clear sense that many activists don’t understand this, I’m not afraid to say that, as never before, we need another kind of knowledge and art. We need it as we need clean air: we need it to produce “oxygen” in an atmosphere totally polluted by the byproducts of the “creative industries.” But what should this knowledge/art look like? Where is the place that it can be useful and meaningful?

Alexei Penzin: I have been interested in a similar set of questions lately—in regards to theory, or rather, philosophy. On the one hand, this is connected with the experience of interaction within our group and on our platform, where philosophers, artists, and activists sometimes find an almost elusive and hard-to-define but quite effective “working model.” On the other hand, these questions are provoked by the overall situation in contemporary cultural production. Here we see a kind of overproduction of theory, as well as the www of this theory as a decorative “appendix” to artistic and activist events (i.e., theoretical conferences as discursive platforms for all manner of biennials, major exhibitions, social forums, etc.)

We can observe numerous instances of the overproduction, commercialization, and “decorativeness” of theory—for example, quite scholarly but secondary texts chockablock with citations of the most “fashionable” names and texts, or all those thick but incomprehensible catalogues and “theoretical documents” published in connection with art projects. This is not even to mention the assembly line at work in theory’s standard zone of academia, where cognitive capitalism’s production of knowledge is carried out with the same competitive gusto and intensity as the production of irons, TV sets or weapons. All this is crowned by a system of intellectual “superstars,” who, even when they take quite radical, critical stances, are unable to resist their quite decorative function as thinkers and “keynote speakers” at an endless series of seminars and conferences.

So this is my question: what could be the real (not decorative) utility of theory and philosophy? This question really does appear naive. We will be told that theory explains to us what happens; it enables us to recognize our place in the configuration of political and social reality, to identify vectors of impact and struggle. But this obvious argument is situated on the level of the object, of the world that theory is meant to interpret. At the same time, it is not always clear how this works vis-à-vis the specific subjectivities that create the “demand” for theory. What is the use of theory and philosophy for you, Dima, or for me, for all those people who work as “professionals” in this field or who have a need for this knowledge in their work as activists or artists?

DV: In order to get at a preliminary answer to this question, I would note that we shouldn’t separate discourse (theory) from artistic practice and political innovation. My answer is simple: knowledge should be/is unified. Theory—the concept—is an organic element of art, and aesthetic experience is a necessary component of theoretical reflection. That is, inspiration doesn’t recognize the category of genre. A quotation, a painting or a song can inspire me. What matters is what this state of inspiration becomes.

AP: Here I need to make a didactic and, at the same time, investigative digression into the field of contemporary philosophy, which tries to answer quite ancient questions. We should begin with one of the “stone tablets” of radical leftist thought. Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach states: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” This is usually understood to mean that Marx is breaking with the tradition of speculative, idealist philosophy by introducing the dimension of praxis, the transformation of reality. However, as Marx emphasizes, it is important to keep in mind that, during the historical process that forms the structures of production, the subject itself will also be transformed along with the object, with nature. Therefore, according to a widespread opinion, Marx leaves behind philosophy as reflection and enters the realm of politics and history. He thus becomes something like an “anti-philosopher.” In fact, however, Marx does not break with philosophy. On the contrary, he rediscovers its fundamental practical vocation, which dates to Greek philosophy, on a new level.

We might find a key to a contemporary understanding of the Eleventh Thesis in Michel Foucault’s late-period works on the “care of the self” or in the work of another thinker, Pierre Hadot, a specialist on antiquity. He advanced the concept of “philosophy as a way of life” and “spiritual exercise.” Although the term “spiritual” now sounds dubious, Hadot examines it in a wholly materialistic way. He means that “spiritual” practices relate to the entire realm of subjectivity (intellect, affect, will, desire, body, etc.). Foucault was in dialogue with the work of Hadot during the final years of his life. Unlike the now extremely popular theory of “biopolitics,” Foucault’s late period is of little interest to the radical and critical communities. Moreover, his later ideas about “practices of the self” run the risk of being interpreted by the right in the spirit of progressive liberal individualism or, even worse, of being appropriated by conservative seekers after “spirituality.” They are also sometimes practically taken as examples of “resignation,” reconciliation with existence, where a focus on personal autonomy, on stoical “autarky” is seen as the solution. Or they are seen as a species of “neo-dandyism,” that is, if we proceed from Foucault’s concluding aphorism about “life as a work of art.

DV: I’d like to interrupt you here. I agree that these interpretations are quite banal statements that anyone could take up, and they’re quite vulnerable to criticism. I would say that today as never before we need to insist that there are values that are much more important than the value of an individual, finite life, and I make this assertion first and foremost about myself. I think that Badiou is right when he radically critiques the bases of individual consciousness and calls on us to adopt new forms of fearlessness and self-denial. Do you remember the passage about “courage” in the book about Sarkozy? We don’t need life as a work of art, or the work of art as life. We need a total reassessment of what art can give us and how it becomes part of our everyday life.

AP: I agree. I will say something about Badiou’s theory of the subject a bit later. It is vital to place Foucault and Hadot’s research in the correct context of revolutionary practice: then they might present themselves to us in an utterly new aspect. In essence, Foucault gives us all the keys to a “leftist” interpretation of his work in his lecture course “Hermeneutics of the Subject.” Of course it would be absurd to discuss this entire complex problematic in this introductory dialogue, but I will try to sketch a practical schema that might prove useful, and not just to “theorists.”

What are “practices of the self” per Foucault, or philosophical “exercises,” as Hadot calls them? They are quite concrete things, and they’re far from abstract flights of speculative thought. They are particular techniques that were transmitted within certain Hellenistic philosophical schools. They included, for example, meditation, constant attention to one’s own subjectivity, awareness, control over inner speech, deliberate cultivation of habits, written self-evaluations, concentration on the present moment. But they also included practices of care for others, practices that are impossible without “care of the self”: a dialogical relationship to the interlocutor, the desire to change his position during the course of the conversation, pedagogy, etc. The revolutionary aspect of “practices of the self” has to do with the fact that they open the way to a radical transformation of the subject, to a spasmodic alteration of the subject, which the ancient Greeks called metanoia, “change of mind.” As Foucault never tires of repeating, only this change gives the subject access to the truth. On the other hand, there is also a reverse effect that the truth has on the subject as it transfigures and “illuminates” it. This is the cycle of subjectivity formation. (See the following diagrams, in which S designates subjectivity, and S’ stands for its new form, the result of these changes.)

Practice of the self (exercise)Truth

S ======================> S’

Subjectivity formationMetanoia

Thus, returning to Marx (whose dissertation was on the ancient philosophers Epicurus and Democritus), we might argue that he transfers the ancient philosophical practice of subject-formation into the collective dimension. It is telling that, in his dissertation, Marx underscores the significance of the “subjective form”—“the spiritual carrier of the philosophical systems, which has until now been almost entirely ignored in favor of their metaphysical characteristics.” I would not say that Marx “discovered” praxis; rather, he reinvented it on a new basis. Individual “exercises” are replaced by social practice, which leads to the formation of class subjectivity and revolution, which takes the place formerly occupied by metanoia in this schema.

Social practiceCommunism

S =========================> S’

Formation of class subjectivityRevolution

Of course, the old individualist schema of subjectivation is superimposed on the new, collective schema, and thus makes it easier to understand. For example, if we compare revolution with metanoia, we discover many characteristic traits. Hadot describes the transformation of the subject as occurring along two vectors: the return to certain basic foundations of subjectivity, the totality of its history, and, subsequently, its transformation. We find this trait in revolutionary experience as well: the leap into the past, when the entire previous history of oppression is reanimated and made relevant. This is followed by a repressive withdrawal and then a decisive transformation of the past.

The question is how this schema of subjectivation is changing today. It is obvious that, during our time of reaction, depoliticization, and atomization, the formation of class subjectivity has malfunctioned. Foucault’s turn to antiquity as a project for reevaluating the instruments of subject formation was—in mediated fashion, of course—symptomatic of this. How can we continue this line of thought today from a leftist political perspective? As an experiment, we might hypothesize that the concept of “multitudes,” the new social subjects posited by Italian post-operaismo, provides us with the basis for talking about a new, “mixed” means of subject formation. The individual and collective dimensions of subjectivation are fused as a “singularity,” and the place of social practice is occupied by “immaterial labor,” a performative act whose product is to be found in itself. It is precisely this that we can describe as an “exercise,” the correlation of subjectivity with itself! And revolution, perhaps, gives way to “exodus”—a rupture, the subtraction of subjectivity from the existing capitalist system of exploitation—thus opening a path to the “commons.”

Immaterial labor as “exercise”The commons

S ========================> S’

Formation of the “multitude”Exodus

We could declare the “end” of philosophy qua “metaphysics,” as has been done so often in the past decades, but it is impossible to neutralize, to finalize its practical, evental aspect, which consists in subjectivity formation. It is this practice of subjectivation, which philosophy either explicitly or implicitly contains, that constitutes its “utility.” It is this practical aspect that also differentiates philosophy—not just any philosophy, of course, but a particular line from antiquity to contemporary currents of materialist thought—from “theory,” which is an interdisciplinary collection of objectivizing discourses within the humanities and social sciences, and makes it more akin, rather, to political activism and art.

DV: That is a very important remark. During a recent discussion, when a number of activists criticized the practices of Chto Delat for their lack of direct engagement, I also once again thought hard about why we, despite our political sympathies and solidarity, don’t participate “enough” in real struggles. Now I would say that for us, perhaps, this aspect of distancing ourselves from many practices of social activism and art is a characteristic trait. These practices take the form of producing service packages for normalizing the lives of problem communities. That is, for us, they are obviously conservative and defensive in character: they are of “little interest” to us because at bottom they are normalizing in nature. And that is why we are so often accused of ratcheting up a revolutionary pathos that now just ends up sagging. For grassroots struggles, this pathos is not very acceptable, and it also elicits rejection on the part of the “objectivizing discourses within the humanities and the social sciences.” This is now an enormous problem for any kind of revolutionary thought, which has limited opportunities to verify itself in practice. It is vital to find the opportunity to “stand one’s ground” despite everything—this is that selfsame “courage,” according to Badiou. But at the same time we have to try and avoid the collapse into madness and total marginalization that we often see happening within revolutionary leftist sects.

AP: As we confront these red-hot contradictions of the current moment, perhaps it is worth turning to historical experience. It is interesting to compare the practical aspect of philosophy that I have just sketched with the political and artistic project of the avant-garde known as “life-construction.” For in essence this project likewise has its basis in Marx’s Eleventh Thesis, seen as the reinvention of antiquity’s practices of subjectivity, their transfer into the realm of the collective—that is, the realm of class subjectivities. It would also be interesting to discuss those changes that mark the formation of the subjectivity of “multitudes,” in which the individual and the collective dimensions intersect and commingle.

I am not sure that “aesthetic education” in Schiller’s sense or, for example, the Bildungsroman as a literary genre wholly fit the scheme of subject formation that I talked about. Nor am I sure that “desubjectivation” is something so promising right now. Schiller’s paradigm, of course, is linked to the formation of bourgeois subjectivity, whose historical apex was the French Revolution. But it is unlikely that the utopian image of a harmonious, stable, consummated aesthetic identity (in Kantian fashion, Schiller speaks of the “eternal unity of the self,” that is, of the transcendental subject) can be correlated with a revolutionary proletarian subjectivity, or with the activist subjectivity that is taking shape now. It is also telling that Schiller decisively rejects the notion of “utility” with regard to art insofar as, if you follow the arguments in his “Letters,” utility had become the “crude scale” of his bourgeois, commercial age. Obviously, here utility is understood precisely as exchange value, not use value, if we adopt the Marxian terms that you employed at the beginning of this conversation.

In our context, perhaps, the prototypical Bildungsroman might be Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? [Chto delat?], where the main character, a fairly atypical young man named Rakhmetov, diligently engages in practices of the self, in asceticism, motivated by his desire to become a kind of “professional revolutionary.” And then Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother shows the transition from this scheme of individual subjectivation to the formation of class subjectivity via involvement in collective activist processes.

The experiments of Productionism and the Soviet avant-garde of the nineteen-twenties as a whole were, of course, an expression of the emergence of a new post-Revolutionary subjectivity. The avant-garde produced an entire program for the “formation of a new humanity.” The “utility” of art and philosophy for its realization was enormous. Whereas art before the Revolution had been a mere “laboratory of forms,” afterwards it became a laboratory of life itself, of its forms—that is, of subjectivity. But during the Stalinist and later Soviet periods, this post-Revolutionary program was appropriated and reformulated in official Party rhetoric, where it was turned into nearly meaningless blah-blah. However, on the whole I think that the special Soviet subjectivity whose foundations were laid in the avant-garde culture of the twenties was a sui generis phenomenon, whose value and uniqueness it would be hard to diminish against the backdrop provided by the monstrous banality of contemporary capitalist life. We are still faced with the task of discovering it again as something useful and real, as a practice.

Perhaps it made sense to talk about “desubjectivation” when it was believed that the agencies and ideological apparatuses of the capitalist state produce subjectivity itself, and that subjectivities themselves, as fixed identities, are convenient, visible points for the application of subjugation strategies. But the perspective of late-period Foucault and the research of Hadot (these two thinkers differed on a number of points in the way they interpreted practices of subjectivity, but we will pass over this here) enable us to speak of subjectivity formation as a process of metanoia and “transfiguration” that takes place in an explosive, uncontrolled, revolutionary fashion, although it relies on a systematic emancipatory practice.

We might find similarities in this perspective with Badiou’s theory, in which subjectivation takes place in parallel with the truth-event and is maintained by faithfulness to this event. According to Badiou, however, subjectivation occurs as it were in a “miraculous,” quasi-theological manner that does not depend on our efforts, on the practice of subjectivity itself. For Badiou, the subject is in one way or another situated in the logic of an objective “situation,” and the aspect of a practical “manufacture of subjectivity” is forfeited. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Badiou’s model of the event and the truth-procedure is an insufficiently critical take on the Christian paradigm. Moreover, if we accept the analysis of Foucault and Hadot, the Christian dispositif in essence “intercepts” and reinterprets “practices of the self” as practices of submission, not emancipation, consigning philosophy to a mere abstract theoretical role. Thus, metanoia turns into the “repentance” of the sinner and his subsequent submission to religious dogma. In this sense, Foucault’s uncompleted theorizing reveals, in my view, a more promising and “useful” (to re-invoke our term) perspective.

Recently, I was at a talk by Carine Clément, the French sociologist who heads the Institute for Collective Action in Moscow. She presented the findings of her research on the new social movements in Russia. It was interesting that, in her analysis of the processes by which the new movements are formed, she used a scheme whose poles were two stances: that of the “philistine” (the passive, apolitical citizen), on the one hand, and that of the activist, on the other hand. This, in essence, is a particular variation on the subjectivity formation schema. Clément cited the testimony of her activist-respondents, who described their experience of moving towards activist stances. They talked about how they had begun to see their lives from a new perspective, as being connected to the social whole. They said that they had gained a sense of self-worth, confidence, strength, and collective solidarity, the readiness to defend their positions. It is simply amazing the degree to which this coincides with the effects of subject formation that the Stoics had already discovered back in their day. The transformation of the subject causes it to see the world from the universal perspective of the whole, the totality, just as Pierre Hadot describes, as well as giving it a sense of personal strength and indomitable fearlessness. How distant this is from the contemporary neoliberal frame of mind, from the repudiation of any claims to the truth, from a certain atmosphere of diffuse hedonism. In the aggregate, all this is in fact total “desubjectivation,” which wholly supports the existing status quo.

DV: It’s really great that you’ve been able to show me the sources of this entire problematic. I’d like to respond to you by analyzing one of my favorite quotations from Paulo Freire: [I]f the implementation of a liberating education requires political power and the oppressed have none, how then is it possible to carry out the pedagogy of the oppressed prior to the revolution? This is a question of the greatest importance; one aspect of the reply is to be found in the distinction between systematic education, which can only be changed by political power, and educational projects, which should be carried out with the oppressed in the process of organizing them.

Why this quotation? First, it clearly demonstrates that metanoia—change in consciousness—has definite boundaries: it is obviously limited by the class and social conditions of man’s existence. Yes, at present we are capable only of gaining a presentiment of life in fullness and harmony, but our subjectivity is adumbrated by conflict with society, to which even the universal finitude of our existence provides no resolution. This is precisely why the project of the historical Soviet avant-garde is so valuable today: because it records an unprecedented experiment in the transformation of life that today resembles the stories of travelers who have returned from an unknown country. But today we don’t have a map that would tell us where this country was located. That is, we practically have to start from scratch in drawing up the maps and tracing travel routes.

Second, the grammar of this quotation quite precisely poses the question about processes of organization. “Them”: this is obviously all those people who by virtue of their class status acutely experience the injustice of the world, but who at the same time possess sufficient knowledge to be aware of the strategic tasks of their own emancipation. That is, according to the old, universally accepted model, there are certain privileged external agents who develop and wield these practices of emancipation. In previous times, these were people connected to God and the Church; they were followed by revolutionary parties and psychoanalysts. After the obvious downfall of these mediators, the question remains: is education possible without a teacher? Today it is the figure of the teacher/pedagogue—as the figure of repression under the sign of education—who is rightly and seriously under suspicion.

On the other hand, you have to be a complete idiot not to recognize that pure self-education is impossible. A person is always oriented towards various practices that have already been created by other people and whose experience is recorded in books, music, and art: education is the collective experience of turning to what has already been created. And here is where the abracadabra begins. That is, you have to introduce the factor of some kind of “illumination” that reveals the new and the unknown: how do we demonstrate the material premises of this leap in consciousness? Perhaps art preserves the species memory of freedom and is capable of giving us the basis for developing a project of emancipating consciousness? Is this where its fundamental utility lies? It clearly doesn’t involve producing normative canons of aesthetic education, but involves faithfulness to the practice of its negation and renewal.

AP: I’m aware of your love of quotations as a form of recording already existing collective experience. By the way, I think that the practice of citation—of singling out those places in a text that provoke “illumination,” change your mindset, and impart a new impulse to thought and practice—also has a transformative effect. For example, one of the pedagogical practices of the schools of antiquity was the compilation of special lists of quotations and sayings, which would always be “at hand” as a practical guide during the emergencies that arise in a human’s life. In contemporary academic practice, on the contrary, quotations often serve a purely “decorative” function, or they are instrumentalized in order to add additional symbolic value to a text.

I think that the practice of citation might be regarded precisely as an example of the technique of emancipatory self-education. But I’m not sure that the figure of the mentor has to be so problematized in the “pedagogy of the oppressed” as to be excluded from it altogether. The teacher transmits not only abstract knowledge and theory, but also elements of those subjectivation practices of which he is the living medium. It’s a question of the political solidarity of “teachers” with those who are undergoing the process of education. Although, of course today’s alienated and instrumentalized system of education, which promotes the spread of the figure of the formal or (even worse) authoritarian teacher-administrator, is quite uninspiring.

By the way, Walter Benjamin set great store by quotations. If you remember, he dreamed of writing a book that would consist only of brilliantly selected quotations, and he almost realized this plan in the Arcades Project. In general, Benjamin is an extremely important and unorthodox figure in Marxist thought if you look at him in terms of the practices of subject transformation that interest us here. There is no doubt that, explicitly or implicitly, he attached a special significance to these practices. I have in mind his famous theme of “profane illuminations,” which he outlined in his essay on Surrealism. Benjamin meant that, in its origins, the very structure of the religious experience of “illumination” is preserved in the wholly materialistic practice of subject formation. We can confiscate these practices from the repressive structures of religiosity and place them in the service of emancipatory ends. According to Benjamin, they form a “materialistic, anthropological inspiration.”

Benjamin describes “profane illuminations” as part of the Surrealist practice of transforming perception of ordinary things, which renders them strange, unnatural, ridiculous and even uncanny, as in a dream. According to Benjamin, this transfiguration of our perception of the world—the estrangement that demonstrates its artificiality, its unnaturalness, and hence the possibility that it can be radically changed—is one of the conditions of political revolution. Thus, we see that, according to Benjamin, the individual, particular subjectivation achieved in Surrealist experiments is a step on the road to the revolutionary subjectivation of society as a whole. Perhaps we might summarize this model by saying that avant-garde art operates on the level of individual subjectivity, but it alters it in such a way that pre-conditions emerge (of course, not the only ones) for the process of revolutionary subjectivity formation to move to the collective level.


Alexey Penzin – philosopher and researcher, founding member of the workgroup Chto Delat lives in Moscow

Dmitry Vilensky – artist, founding member of the workgroup Chto Delat, based in Petersburg