#2 Autonomy Zones
Is free action possible? What are its boundaries? Such questions, which address the issue of autonomy, are fundamental to human existence. Yet the idea of autonomy as such only arises when an individual or a group finds itself in conflict with its surroundings. In this conflict, the self’s position needs to be reinformed; a means of action must be chosen. In this sense, the starting point for a discourse on the autonomy of action does not only ask the question of freedom but also addresses the issue of responsibility.
Today, as new forms of political resistance emerge, the question of the human being’s autonomy, be it civic or artistic, is the first and foremost question that one should ask. In discussing the possibilities for autonomous projects, contemporary leftwing consciousness develops concrete strategies and tactics of overcoming neoliberalism’s status-quo.
1. When people living in some region of the world declare that their group has the right to live autonomously, they are saying that they ought to be allowed to govern themselves. In making this claim, they are, in essence, rejecting the political and legal authority of those not in their group. They are insisting that whatever power these outsiders may have over them, this power is illegitimate; they, and they alone, have the authority to determine and enforce the rules and policies that govern their lives.
2. When an individual makes a similar declaration about some sphere of his/her own life, he/she, too, is denying that anyone else has the authority to control his/her activity within this sphere; he/she is saying that any exercise of power over this activity is illegitimate unless he/she authorizes it herself.
3. The demand to be permitted to govern ourselves reflects the conviction that we are, in essence, self-governors. An activist is one who acts. In order to act, one must initiate ones action. Since nothing and no one has the power to act except the activist him/herself. He/she alone is entitled to exercise this power, if he/she is entitled to act.
Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was born in 1903. He attended the University of Frankfurt where he studied philosophy, sociology, psychology, and music. In 1931Adorno joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. Escaping from Nazism, the Institute moved to Zurich in 1934, and Adorno in 1938, rejoined the Institute, which was now located in New York. In 1953, at the age of 50, Adorno left the United States and returned to Frankfurt to take up a position with the Institute In 1959 he became its director following the retirement of Max Horkheimer. In 1969 students occupy the building of the Institute and Adorno calls police to clean the office. After that incident, students, in an aggressive form, of happening, boycotted his lectures. Adorno died in 1969 in Switzerland, after being shocked by the aforementioned events, and while writing what many believe to be his most important work, Aesthetic Theory.
The main works of Adorno: Dialectics of Enlightnenment (with M. Horkheimer), 1947, The philosophy of the new music (1949), The negative dialectic (1966),The Aesthetic Theory (1970, published posthumously). Adorno, along with other participants of the so-called Frankfurt School, used Hegelian dialectics for the analysis of the political, ideological, and economic contradictions of the late capitalism. Adorno followed his friend and teacher Walter Benjamin in insisting on a special, irreconcilable form of dialectic, which does not lead to a frozen result and where the negative trumps over the positive. Unlike Hegel, Adorno developed his negative dialectics in the constellations of loose aphorisms, never aspiring to a system and avoiding any stabilization of his concepts.
Art occupies the space that it inhabits because of its lack of function. In art, everything functional (or social) has been volted into chaos; means and ends, superiors and inferiors, owners and staff have been switched. The liberation from functionality is art’s last political task, a task that is refuted by society, political movements, as well as some segments of art itself. By taking its place – as the result of unspeakable efforts – art makes society aware of its own disorganization. In the sociology of art, this place is known as autonomy. The autonomy of art does not mean that art will always be cut off from society’s current problems. In one way or the other, these problems will become the object of artistic reflection, although the result of this reflection has nothing at all in common with ordinary empirical examinations or therapeutic perscriptions. Instead, these problems are understood as signs for universal issues, whose current content is of no importance to art.
Autonomy’s flipside is gradual neutralization. This neutralization gives rise to those structures of the art system that guarantee its autonomy. Vesting an interest in popularization and educational goals, the art system slowly depletes the art-work of its conflicts and its social bite. For this reason, it becomes possible that, upon visiting a museum, we encounter rooms in which radical abstractionism and orthodox Socialist Realism are “natural” neighbours. This neighborly relationship, impossible even 10 years ago, pays testimony to the process of neutralization. In the swampy quagmire of conflict-free coexistence, everything is equalized: Stalinism becomes equal to Nazism, Marxism to liberalism, abstractionism to realism.
The following text is based on Jack Fuller, Worker’s Autonomy (Autonomia Operaia), in: International Socialism 8 (Spring 1980).
The autonomous movement was a series of locally based collectives, and marked the end of a whole period in workers thought and struggle. The concept of a single national organisation was temporarily abandoned. Instead the name Workers Autonomy was adopted by a growing number of small groups and collectives based around workplaces, geographical areas or particular groups of the population such as the unemployed or students. The universities in particular became an important base for the autonomists, no longer as centres for well educated, middle class, discontented students, but as a huge meeting place for unemployed youth.
Toni Negri was one of key theoretical figure in establishing Autonomia Organizzata (Organized Autonomy), a loosely coordinated network of local organizations throughout Italy. Autonomia was decidedly opposed to the notion of vanguard party and centralized leadership, posing instead the autonomy of local groups. Negri insisted that political organization had continually to pose the problem of centralization and democracy. In past communist revolutions, the centralized party management of power has always at a certain point strangled the proletarian organization of powers, and at that point the revolution has come to an end. In this sense Negri argued for Autonomia to be an anti-party, a decentralized and open network of political organizations.
Cornelius Castoriadis, was a philosopher, political thinker, social critic, practicing psychoanalyst, renowned Sovietologist, and economist who cofounded the now legendary revolutionary journal and group Socialisme ou Barbarie (1948-1967). Socialisme ou Barbarie developed a radical critique of Communism based upon the idea of workers’ management and exerted a great influence upon the student-worker rebellion in Paris in May 1968. Until his recent death, Castoriadis continued to write on politics, society, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the imagination from his distinctive perspective that was inspired by the “project of autonomy”.
The nucleus of the individual is the psyche (the Unconscious, the drives). Any idea of eliminating or “mastering” this nucleus would be plainly ridiculous; that task is not only impossible, it would amount to a murder of the human being. Also, at any given moment, the individual carries with itself, in itself, a history which cannot and should not be “eliminated,” since the individual’s very reflectiveness and lucidity are the products of this history. The autonomy of the individual consists in the instauration of an other relationship between the reflective instance and the other psychical instances as well as between the present and the history which made the individual such as it is. This relationship makes it possible for the individual to escape the enslavement of repetition, to look back upon itself, to reflect on the reason for its thoughts and the motives of its acts, guided by the elucidation of its desire and aiming at the truth. This autonomy can effectively alter the behavior of the individual, as we positively know. This means that the individual is no longer a pure and passive product of its psyche and history and of the institution. In other words, the formation of a reflective and deliberative instance, that is, of true subjectivity, frees the radical imagination of the singular human being as source of creation and alteration and allows this being to attain an effective freedom. This freedom presupposes, of course, the indeterminacy of the psychical world as well as its permeability to meaning. But it also entails that the simply given meaning has ceased to be a cause (which is also always the case in the social-historical world) and that there is the effective possibility of the choice of meaning not dictated in advance. In other words, once formed, the reflective instance plays an active and not predetermined role in the deployment and the formation of meaning, whatever its source (be it the radical creative imagination of the singular being or the reception of a socially created meaning). In turn, this presupposes again a specific psychical mechanism: to be autonomous implies that one has psychically invested freedom and the aiming at truth.
1. An Historical-Ideological Critique
1.1.Characteristically, the word “autonomy” has been present actively on the left ideological field since the 1970s. Autonomism as a recognition of the workers’ sovereign revolutionary force, which does not require help from a bureaucratic party. Autonomy as a tactic of detecting and arranging free spaces – internet, alternative media, squatting and so on. Since then, on different levels and various platforms, the discussion has focused on a topic that some groups of Trotzkyites then called “entrisme” (from French “entrer”- “to enter”), an oppositional strategy, which academic intellectuals like to call “subversion”. Entrisme describes the logic of secretly penetrating the system, making critical use of its local deficiencies and weaknesses, which need only be expanded and widened.
1.2.The crisis of the Great Revolution’s project after the events of May 1968 has effected a kind of moratorium of dreaming a “radically Other” society. For the lack of clear perspective, the boundary between “belonging to the System” and “not belonging to the System” has become a central problem. The question of actual practice was reduced to the neurotic quandry of whether to enter or not to enter, to participate or not to participate. To penetrate imperceptibly, much like to a termite, to loosen or to liberalize the System, or to escape, to create points invisible to “the agents of the matrix “, to open vents for so reign power which does not need someone else’s paternalistic gaze.
Everyday life provides us with a mass of attractive constructs of itself, a kind of defensive army that blocks our access to the space where the quotidian would really be – or is – unbearable. On the level of routine, habitual security, even if we position ourrselves “on the left” – capitalism continues to function as a theoretical crutch, an abstraction that allows us to explain and rationalize reality, which is absurd in and of itself. On the level of political opposition, reality is ritualized, transformed in theatrical gestures of repeating self-representation.Its apogee is a peaceful demonstration, an essentially sacral space, whose limited and strictly reglemented time allows the individual to express him-herself. Here, he-she can say what exactly he-she considers to be shit. Yet from the very beginning, this “what exactly” is kept from ever reaching its referent by the police-force that accompanies the demonstration, surrounding it from all four sides.
Escorted triumphally by the authorities (as a convoy), the peaceful demonstration is a travesty of the collective autonomous subject, which can only enjoy its freedom to the extent that it understands its limitations. Blocked from all sides, captive, this active movement must consider everything outside of itself as its mortal enemy, particularly its closest neighbour, the silent man with the gun, the living wall. Behind this wall stand the government offices, generously decorated with outdoor advertising, demonstrating a reality of alienated consumption, whose cheap glamour conceals a reality of alienated production as though there was no alternative.
Nevertheless, kept to its own limits, the peaceful demonstration is a space of extreme tension, saturated with affective energy, which connects its participants into an united community. It thrives on collective exitement, easy ecstasy, and on the illusion that the revolutions phantom will never come to pass, but will be instantly transformed to a slogan. This, in turn, allows the demonstration to reproduce itself continuously as a peaceful act.
All too often, the assertion of artistic autonomy of art seems like no more than a peaceful demonstration, controlled and held in place by a “living wall” of water-canons and billy clubs. Even if art, in its autonomy, claims the right to make a difference in all of society, it is kept back and fixed in place by the authorities by which it is surrounded. But what of the peaceful demonstration’s potential for violence? Or, to put it differently, can we expect art to break the conventions of contemporary society, finally regaining some of the relevance that it has lost?
Autonomy, one might argue with Foucault, is a natural result and goal of discipline. Like any other social sub-system, the discipline is an organized multitude, held in place by hierarchical structures and “rules of fair play” (conventions). Its organization guarantees that it will be a discrete social system with a strong contour. In other words, art only becomes an autonomous system when a multitude of art-professionals agrees to use a certain language of reference and power, to adhere to a discipline. The chaotic multitude, the crowd, has been fixed and rendered controllable. On the one hand, it has gained its right to existance. On the other hand, it is easier to keep it place. Thus, the discipline (autonomous to a degree but only to a degree) is a social necessity rather than a construct or an opressive measure (cf. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish).
In our last issue (What is to be done?) we have already raised the question of autonomy. Indeed, a politico-artistic act, especially today, is not somply a demand of freedom but simultaneously a statement of our autonomy. In this sense, one can speak of secession as of the politico-artistic strategy. Such strategy includes three main moments: secession (public declaration of autonomy), confrontation, and (utopian) foundation.
Autonomy, in the everyday sense of the word often means something like relative independence or exception. This means that the juridical meaning of autonomy in the sense of political federalism (autonomous districts) took over the literal meaning of this word, which means self-government in the strongest sense of sovereign freedom, not limited by anything, and given by no one but God or the being itself. Such shift in meaning is not accidental.
Freedom in the sovereign sense has been usurped by the so-called democratic state and the fiction of representative democracy. Moreover, there is a paradox in the very philosophical notion of autonomy autonomy itself is
heteronomous. In Kant, for example, the autonomy is dictated by an iron law which is transcendent to the subject. Who actually said that you have to be autonomous? Something has to have happened – a loss, a catastrophe, for example o that you have to search what is to be done for yourself. Either someone has to have abandoned you, refused you, or, on the opposite, called you forward. Thus, the struggle for autonomy is the struggle for the emancipation of others, with the others although also from others.
The today’s regime of imperialist liberalization sustains subjective autonomy but is strictly intolerant to any declaration of exception.
Autonomy-exception may thus be more important nowadays than simple auto-legislation. Meanwhile, any universalist order is bound to posit some exceptions from its rules, so as not to lose all contact with reality. Thus, US needs its Guantanamo, so as to localize the true martial law at least in one zone of the world. But one can equally demand from the global emperors (emperocrats?) to sanction zones of exception where the law of freedom would be realized! They must have a zone of freedom somewhere, so as to legitimate their liberal rule elsewhere! Is not this the reason for the fact that the corporations support contemporary art without dictating its content? In the same way, the Roman Empire gave broad autonomy to many of its cities (municipal), as though it would thus pay back its title which derives from the name of a free city state.
Many of this issue’s illustration are photographs of pieces from the project “Backjumps”, which was realized in the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin during the autumn of 2003.
This show clearly marked the changes that have taken place in graphic street-culture over the last years. Today’s street-activists/graffitti artists have proven capable of creating an aesthetics of unaffected urban communication, something that is new in principle. Taking this show as an example of a subculture that is emerging through an international net-work, we can identify three very important qualities:
1. Direct democracy Graphic street-culture relates to society immediately without the help of institutional mediation.
2. Politization – The aesthetics of the street correspond closely to today’s political avantgarde, the “movement of the movements”, or the motion of the multitudes.
3. New visual language As poetic system, graphic street-culture has all of the characterstics of an artistic language: its plastical completeness is structured by communicative codes. It actively works in public spaces as well as exhibitions or galleries and is both self-referential and capable of critical reflection.
Needless to say, urban art is just as diverse and self-contradictory as any other phenomenon of contemporary creativity. But today, it is more and more similar to the “theft of air” (Ossip Mandelstam), which is one of the necessary subject of any authentic form of art.
This issue is illustrated with pieces by SWOON, WK Interact, Banksy, and details of world stickers wall at urban-art.info
Come on! Look at what’s going on. All spaces have been occupied by the mass-media; every vacant place is taken by advertising. Even worse: this occupation is not only physical but semantic. Whereever you turn, whatever you might want to use in the process of creating a piece (with the goal of an art-work in mind of course), you will always trip and stumble over the fact that every notion has already been appropriated by the mass-media and by advertising. Everything that surrounds us only serves one insidious goal, namely to increase stock turnover and to expand the volume of sales. Except now, the world has become even tougher: (don’t you see?) -Reebok is dealing out FREEDOM; Samsung is peddling CONFIDENCE, cutting unfuckinbelievable dough! And all that the artists really have as the space of artistic representation is the white box. Reduced to its denominator in the sterile space of notions, art refines itself alone. And upon visiting a museum, gallery or other exhibition space, the spectator will finally understand that he is being addressed in the language of art, not advertising.
But this path invariably leads to the glazing and icing over of art. It directly contradicts the hot, dynamic idea of struggle and clearly seems that all of the positions have been abandoned, and what’s more, without any battle at all. It seems like they let us know that our territory was occupied while we were watching a movie, notifying us of their victory aposteriori, as it were. To accept the conditions of surrender without resistance means to admit defeat without having even entered the game. This seems humiliating.
I suppose that it makes sense to use exactly those fields to the end of representation that the adversarys forces have already occupied and fortified. But in order to be taken seriously in this field, we will need the same equiptment as our rivals. By this, I mean the material side of things.
Try to understand, my friend, we are waging war on what is primarily an ideological battlefield. And that is the zone of our autonomy! And by stepping out into the public sphere, we gain what they call a target group. For us, this group consists of people who might come together to form a critical, revolutionary mass. People who don’t see the contradictions in the new world order only because they weren’t notified in time. We could let them know. But this will be impossible if we stay sequestered in our museums and galleries.
So is time to go out into the occupied territories, behind enemy lines? Are we to infiltrate television- and radio-broadcast, the newspapers, the supermarkets, boutiques and restaurants? Of course! And on these territories, which are subject to the laws of the industry’s trends, we need to construct new, social attitudes, using the only means available to us, namely our creative and intellectual force, our power to be critical of the contemporary arrangement.
I need to think it over, but for now, turn on the TV. The Agents Feat already started 5 minutes ago. Relax, we’ll make it. They’re probably showing a block of advertising spots for blasting-caps or fuses. Where the fuck is the remote?…