Following up

by craigepplin

A couple weeks ago, a review I wrote went up on the site of the excellent, Brooklyn-based literary magazine The Coffin Factory. I’ve been mulling over one of the assertions I made there, and I want to write a bit about it.

The claim in question is this: “We need a cultural imaginary adequate to the challenges of this world, a sensibility less of iconoclasm than of wonder and care.” I agree with this statement (I haven’t changed my mind over the past two weeks), but I feel I should try to spell out what it means. After all, a sensibility of “wonder and care” can mean lots of different things. At first glance, it seems to evoke stasis (“wonder”) and also a vague sort of conservationism (“care”). I don’t exactly mean it in either of these senses.

I mean, rather, that contemporary work of art should seek to perform some other task than that of debunking, that it should seek to insert itself into the world in a careful, thoughtful fashion. This is a tendentious claim to make, of course, because it seems to imply that the work of art should not be oppositional or critical to the general order of things. My view is certainly not that the work of art should not engage in critique, though I am concerned that the task of critique is all too easily assimilated to that same general order. In other words, it seems to me that the language of oppositional critique–verbal or visual or otherwise–does not suffice anymore.

After all, the vocabulary of critique is as cooptable as anything else under conditions of late capitalism. Take, for example, this “manifesto,” which I found on the tag to a shirt by a company called Obey:

I don’t know much about this company, but their marketing campaign reads like a hodgepodge of ill understood critical theory. They align themselves with phenomenology (inexplicably capitalized); they claim that they hope to raise questions about the world and their place in it; they want to “catalyze a thoughtful dialogue deconstructing the process of image absorption”; and finally, they quote McLuhan’s most famous dictum, which made me laugh out loud there in the store when I read this. Also, just in case anyone decided to take their “manifesto” too seriously, they reassure us that this is all meant “in the name of fun and observation.”

The vocabulary of critical theory, in other words, here becomes the vocabulary of advertising. Of course, one could simply say that this is simply a misapprehension, intentional or not, of that vocabulary, and that it says nothing about the relevance of critique. True enough, but this clothing tag also tells us something else: that the language of critique has cachet; theory sells. This, in itself, means that even while traditional critique cannot be reduced to its faddish imitations (just as the political energies of the left cannot be reduced to a Che Guevara t-shirt), its oppositional standpoint is always in danger of being encroached upon.

A good question to ask about all this is: so what? Why should the theorists or theoretically-informed artists care that marketing campaigns draw on their work? Well, because this process demonstrates something important: that the autonomous sphere of critique is heteronomous, criss-crossed by numerous forces and energies hostile to its suppositions. This has always been true, but the conditions of late capitalism make it starkly apparent. These conditions set the stage for new elaborations of the place of critique and critical art within the general ecology of things.

This is what I tried to get at with the idea of “wonder and care”: that our approach to the world has to be one that takes into account the infinite and infinitesimal complexities that condition each and every intervention. It’s an attitude I see in, for example, the archival art project that I described in the Coffin Factory piece. And it’s an attitude I see in the work of the Mexican artists I’m writing about in Nonhuman Collectives (the book). Their approach to the world is not one of casting everything aside for the coming of the new man or woman or language or way of being (“iconoclasm”), but rather one of stepping carefully into fraught situations and carefully carving into the stuff of the world new indentations and layers of becoming (“wonder and care”).

There’s obviously lots still to be thought through on this matter, but I’ll leave it at that for the moment.