Religion, Politics, and The Earth: The New Materialism – Chapter 4, Art

This post is part of our ongoing review of Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins’ book Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. The book is available for purchase here.

As with the rest of the book, this chapter is more a manifesto than anything else; the analysis of the history and contemporary situation of art offered here are offered towards the possibility of a revolutionary praxis of art. As my predecessors have done, I’ll briefly trace the argument before offering a reaction.

Crockett, Robbins, and Wilson, in this chapter, are concerned, of course, with materiality. Under what material conditions is art done, and what material function does art perform? The authors argue that there is a certain natural conceptual linkage between art and religion; both are concerned with “materially unjustified but existentially vital representation.⁠1” Premodern is characterized according to this narrative as a reproduction of the divine nature. It is thus characterized by tendencies toward representation and order. The important break occurs, as with so many things, with Kant.

According to the Kantian paradigm, beauty is still linked with the apprehension of “design,” but this apprehension is characterized by a sort of free play in which purpose becomes directly linked to the act of striving toward it, rather than to a fixed representation of the divine. The history of art assimilates this orientation, and art becomes the privileged site of this striving, displacing roles that had traditionally been the domain of religion. Traditional understandings of representation are also displaced, as this emphasis on the striving act privileges aspects of apprehension over the thing-in-itself, and lead to the characteristic “decomposition” that characterizes the passage of 20th century art towards abstraction.

Since the concept of beauty privileges representation by necessity, the notion of the sublime gains primacy in modern art. The sublime, rather than privileging harmony of representation, is the site of a disjunction in this harmony, opening up a field in which reason is forced to step in and make a moral decision. The sublime is both attractive and repulsive, resisting re-inscription in meaning and sense, such that any re-inscription passes a certain responsibility onto the viewer.

Attempts at an art of the sublime (Dada, Surrealism, etc) are all plagued by a similar problem. Capital is an adaptive beast, and easily absorbs any new opening of the sublime as a form of spectacle, which can always be commodified. The challenge for a revolutionary practice of art thus emerges: what kind of revolutionary sublime can “free subjectivity from the force of capital?”⁠2 Given that the capitalist sublime dissolves all forms into raw material for the relations of capital, what kind of form resists this interpellation?

Crockett, Robbins, and Wilson marshall Felix Guattari and Terry Eagleton to create a synthesis that might point the way. From Guattari, they want to take the notion of sensible ruptures that produce a more life-affirming collectivity. Part of this is a form of shamanic vanguardist practice of art, one in which the position of the artist lends a certain subject-supposed-to-know aura to the artist’s critiques. From Eagleton they want to take the identity of form and content in the socialist sublime; a form of practice so determined by its content that it would be irreducible to formal description; thus an alternative kind of sublime, but one by definition (as that form which resists) is always shifting to oppose capital’s attempts at re-inscription. Revolutionary art, then, constantly rematerializes against capitalism; “in the streets, the networks, the institutions, and the bodies of the artists themselves.”⁠3

The question that arises for me in this chapter, then, is why art? What kind of work is maintaining the identity of art as such doing for the revolutionary? It may seem in some sense like a naive question, and the fact that I have a paper draft that I’m actually getting graded on to do mean that I unfortunately don’t have time to fully unpack this thought, but it seems to me that the kind of identity described between the content and form of revolutionary art are such that it becomes necessarily hard to separate revolutionary art from any other part of revolutionary practice. After all, what is the real distance between the subversive aesthetic practice and the tactical practice of, say, guerilla gardens? I don’t bring this out to criticize the indistinction per se (my girlfriend is a mixed media “artist” who doesn’t think art is a word that is doing any non-ideological work for us anymore) but it seems like in reality all we’re left with is the artist as cultic personality, as subject-supposed-to-know; but if we can’t disjoin the practice of art from any other part of revolutionary practice how can we even identify that role?

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Becoming-Wasp, Becoming-Orchid

Some of the most foundational thinkers in political philosophy, Rousseau, Hobbes, etc, start the discussion of the genesis of the collective social body with certain conceptions of human nature.  All who have taken introductory courses in philosophy or political theory learn of the headache that comes with arguing about human nature.  While human nature has been an interesting development in political philosophy, asking whether human nature is fundamentally good or evil is the wrong sort of question.  Appropriating Spinoza’s ethics, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt explain that one should not ask what human nature is, but what it can become.  What is it that drives humans together into association?  What does human nature become in capitalism?  What can it become?

What is the motor of human association?  Love.  Love is what drives humans together into collaboration and toward freedom and autonomy.  Maybe love sounds a little sentimental as philosophical foundation for politics, but love can be understood as a serious political reality.  Despite it’s best efforts, capitalism cannot account for all of the productive energies of the human individual or assemblage.  Human society has certain mechanisms that emerge separately from the capitalist mode of production.  Negri and Hardt call this the commons.  There are some things, while perhaps swayed by capitalism, are not explicitly governed by the logic of capitalism.  Capitalist production is certainly a dominating logic, but there are other types of production that are of note.  For capitalist production other types of production are necessary, the production of living arrangements, domestic work, friendships, religious communities, intellectual associations, etc.  Capitalist production is an apparatus that has captured these and other types of social production.  These types of social production are what Negri and Hardt call the commons.  Love is the driving force behind the commons and what pushes humanity to desire one another.  Love is desire as a positive force.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus the discussion becomings is made through a biological narrative of the orchid and the wasp.  Evolutionary biology tells a narrative of the orchid imitating the wasp for the propagation of its species.  Deleuze and Guattari correct this narrative in saying that the orchid is becoming-wasp and the wasp is becoming-orchid.

“The orchid does not reproduce the tracing of the wasp; it forms a map with the wasp…What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real.  The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious.”(A Thousand Plateaus, 12)

What is essential here is that the encounter between the two entities creates a new reality, a new becoming.  What does it mean for the orchid to become-wasp and the wasp to become-orchid?  It means a mutual love for one another.  It is a rupture in business as usual.

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Here, one can see that love is a type of production.  In Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 he explains the alienation and production of the worker.  Capitalist production produces the worker.  “…[L]abour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore he does not affirm himself but denies himself.” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 60)  Labor is external to the individual, through labor the individual produces and in this meeting of flows the individual becomes a worker.  Capitalist labor produces the worker, but love can produce a specific subjectivity as well.  Love produces what Negri and Hardt call the multiplicity, the subjectivity of the commons.  “Love is the power of the common in a double sense: both the power that the common exerts and the power to constitute the commons.  It is thus also the movement toward freedom in which the composition of singularities leads toward not unity or identity but the increasing autonomy of each participating equally in the web of communication and cooperation.  Love is the power of the poor to exit a life of misery and solitude, and engage the project to make the multitude.”(Commonwealth, 189)  Love is an erasure of our capitalist subjectivities as workers and it is in collaborative power that a rupture is created and there is an entrance into a new social body.

Asking whether human nature is fundamentally good or bad is the wrong question, rather the question should be what could humanity become?  Love is the motor of the social assemblage, but love does not go unchallenged.  Love can go wrong.  Love turned back upon itself is evil.  Evil is that which obstructs love.  Very concretely, evil is any barrier that one may see in daily life.  Property, boarders, governments, violence are all evil in that they obstruct the common and keep humanity apart.  Love is the only movement that can remove obstructions and evil.  Love defeating evil is indignation, it is a liberating joy and the creation of the commons.

Forgive Us Our Debts

Strike Debt! is one of the latest movements of Occupy Wall St.  Strike Debt! is a push for a dialogue as well as action concerning debt culture in the United States.  Perhaps this movement has gained so much traction because debt is such a familiar topic for Americans.  Daily life in our society has become anxious and precarious.  Some of us live paycheck to paycheck; others live nervously anticipating movements of the market.  How long can we continue?  Will we get sick and not be able to work?  Will we experience another devastating market crash?  How long can we keep up on our monthly payments?  Strike Debt! strives to create networks of support and withdrawal from debt culture.  Certainly, these are activities that are important for a large portion of the social body, but what about Christians?  Can Christians Strike Debt?

The Christian church we hear about in acts is one that shared things in common.  This is a radical network of support that Christianity has lost.  The church has lost its radical community to family life centers, zumba classes and Christian bookstores.  Detractors of anarchism and communism often cite that the early Christian church lived in such a way because they were waiting for the end of the world and the return of Christ.  Though, is this much different from the way we live, don’t we live expecting some apocalyptic event?  Every Sunday we pray for the coming kingdom; we anticipate the end of the world.  Michael Hardt and Toni Negri explain this apocalyptic tone in contemporary politics saying,

“…the predominance of violence to resolve national and international conflicts not merely as last but as first resort; the widespread use of torture and even its legitimation; the indiscriminate killing of civilians combat…This vision of the world resembles those medieval European renditions of hell: people burning in a river of fire, others being torn limb from limb, and in the center a great devil engorging their bodies whole.”(Negri and Hardt, Commonwealth, Pg. 3)

How can the Christian community prepare for the end of the world?  Can Christians strike debt?  Can they take revolutionary action?  Perhaps, instead of striking against debt and other types of refusal, the Christian approach to the precariousness of everyday life is to forgive debts.  The forgiveness of debts is not simply the refusal of participating in debt culture, but the extinguishing of destructive and violent energies.  To forgive is to unbind one’s love upon another, blotting out one’s sins.

There is a strong precedent in the Christian church to spiritualize the Lord’s Prayer; perhaps one of the most oft said prayers in the Christian church.  Though, it is in this prayer we ask:

“ Your kingdom come
 Give us each day our daily bread
  And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Luke 11:4 NRSV)

As God forgives our sins, we are to forgive “everyone indebted to us.”  If our belief and actions are to be anchored by the Christian faith then the debt culture and the violence of financial capitalism must be wiped away.  Forgiving debt is a much more radical move than simply withdrawing or striking.  The Forgiveness of debts imagines new relationships between individuals and capital.  If we are to be subjects of Christ, as Joel said in his previous post, it requires an erasure of our capitalist subjectivities.

Perhaps, to parse this transformation out in a more radical way we can use the language of Deleuze and Guattari.  In the essay Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium, Deleuze and Guattari explain, “There is no ideology, there are only organizations of power.”  This is to say that Capitalism is a certain organization of power and to counter this power new organizations must be implemented.  In using this logic we find the means of the erasure of our capitalist modes of desire and production.  Changing the organizations of power changes the way one desires.  We must re-purpose our social organs toward a new becoming, becoming-Christ.  To forgive debts is to transgress against the capitalist organism.

Parenthetically, a temptation here might be to call for conformity toward what Paul in First Corinthians calls the body of Christ.  Paul’s vision of the Body of Christ is one body with many members, assemblages of members performing the duty of organs. Thinking hierarchically, the church certainly is a dominating organization of power, but hierarchy and rigid organizations of power must be exorcised from the church.  Can we imagine the church as a radical community of support and care?  There is merit to Paul’s words, but the image of the body of Christ, that is the hierarchy of the church, is far too stratified and fixed.  Paul’s body allows only for a narrow outpouring of the multifaceted desires of the Christian body.

Becoming-Christ is a repurposing of our machines of accumulation into machines of forgiveness and hospitality, our machines of hierarchy and stratification into machines of support, mutual aid, and democracy: the organs of Christ and the church must be organized into machines of kenosis, which is to say machines of self-emptying.  Instead of acquiring wealth and extracting labor we must construct they machines of love and forgiveness.  Private property has no place in the kingdom, for there is enough to go around.  What is a debt anyways?  Debt is a semiotic agreement, but Christ frees us from our debts and in turn we must free each other from debt.  Not a year of jubilee, but a world turned on its head.

A rigid grid ought not be fixed to the kingdom of God simply because love is not rigid.  Forgiveness is hard; especially when we are required to forgive that which capitalism makes us cling to.  Christian love is often transgressive against capitalist machines of accumulation.  Property, exchange and capital hold no bearing under the logic of Christ who instructs us to forgive and love wastefully.  In the face of precarity and capital let us freely love and freely forgive.