April 11, 2014
Theater of Circulation: Marxist Fembots in Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress
Li Cornfeld (McGill University)
Replica Res Publica: A Theoretical Consideration of Japanese Replica Food
Ksenia Sidorenko (Yale University)
Neomaterialism: the dialect of matter and dialectical materialism
Joshua Simon (MoBY-Museums of Bat Yam; Goldsmiths College)
Respondent: Barbara Browning (New York University)
Event for Noam Yuran’s What Money Wants
The Left Bank -
Israeli Communist Party Culture Club
Monday 09.06.2014, 20:00
with Uri Eran
Late last summer in the City of London, light reflecting off the glass curtain wall of a skyscraper caused, in no particular order, a luxury car, a white van and an energy drink to melt. The concave form of architectural firm Rafael Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street building already looked like one of H.G. Wells’s Martian war machines; unloading a heat-ray seemed to take the idea of finance capital as a destructive force to fantastic extremes.1 And with the intense media interest that surrounded the accident, the event represented a new intervention in the debate on urban materialism, a kind of auto-curatorial practice taking place at the level of unconscious objects.
The episode perhaps illustrates the central theme of curator Joshua Simon’s book Neomaterialism. If, as some political economists suggest, contemporary capitalism has moved to an immaterial basis then, Simon argues, this “phase-transition” has affected the way culture gives capital its content and form. In other words, in an age where financial ownership and intellectual property rights structure global values, art and culture have a complex relationship to the way capital is distributed in space and time. Not only is art a kind of currency, not only are museums a realm of pecuniary exchange, but signifying practices have enabled capital to colonise the field of everyday life. In some respects this represents both the realisation and inversion of the avant-garde project. As theorist Sylvère Lotringer says, Dada’s project has been “fulfilled…with a vengeance, embedding art into life”,2 coating the human ensemble of social relations in a substance conducive to commodification.
For media theorists like Clay Shirky this represents an astonishing opportunity. The rise of advanced analytics and social connectivity holds the prospect of a cognitive surplus, a commonwealth of knowledge and interactivity impervious to privatisation. Simon gives us a useful corrective to network fetishism. Working in the tracks of Autonomist theory, Simon highlights strains of contemporary art examining the way the “commons” has become the new frontier of economic exploitation. For Simon, conceptual artists today don’t so much revel in the rapture of commodification, as explore the pathological forms capital takes as it accumulates social relations. In Das Kapital (1876) Karl Marx wrote that “if commodities could speak” they would speak to us in the language of value. What Simon suggests is that in a time when commodities have acquired cognitive capabilities, certain artists are developing apparatuses to decode the gibberish of objects.
Perhaps Simon’s book represents a new form of guide to contemporary art. This is art as diagnostic toolkit, able to decipher the complex threats that lurk within the fixtures and fittings of everyday life. Simon conjures numerous examples. Francesco Finizio’s installations give us access to the nonsense logic of neoliberalism spewing forth arrangements of “sweetened juices, teddy bears, funnels, buckets, masks, tape and aluminium foil”. Guy Ben-Ner hacks an IKEA showroom, laying bare a day in the life of a nuclear family undergoing a slow meltdown. Heather and Ivan Morison’s junk barricades turn New Zealand’s capital into a site that simultaneously revives the memory of the Paris Commune and the earthquake that wrecked Christchurch. Where “readymades” once gave artists the ability to liberate objects trapped in a world of utility, such artworks disclose practices that create readymade subjects; life forms trapped in contracts of debt, cycles of fashion and disaster scenarios.
Simon’s implicit suggestion that neomaterialist art embodies an auto-critique of financialised capitalism is fascinating. But due to Simon’s writing style conceptual acuity is sometimes lost in a pile-up of references that cut off ideas in their prime. At one point, Simon suggests that Robert Smithson’s land art is the progenitor for Dubai’s waterfront urbanism. Later he argues that the self-help dirge The Secret represents a type of neoliberal codex. These propositions deserve whole chapters, but as impish thought-bubbles they read like witty but inconsequential observations which pop on contact with air. Also the discussion of art sometimes gets sidebarred in favour of illustrating theoretical ideas. So while we get reams of exegesis on Maurizio Lazzarato’s notion of the “indebted man”, a block of neomaterialist work is marginalised to a mere footnote. It’s not that Simon’s readings of political economy aren’t interesting, it’s just that they become more vivid when plugged into praxis.
Finally, in a text which delights in theoretical excess, the absence of one cultural theorist—the one, who ultimately underpins Simon’s claims and, in short, made this style of theory possible—seems a little pointed. But as the point is never made clear, we can only speculate that it might have something to do with Marxist political theorist Fredric Jameson’s dyspeptic regard for a figure that Simon rarely subjects to criticism, the curator. Recently Jameson has argued that curatorial practice today is symptomatic of a political shift in the way commodities are produced and consumed.3 For Jameson, the power of the curator is the asymmetrical expression of the waning potency of a collective avant-garde. Similarly, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has said that curating has become a basic competence “that everyone is obliged to practice”.4 Simon though never brings the relationship between the rise of the “curatorial class” and the generalisation of the “indebted man” into the discussion. Which is surprising given that in the era of immaterial labour, with the emergence of the “prosumer” and the entrepreneur as artist, the curator now functions as a kind of middle-manager in the new division of labour: moderating trends, recognising patterns, identifying properties. Nonetheless, Neomaterialism is a useful marker, signalling that contemporary art hasn’t forgotten that capitalism today weighs like a nightmare on the brains of those struggling to make a living.
Louis Moreno is a lecturer in the Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, researcher at the UCL Urban Laboratory, University College London and a member of the “Freethought” group convened by Irit Rogoff.
Noam Yuran’s What Money Wants: An Economy of Desire (Stanford University Press):
“Noam Yuran’s brilliant book offers a new point of view about the relationship between money and the desire for it. Arguing that desire is built into the nature of money and is not an external attachment to it, Yuran opens up new readings of Marx, Veblen, and Weber, and also gives readers a new perspective on the ways in which money can inspire excess and destabilize economies. This book will be of great interest to economists, philosophers, and social theorists.”—Arjun Appadurai, New York University
One thing all mainstream economists agree upon is that money has nothing whatsoever to do with desire. This strange blindness of the profession to what is otherwise considered to be a basic feature of economic life serves as the starting point for this provocative new theory of money. Through the works of Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, and Max Weber, What Money Wantsargues that money is first and foremost an object of desire. In contrast to the common notion that money is but an ordinary object that people believe to be money, this book explores the theoretical consequences of the possibility that an ordinary object fulfills money’s function insofar as it is desired as money. Rather than conceiving of the desire for money as pathological, Noam Yuran shows how it permeates economic reality, from finance to its spectacular double in our consumer economy of addictive shopping. Rich in colorful and accessible examples, from the work of Charles Dickens to Reality TV and commercials, this book convinces us that we must return to Marx and Veblen if we are to understand how brand names, broadcast television, and celebrity culture work. Analyzing both classical and contemporary economic theory, it reveals the philosophical dimensions of the controversy between orthodox and heterodox economics.
2014, Available Now