[iDC] (no subject)

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at wanadoo.fr
Tue Jan 30 19:13:52 EST 2007

Kevin Hamilton wrote:
> Well, the posts from Brian and Luis don't exactly set up a ground for 
> discussion, but they do seem to demand a response. I'll give it a try.

This is to your honor, I would say, and I also thank you. I would not 
have written if not in hopes of a response.

>  If we were to invite you to 
> campus, Brian (and I know there would be many who would welcome such a 
> visit, including myself), we could situate such a visit within a wide 
> range of applications. Your work might be superficially employed toward 
> communicating an insincere attitude of institutional self-critique to 
> students, staff, or town residents. Your work might be educationally 
> employed through introducing students to some particular ways of 
> thinking and being in the world. Your aid might be requested, in 
> exchange for monetary compensation, towards the service of curricular 
> reform. That reform might be long-lasting, or a flash-in-the-pan, and I 
> might have even invited you knowing that it would only accomplish a 
> short-term impact. 

You've hit the nail on the head, these are all the things I consciously 
engage in with varying degrees of satisfaction or regret, depending on 
the situation. Like most of you, I am basically a nice person and try to 
make the best of whatever the world dishes up. But the statement of a 
starker dichotomy seeks to make a different point.

> My sense from your work Brian is that you are used to looking 
> at such a diverse world of action, and so my surprise at your post. 
> Perhaps I misunderstood your intent, but I think the breadth of 
> audiences on this list deserve a more nuanced, if equally critical, 
> approach. 

Well, yes, but there are so many nuanced contributions. And very few 
viewpoints like Camnitzer's, which I think touched on a fundamental 
paradox. Restating or reinventing it from my perspective, it goes like 
this: in the absence of an outside, of a plausible alternative, 
contemporary capitalist society has convinced nearly everyone to expend 
their vital energy in attempts to fulfill the ultimately false promise 
that the system is perfectible within its own rules. My position is: 
admit anything but that! The reason why is not just that the evidence is 
all around you, that there has been a tremendous degradation in the 
basic conditions of living in common. This you have to admit, anywhere 
you live in the Western world: we are surrounded both by outright 
fascism, and by a deep deadening of humanity, a functionalization of 
infantilized people caught on the dictates of an economic hook, just as 
the cover of the Nirvana album Nevermind expressed it so perfectly. So 
the deeper reason why is that if you do admit the rules of the game 
according to neoliberal terms, then like Danny Butt, you cannot even 
think anymore if you do not have a financial plan for achieving your 
goals. A great disappointment in recent life was meeting this guy at a 
conference on the creative industries in Amsterdam, Danny Butt, who 
writes so smoothly on the Internet, who has such a nice explanation for 
everything and who in public could do nothing but talk about the great 
success of his cultural consulting business. I couldn't bear to even say 
a word to him after he spoke. "I don't talk or think if I don't have a 
financial plan." That statement is what Camnitzer denounced in his post, 
and that is in fact an extremely widespread conclusion. The result is a 

Financial plans in a competitive economy are based on some winning, and 
many others losing. So one's thinking then becomes the thinking of 
competition. What is needed now is rather refusal and revolt based on 
other principles, the principles of equality, solidarity, and respect 
for the singularities of human existence in time. Precisely this has 
been lost in the great competitive struggle to get a corporate or 
university position and obtain the privilege of helping the world elites 
consume us all to death. The rhetoric of the creative industries, for 
example, is a typical or even exemplary formulation of this deeply 
mistaken belief. What is at stake, therefore, is first and foremost an 
ontological decision. One has to decide what kind of being one is going 
to be. The appearance of being cooperative, of negotiating, of 
respecting your peers, of being civil in short, can be very misleading. 
A deeper ontological decision might lead to the realization that the 
only way to continue existing as though equality, solidarity and respect 
for singularity were all possible, is to exist on an oppositional 
footing. And this means not believing in the validity of the currently 
existing sets of rules. There is nothing more precious to communicate 
and teach than this fundamental disbelief.

For many years I have been rather worried about the state of my home 
country, the USA, which along with Britain sets the standards and 
formulates the leading ideas for the rest of the world. In the 90s there 
was no use for me to go to the USA: everyone was convinced that the New 
Economy would bring a digital paradise to the entire earth. Then came 
Seattle and a brief belief that other thoughts could be stated in 
public. However as we know, 9/11 was used to quash that brief 
impression. Meanwhile I see the people who could have been my 
colleagues, if I had stayed, going on talking about small ameliorations 
in the ways that they are going to continue doing what they call making 
a living. For me it is a way of becoming dead to the world. When I read 
this particular mailing list, which is strongly North American, I have 
that feeling of being trapped like an insect with a pin through its 
spine. This is the kind of particularly intense feeling that you can 
only feel in the society where you were born (though I also feel it 
sometimes, less intensely, in my adopted country of France where I have 
now lived 16 years).

There is without any doubt a point where the best thing you could 
possibly do for your students is to convince them not to succeed on the 
present terms of North American society, which are deadly. Learn the 
courage to admit that and get to know your own mortality. In Eastern 
Europe in the 1980s, under conditions of what Havel then called 
"post-totalitarian societies" which were relatively similar to the 
conditions under which we live today, principled people developed what 
they called an "anti-politics," where the aim was to create a "parallel 
polis," in which the currently reigning forms and logics of social power 
held no sway, in which they were merely an echo from a far-off land 
which had ceased to matter. Well, that unrealistic position had effects: 
it ended the grip of the Soviet regime over people's minds. If digital 
technologies can be used to this end, then everything discussed here has 
a meaning.

At the same time, my impression is that if this kind of position does 
not become a priority - if we are all still convinced we need a 
financial plan before we can think - then the infinite refinements of 
digital curriculum will be something like a commentary on the experience 
of cryogenics, or the experience of inner freezing. You see, I often 
have the distinct impression that most academics, of the American 
variety in particular, engage in a long-winded commentary on their own 
death. Of course this alienation and loss of access to a free and 
vibrating sensorium is not surprising when you see the kind of society 
that is all around us. The point is to continue seeing that society 
exactly as it really is, and to succeed at the same time in creating the 
presence of another, sharable world which does not have such fatal 
characteristics. I understand this is difficult, indeed it is the 
existential struggle itself. And I happen to think that when someone 
like Luis Camnitzer succeeds in naming that existential struggle, it is 
worth pausing over, however meritorious the previous discussion of 
teaching strategies may have been. So please excuse me for the 
abruptness of my intervention. My concern is that someday, and clearly 
already for many people, there will no longer be any reference point, 
any outside, from which to maintain that other, sharable world. But of 
course when the very idea is forgotten, no one misses it.

all the best, Brian

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