Tag Archives: Marx

manifestos 3: a cyborg manifesto

In the final paragraph of her “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985/1991). Donna Haraway recapitulates two crucial arguments:

1. “The production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now.”

2. “…taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts.”

And, echoing a theme introduced near the beginning, she maintains that “cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.” More than a theme, this is the heart of the matter as surely as “spirit” is for Kandinsky – “an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction,” an interplay of pleasure and responsibility that dances around cyborg imagery in a maze of dualisms long deployed to keep selves, tools, and bodies straight. The dance, which Haraway calls a “political-fictional (political-scientific) analysis” (connecting science with fiction) is made possible by three crucial boundary breakdowns:

human/animal
animal-human/machine
physical/nonphysical

Because there is no “natural” matrix of unity (and because such unity is nothing to be desired), no construction is whole, meaning that the play of difference, the play of possibility, is endless. And that leads to a critical insight into both science and fiction, both forms of possibility thinking: “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world-historical systems of domination. ‘Epistemology’ is about knowing the difference.” With Marxist analysis in mind, Haraway follows this knowing, this science/fiction from all work to all play, from organic/industrial society to “polymorphous information system.” And that in turn leads to a critical insight into control strategies: “One should expect control strategies to concentrate on boundary conditions and interfaces, on rates of flow across boundaries – and not on the integrity of natural objects.” This is a revolutionary reconfiguration of Marxist analyses of objectification and alienation. Every construction of an object is a construction of self, and neither is fixed (no matter how hard deployers of the aforementioned dualisms try to fix them).

Like Marx, Haraway recognizes the critical role of tools, of technologies, in this construction of self in construction of object in construction of self. And, recalling that it is not a cyborg (leading like a messiah) but cyborg imagery (pointing like a finger) that makes this political-fictional-political-scientific analysis not only possible but also promising, she recognizes that “myth and tool mutually constitute each other.” Technologies (which are discourses) and discourses (which are technologies) can be partially understood as formalizations (fetishes?) or frozen moments (objects?) of fluid social interactions. But, formalized and frozen, they are also instruments for enforcing meanings. She speaks of “the translation of the world into a problem of coding.” And, as has been noted more than once in the years since Haraway wrote the first version of this manifesto (by, among others, the creators of the content management system that supports this post by “using a simple interface to abstract away low-level details”), code is poetry.

“The issue,” she writes, “is dispersion. The task is to survive in the diaspora.” And that is a matter of myth: “Releasing the play of writing is deadly serious,” a matter of life and death. Bringing Luddites and other revolutionary workers to mind, she calls upon workers and worked upon to seize the tools we need to work (and, by implication, to smash the tools that keep us from working). And that means seizing not only myth but also myth-making: “Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs.” We are makers of myth made of myth, and here as elsewhere, the boundaries we draw between ourselves and our tools are subject to revision.

Haraway describes what she was doing in the 1980s when she wrote the first version of this manifesto as a contribution to the reinvention of nature (and that is the subtitle of Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, a collection of essays that includes the 1991 revision). In a “Western” context, any reinvention of nature is at the same time a reinvention of culture – and that blurs boundaries traditionally fixed between the two. One of the most important contributions Haraway makes lies in the way she connects science with fiction (and in her recognition of science fiction as fertile ground in which to use cyborg imagery as a tool in the constructive process of reinvention) – and in the way she connects both with politics. Politics is, first and foremost, the shape and shaping of the city, the body politic. Fiction is concerned with shaping bodies of knowledge (sciences and discourses). Bodies politic, like other bodies, are transformed in potentially liberating ways (ways out of the maze of dualisms Haraway cites) by cyborg imagery, which delights in the confusion of boundaries – and, in doing so, refigures (rigid) boundaries as (fluid) interfaces. These are problems of coding, no doubt, but they are also external surfaces that simultaneously obscure and provide access to collections of code (which are bodies of text). Interfaces make it possible to use code without reading it, but Haraway uses cyborg imagery to see through this. If city is the interface of human activity with (the rest of) the world (with human activity as code and city as the surface that results when its lower levels are abstracted away), blurring the interface and reconstructing it is a political intervention that remakes the city. Haraway points to science fiction as an art (τέχνη) particularly well suited to that task.

If, as Haraway says, “the issue is dispersion” and “the task is to survive in the diaspora,” and if the “diaspora” is the “polymorphous information system” that has displaced “organic/industrial society,” survival does not consist in preserving the integrity of natural objects by attending to “essential properties” but in the play of subjects, themselves polymorphous systems within polymorphous systems. Dispersion is an “issue,” but the issue is an opportunity, a matrix in which to play rather than an obstacle to be overcome. And that makes for systems that call attention to their own form in ways that open every form to transformation – cities that are complex interfaces supporting the creation and modification of what cannot be contained by abstracting away details, multiple users working in collaborative environments marked by collisions, every one of which is a crossroad.

The devil, they say, is in the details, where the crossroads are.

And crossroads, they say, are where deals are made.

That, as they say, is the deal.

Play on.

©Steven Schroeder

manifestos 1: I am for…

Claes Oldenburg insists that his 1961 “I Am For…” is not a manifesto, and we have every reason to take him at his word. He sees it as poetry, specifically as an ode; and well before the final “I am,” the object of praise is clear. This is a song of the self in the spirit of Whitman (Oldenburg later cited Whitman and Ginsberg as inspirations), and that makes it quintessentially American. In 1974, he told curators at the Walker Museum in Minneapolis that “There’s a lot of literary intention in that, so many of those things are said for the sound of them, and I don’t necessarily believe all those things. But I, at some point, might believe them. … It’s the sort of thing American artists are expected to say, because they want to embrace everything and they want to honor the muse of democracy. I don’t always feel that way.” (For now, let’s set aside the fact that a statement is not disqualified from being a manifesto if its authors don’t always believe everything it contains. Being human, we never believe everything anything contains all the time; so manifestos, wisely, do not demand unwavering and consistent belief. Let’s also set aside, for now, saying what one is expected to say. Making a poem of it makes it possible to think of the “I” as the voice of “American artists” rather than the voice of the writer, which effectively stands it on its head.) The impulse to embrace everything is akin to John Cage’s “here comes everybody” (which Cage properly attributes to James Joyce, quintessentially Irish – and appropriating it as American is as American as cherry pie), though how that relates to democracy is a bit more complicated than honoring its muse.

What I find interesting about the “I am for” refrain is that it defines function as well as desire (or stance). As it turns out, the “I” of the poem is for just about every human activity – and the “I” of the poem is for art. This is an ode to the artist by the artist, effectively saying to art that “I am at your disposal” and describing every human activity as art. So the artist is, in effect, at the disposal of every thing human beings do whenever and wherever we do it.

While it may not be a manifesto, the first six repetitions of “I am for” launch statements that are sufficiently manifesto-like to account for the widespread embrace of this ode as a call to action.

1. “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than…” both calls for and circumscribes “something other.” What the “I” of the poem is for is art that is political-erotical-mystical and that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. Whether the objection is to sitting as such or to sitting in a museum is a legitimate question. (One might well ask the co-creator of a work like Spoonbridge and Cherry if art that sits on its ass outside the museum is ok.) But if art can sit on its ass, it must be an embodied being capable of action (and inaction). The question, it seems to me, is not simply about the artist and what s/he does but also about the place (and placing) of art: where does art take place? What is the significance of placing art? Not only who does it but who places it – who puts it in its place?

2. “I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art…” implies that the action or inaction of art (and therefore of the artist?) should be unselfconscious. Or, perhaps more accurately, that it should not be done as “art.” So in much the same way that art should do something other than sitting on its ass, it should do what it does as something other than art. (There is also the more problematic possibility that it should do this only until it grows up. But the old, thankfully, cannot kill the young forever.) This extends the image of art as an embodied being by making it a being capable of knowing (and naming) what it is doing. (Here again, the artist, it seems, stands in for art.) The question is about the consciousness of art and the artist: what does art know? How? Who knows what art is?

3. “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap…” both calls for an art that is everyday and characterizes what happens everyday as (mostly?) crap. The point seems to be that art should be ordinary rather than extraordinary, for the people rather than for an elite. That it “still comes out on top” seems to run counter to that call (or at least to raise the question “on top of what?”).

4. “I am for an art that imitates the human” implies that art is not human (otherwise it would be imitating itself, which, I suppose, could explain the attitude many people have toward arts such as poetry, which is sometimes suspected of endlessly imitating itself). Imitating the human may be necessarily comic or necessarily violent. Note, though, that neither “comic” nor “violent” applies to art itself but rather to the human it is called to imitate. That imitating the human means doing what is necessary is telling, whether that is comic or violent or both. (Severn Darden explored the third option – both – brilliantly in his “Oedipus” skit.)

5. “I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself…” refines #4, but it also introduces the possibility that we are now talking about more than human life. Why imitation of “the human”? Why not imitate nature in its manner of operation (Cage/Coomeraswamy)?

6. “I am for an artist who vanishes…” suggests that the artist disappears (or should disappear) into his/her art (presumably understood in this case as a practice, not an object). The artist disappears into what s/he does. And what s/he does (see #2) does not know it is art (though it is unclear whether the one who does it knows). That the artist “vanishes” and turns up “in a white cap painting signs or hallways” raises the question of whether the one who paints signs or hallways in a white cap (as opposed to the one who paints “art” in a studio?) is invisible. Identification of the artist with the practice of art and identification of the practice of art with being human leads to art and artist disappearing into humanity. (This is an important theme, closely related to the discussion of alienation that has developed around Marx’s “fetishism of commodities.”)

I return to Oldenburg’s “ode to possibility” because it was recently cited as an inspiration for transforming the way a gallery with which I have been connected works. A close reading, a reading through, leads me not to answers but (as I would expect) to familiar questions, not only about how galleries and museums work (or should work) but also about how art works (or should work) and about how artists work (or should work).

How galleries work (or should work) is not the same question as how museums work (or should work), though they are related questions, both concerned with the work of art as object (a work that is the product of work) and, particularly in the case of the gallery, the object of art as commodity. How artists work is influenced by (and may come to depend on) the object and how it works, and who determines how (and where and when) it works.

After reading through, I am not much closer to knowing how museums work (or should work). But I do have a sense that Oldenburg believes they should work differently because the way they work now (or in the “now” of 1961) distorts the work of art, the work of the artist, and the artist who works. (His language is less explicit than Ginsberg’s lament over minds destroyed by madness, but there is an undeniable kinship.) This distortion is not unique to art, and one of the virtues of Oldenburg’s “ode” is that it turns our attention to the work of institutions designed to contain work. That has been of particular concern to critical theorists since the late 18th century, especially in the field of political economy, which has roots that reach back to much earlier philosophical and theological discussion of vocation.

The theological roots are evident, for example, in Marx’s critical reading of religion in the 19th century, which is probably as relevant to Oldenburg’s ode as his critical reading of political economy. (Marx boils it down to two sentences, the second of which, at least in the United States, is usually quoted – or slightly misquoted – in isolation: Die Religion ist der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur, das Gemüt einer herzlosen Welt, wie sie der Geist geistloser Zustände ist. Sie ist das Opium des Volkes. The sigh, the heart, the soul, the opium…

The opium without the sigh, the heart, and the soul strikes me as a more radical version of Oldenburg’s art sitting on its ass in a museum. And particularly if Oldenburg is saying what “American” artists are expected to say (or were expected to say in 1961), that seems about right. (We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit, from another manifesto, written a year later in Port Huron, Michigan, comes to mind.) But, as Marx notes, the presence of opium may be an indicator of real suffering; and attending to that real suffering turns our attention to the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. (Oldenburg’s “political-erotical-mystical” gestures in this direction.)

The museum is a church, the gallery is a market. One of the great challenges for revolutionary thought since Marx has been to move beyond simply identifying these mechanisms of containment to determining what is to be done with them (and this includes the ecclesiology of writers like Leonardo Boff and the “market socialism” of writers like David Schweickart). If that is the challenge Oldenburg lays down in this ode, now more than half a century old, it is still well worth addressing.

©Steven Schroeder