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Delusions of Revolt: notes on the limits of aesthetic praxis

By valueform, 14 May 2012



Anton Vidokle likes to think of himself as an artist and his various projects, which primarily fall under the umbrella of the e-flux enterprise, as his (among collaborators) works of art. The e-flux Time/Bank, launched in 2010 in collaboration with Julieta Aranda, is the latest in a line of ‘artistic’ exploits achieved by our protagonist that are said to ostensibly balance the imaginative terrain of aesthetic expression with materialistic concerns for instrumental political praxis. Taking form in a style not unlike past projects such as the international mailing list, journal, research platform (Art & Education), United Nations Plaza, etc., the Time/Bank presents itself as a communications technology that on one hand offers utility values: a circulating currency that is available digitally as well as in print; an online banking service/exchange platform that doubles as a professional networking site; and a variety of institutionally backed service centers that operate as ‘local’ veins for the groundless administrative arteries of the e-flux-cum-Time/Bank enterprise. On the other hand the Time/Bank presents itself as a speculative projection of an imaginary political economy that has been painted in the image of 19th and 20th century visions of distributive justice, which were driven by the belief that an equitable society could be realized through an intervention, by means of reform, in the vehicle and medium of exchange – money.[1]

             The blending of an economic reality and a political vision through the interlocutor of aesthetics has made for a tantalizing cocktail. It truly seems to be serving as an ideal taste quencher for the growing legions of downwardly mobile urban professionals that have come to a brutal realization of the disparities between monetary and social liberalism. The post-91’ dream of a ‘world society’ where money, along with the subjects using it, would flow without political restrictions and the market would penetrate everything in the name of social liberalism now appears as a ghostly fantasy. The repressive subordination of labor by capital, which in the last decade has reached its apotheosis under the reigns of global financial despotism, is ameliorated by the time/banks just distributive protocols, which through an act of pure aesthetic alchemy, is said to spectacularly unite the long lost bedfellows value and labor. In the time/bank’s climate controlled economic utopia visitors find participatory financial institutions, an equitable society where ‘all are valued equally,’ and Schumacherian visions of localism.


Pluralism and the return to autonomy.

            As the state retrenches from its former role as the mother of civil welfare calls are being uttered, from across the ideological spectrum, for the formation of autonomous, decentralized, mutual-aid institutions. Community oriented support technologies, such as time/banks, have been endemically spreading across the western hemisphere in a seeming continuity with these broader economic and political developments. As civil fidelity to the state has become more and more gelatinous in the wake of recent steps forward in the dismantling of the public infrastructures, which once served as interfaces between the state, the citizen, and the political economy; we’re being told (and in some cases telling ourselves) that its advantageous, if not simply necessary, to withdraw from a dependency on its various mechanisms of social administration.

A quick weather report on the latest product line of state sponsored ‘political’ rhetoric aptly elucidates an uncanny confluence between Bakunian visions of horizontality and the now compromised neo-liberal imperatives for deregulation. Out of this newly furnished oven comes a loaf of bread with decentralization stamped on top – a shallow pseudonym for the now buried deregulation. It is more than telling after all that Tory MP Jesse Norman, the brains behind David Cameron’s Big Society, “argues for a connected society that uses new technologies to marshal the collective wisdom of individuals to meet locally identified needs, which he contrasts with the state-led Fabian approach in which the state harnesses individuals into a collective enterprise. He champions new technologies like crowd sourcing and new social media, arguing that the role of public policy is not to meet needs itself through public sector provision, but to develop citizens’ capabilities to meet their needs themselves through their own, autonomous organisations.” (North)

 Problems hence surface in the seemingly seductive rallying cries that fall back on aggressive sectarian calls for the organization of autonomous networks of localized, community driven, enclaves. The recent explosion of “community currencies” that have been developed by initiatives such as the transition town movements do not only reflect the new product line of  ‘non-state’ state directed policy, but are direct protagonist in its public validation. The grave danger we see in pursuing these political tactics is that they often defer from engaging with the stakes involved in applying the given ethical ideals realized through the alternative world they support to the oppressed social totality they have figuratively seceded from.

We therefore must ask: where does the Time/Bank itself fall within this ideological spectrum and to what extent can an intervention in the tumultuous sphere of distribution have positive consequences for organized labor and the respective struggle against its domination by the pseudo-scientifically managed corporate-parliamentary world order? Can a molecular exodus from the tyranny of commodity relations, that are reproduced through the laws of value embodied in money, circumnavigate the pure idealism of the bourgeois subject who finds themselves unable to ‘apply their idea of individual freedom to the whole society without the self-negation of the social order that brought this ideology into being in the first place?’(lukacs) And most pertinently of all, can egalitarian imperatives for distributive justice, realized through monetary reform, truly subvert what in Marx’s terms is the essential violence of a pecuniary society – the abstraction of the sensuous qualitative product or service through its quantitative reification within a set of omniscient evaluative standards?


Vulgar humanism

The time/bank structures value through ‘hours’ and is said to achieve a humanistic representation of labor through recovering the long lost ‘labor theory of value’ which attributes value solely in relation to the investment of labor time. Now the claim being made here, that is: the human is the true source of value; is of course empowering at a moment when the exchange values circulating in the world market place have come to share an almost omniscient relation with our social existence. But before we go about affirming this ostensibly exciting association lets remember for a moment that 1.) As humans we are bio-cognitive substances that share a dialectical relation to our natural environment. Although value is by all means an entity generated through our appropriation of natural resources, it is also, on the level of use-value, something that the land, water, air, etc., also posses 2.) It necessarily follows that the attribution of value solely to the labor-power of a subject would be to endow them with supernatural creative powers.

Marx’s critique of the Gotha program is grounded on this very claim. Critiquing Lassalle’s proposed intervention on the distributive order by means of a time based labor certificate program, Marx makes the following contention: ‘The bourgeois have very good grounds for ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor is determined by nature, it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor.” (Marx, p.316) In the act of instituting ‘social equality’ through a standard of general equivalency in the value of labor, Lassalle and other “time-chits” obscure a slavery that is maintained by the capitalist/land owner through the possession of the material conditions that reproduce the wage relation  – the relation that gives the subject the idea that they are nothing but a means of labor in the first place.

Although its old statistical news that material assets such as land have been greatly superseded by scientific knowledge/rent as civilizations bread basket it would still be more than an absurdity to use these figures as a means to affirmatively justify a conception of the subject as the factory (productive site) of the 21st century. Lets put aside the Roman Catholic doctrines of Bifo for a moment i.e. the sublime fetishization of the first world’s imminent techno-scientific utopia, and come down to the profane realization that we are by now means gnostic uebermensch’s that bear the divine substance of god within our collective intellect.

With that said, the liberation of knowledge from the vampiric bastions of capital is by all means a righteous endeavor, but lets keep in mind that knowledge, like all forces under the divine laws of nature, is but a finite mode (element) within an always greater totality that cannot be reduced (on the level of value) to any of its singular parts. Human labor-power is the virtue of man. It’s free use by the individuals volition is what sets up apart. But the right to this force, a right we’re all naturally endowed with, is not absolute.


The vulgarity of humanism is expressed through the labor theory of value.

The vulgarity of materialism is expressed through capitals scarcity theory of value.

To what extent, and through what means, can we dialectically connect what is now irreconcilably divided, this being: life and world?


The Aesthetic Economy      

Although there are without doubt tactical insights entertained in the ‘harmony’ realized between the aesthetic (idealistic) and politico-economic (materialist) fields touched upon in the Time/Bank, e.g., insights concerning the potentials of a transformatory aesthetic practice that could rupture a monopolized social order and potentiate visions of a present not yet realized; the project ultimately manifests as nothing more than abstract idealism with a materialist t-shirt. It essentially repeats what is perhaps the characteristic gesture of the 20th century neo-vanguard (from Actionism to Situationism), and that has proved to be a failure in each and every case, namely: the conception of 'political art', not so much as a praxis that gains a political significance within the larger political framework that sustains it, but as the mere Ersatz or or placeholder for politics. The collapse between art and (politicized) life here merely means the staging of politics in art (which is quite the opposite of the politicization of artistic life...). As Spinoza would say: For our imagination to become a means to its own ends is to reduce ourselves to a rock that is hurled into air and in midflight, becoming conscious of its own state, thinks itself able to fly.

The delusion of the rock is perfectly reflected in the delusion of an aesthetic praxis that renders the grounds of its symbolic expression through that symbolic expression itself.  The time/based currency and its legion of institutional limbs transpose an idyllic vision of non-alienated economic relations over an existing reality of extraordinarily alienated and repressed social relations. And in doing so nullifies the lived conditions of exploitation (many face) and hence the consciousness of those conditions by the middle-class demographic that is in the privileged position of exploiting this complementary currency service. What were dealing with in political tactics such as these is hence not so much the insertion of aesthetic desire into lived material existence (the heightening/problematization of a subjective conception of our collective social world) but rather the injection of anesthetics into a world – that for many of us – has become an abject site of social poverty. 

The Time/Bank, putting aside its anesthetic undertones for a moment, is essentially an ‘aesthetic economy’. It can be considered aesthetic in the same way as our current market-economy, which is driven by speculative finance, could be said to have an increasingly aesthetic nature; both systems embody a general abstraction of value! Just as the value expressed through capital has surfaced in the present financial/economic crisis as a groundless linguistic construct – functioning through an arsenal of signs that no longer represent anything other than the power of representation itself - the time based currency, which on the level of a surface reading suggests a harmonious reconciliation of value with labor, is in its True essence nothing more than a paradoxical exhibition of what has been deeply falsified as a basis for the measurement of someone /something’s value in the wake of the crisis it contends to be reacting to – TIME[2].


An accent from the heavens to the earth

If we are interested in making the ascent down from the heavens – I’m sure some of us are rather content – it may behoove us to take a glance through the back door of the time/banks glistening labor-theory of value. The Time/Banks international restaurant franchise called Time/Food, which has opened shop in Berlin, NYC, and Moscow, vividly elucidates the inner-contradictions spoken of. The Moscow franchise, open from May 15 to July 15, offers an ethicalized Disney land experience where guests can participate in an alternative reality of exchange that has been covertly financed (with real capital) by the Stella Arts Foundation. A foundation backed by the notorious oligarchette Stella Kasaeva whose revenue is sourced from the murky waters of a Russian tobacco empire – Kasaeva has become an emblematic figure of cultural corruption in the current struggles against the very monetary liberalism that a project like Time/Bank purports to be supporting.

Putting the particular situation of corrupt finance in Moscow’s Time/Food aside for a moment, we most also come to terms with a more general reoccurring contradiction that is at play in the Time/Bank between aesthetized consumerism and its feudal capitalist backing. This contradiction, which in essence is the noted conflict that occurs in the hybridization of aesthetics and economics, idealism and materialism, autonomy and heteronomy, etc, can be quickly illustrated by simply depicting how the time-note equates value through a purely relational protocol. The value of labor and the objectified products of its ends under the time-note are represented through the biased looking glass of the cognitive service industries. The time-note simply disregards the material conditions that underpin the social or relational nature of the services exchanged within the time/bank economy e.g., as a consumer I pay for my food with the illusion that the value attributed to the received commodity is equivalent to the labor time expended in its production by the server who provides it to me. In doing so I receive a false sense of ethical gratification: The laborer, as I am convinced by what we could call this labor-certificate system, receives the full compensation for the product of their social investment of labor instead of, as would occur in a capitalist transaction, only receiving a fraction of the total profit generated through the exchange. This of course brings us back to the problems of the hybridization, which I hope now can be fully understood as the basis of the delusion that is occurring here. 

The aesthetized consumer oriented service economy only furthers the alienated and hierarchical relation between cognitive and manual labor – the system is directly supporting the further residualization of manual labor and the feudal working conditions that are the effect of its under representation. However, this is not to say that we can simply correct the division occurring here through a more ethical and just measure for the representation of value.

 The growing division between classes of ‘skilled’ and ‘menial’ laborers extends far beyond the parameters of codified vocations of ‘labor’ that could be simply incorporated within a more horizontal evaluation process.

While the service economy is valorized through the egalitarian time based economy, the manual laborer who manufactured the primary resources that were invested in the production of the food is completely devalorized. As industry is increasingly automated and financialized increasing volumes of wealth are produced with a decreasing volume of capital and labor. As a result, production distributes a decreasing amount of pay and wages to a decreasing number of workers. What follows is that a currency anchored on units of time necessarily devalorizes manual labor while simultaneously valorizing machines/capital and the cognitive work forces that are in the privileged position of controlling them.


The economization of aesthetics praxis by way of its functionalization may be seductive in its illusion to an insurgent visionary alternative, but what were left with in a project such as the Time/Bank (but also many others) is art, along with politics, as a complementary service: the necessary steam-valve for the unbearable pass of capital.


 The freedom of art, which is necessarily a freedom that is attained in the collective material realities of our life-worlds, ultimate ideal and driving principle isn’t (as our liberal existentialist friend Sartre would have us believe) the individual ascent to the ontological status of the causa sui (self-cause) a secular God whose atomistic sovereignty is accomplished in the fetishistic expression of ones own solipsistic consciousness; but rather, through an unrelenting fidelity to the totality of social relation that expose us to the lived conditions through which consciousness itself is forged. For it is only through fidelity to the collective realities of our individual repression that the true freedom of aesthetic expression can emerge.

Aesthetics pertain to emancipatory class struggle only to the text that it can partially transcend material subjugation by the existing economic constraints the struggle is struggling against. Aesthetic estrangement, grasped through this partial transcendence, rather than a withdrawal, capacitates the aesthetic act to reflect critically on the conditions of its own servitude and in doing so affect a heightened rationality in the participant who comprehends their own social consciousness within the consciousness of the aesthetic form.

 The rationality entertained in the ontological substance of the aesthetic form is not the rationality of enlightenment philosophy, which has been extensively recuperated by the scientific state as a means to justify the hegemonic exercise of power e.g. turning the economic laws of the capitalist market unto a universal science that is as unrefutible as it is pervasive. The rationality effectuated through the aesthetic form strives to critically reconcile the imminent truths of a subaltern people with the ossified social reality of a present that was not of our own making. 


[1] The model of distributive justice incorporated within the time/bank was taken from leftist ricardian socialists and anarchists such as Proudhon, Gray, Rodbertus, Darimon, and most telling for our current analysis the utopian socialist and founder of the modern avante-garde, Saint Simon.


[2] ‘Time is everything, man is nothing; he is, at the most, time’s carcass. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything; hour for hour, day for day; but this equalising of labour is not by any means the work of M. Proudhon’s eternal justice; it is purely and simply a fact of modern industry’ (Povery of Philosophy)