fifth column

Anish Kapoor / Vanish the Poor: 3 Olympic Symptoms

By Benedict Seymour, 18 July 2012

A series of visible symptoms reveal the truth of the London Olympics and the economy they celebrate.

I'm continuing to pursue the idea proposed in my last installment of Fifth Column that the current crisis economy is one of spectacle, a festival or (debt) jubilee economy. Debts are written off all the time, and credit is created in ever expanding quantities - for capital. Meanwhile this debt creation presumes and produces (or rather non-reproduces) ever increasing quantities of debt slaves and unpaid labourers. New forms of spectacle are created that both deflect from the downside and its risks, presuppose their continuation and increase, and in a variety of ways displace them into aesthetic/cultural forms. Can these be read as symptoms of the economic contradictions they mediate? And does the act of concealing serve as the most effective form of revelation, betraying what is really going on in absurdly blatant ways?

Three case studies from this week's trove of Olympic horrors and absurdities.



The excellent Third Estate blog drew my attention to this latest cultural manifestation of the Olympic apocalypse (i.e. its unveiling of the logic of the wider economy in crisis, and as the author suggests, indices of cultural decline):

Our subject here is synchronised bungee jumping displays, in which beLycraed gymnasts hurl themselves off former wobbly monuments (the Millenium Bridge) from an earlier phase in the mega-bubble, or waddle tightarsed down the curving shoulders of the Gherkin.

First off, such crummy spectacles do make one retrospectively appreciative of the Tiller Girls, those Busby Berkeleyian spectaculars of an earlier Depression. To bring Debord kicking and screaming into the present: What appears is naff, what is naff appears. Things were (or rather looked) better when state/capital insisted on reducing people to components in a vast fordist-taylorist machine expressing nothing. (Kracaeur). The Tiller Girls are desubjectivised, turned into geometry. It's brutal, it's reification, it's an anolgue of the factory, the continuation of the production line by other means. But at least it doesn't look totally lame.

So what's changed? The main content of the current state culture seems to be the staged encounter of the vertiginous and life threatening with the ridiculous and graceless. People on rubber bands look awkward whatever they do to resist the inherent bathos of their suspension. The syncro-bungee display compensates by leaning on the possibility of (the leapers') extinction. It's built into their anti-gravitational bathos, the falling upward. And is this not a little like capitalism tout court, these days? Where would we be without barely surviving labour, the salta non-mortale, the refusal of the leap from commodity into money or, rather from money back into commodity? The parallel with the economy here is in a kind of looted, exoteric fascination, extra-aesthetic in this case. The sub-prime movement and choreography is not fascinating - at best it manages (but generally fails) to keep the maladroitness generated by bouncing around on elastic under control. 

If the Tiller Girls were industry as ornament, then this is injury averted by management. It's like damage limitation, aesthetically and in terms of 'health and safety'. In fact the emphasis on danger introduces a certain detachment and tedium by introducing this heightened awareness of 'checks and balances'. Again one thinks of the wider economy, as if the display declared: 'Look! We keep hurling ourselves off bridges/off skyscrapers/from the top of the market, and still we bounce back! The zizekian cat remains not just padding the abyss but trampolining on the void! Everything's gonna be ok'. Except it looks idiotic, and sooner or later we'll run out of 'greater fools' capable of putting up with all this.

This is unfortunately the 'mass ornament' (suitably molecularised) that capital deserves today. Like elements composited on green screen or on spreadbetting software, the parts are in hock to their potential destruction - this generates the minimal frisson of risk - but their geometry is indeed subprime. This spectacle would be without even such borrowed tension as it has if seen in the rehearsal room, or climbing wall. It reminds one of much CGI hollywood cinema in that the actual kinetic part of the action fails to deliver, the spectacle is no longer spectacular, it just claims harder and harder to be so. Kinesis is smothered under the drive to hyper-intensity itself. The staging of pro-cinematic motion gets obscured by the shuddering camera work, manic cutting, etc. At best it is soothing (cf the Bourne films); there is a tendency of the ratio of fidgets-to-frisson to fall, producing something like stasis.

A similar risk aversion is palpable in film and in these daredevil displays. The encounter between existential threat and bouncey frivolity staged in collective leaps off buildings and bridges can only occur in a neutered form: no one can really get hurt at this pay grade, at this height of visibility. Yet as with high finance and the mechanics of risk operating there, the possibility of a rapid demise or wipe out of capital remains real and necessary to the game, if hedged and mitigated. But bands can and do snap. The subtending economy of hyper-exploitation is the (un)living proof that health and safety walks on the legs of sickness and precarity. These Olympic bungenastics (?) index the dominant cultural 'non-reproduction': this is the cultural cognate not of old-fashioned exploitation through taylorism/division of labour/economies generating intensities of movement as described in Kracaeur. Instead this a spectacle reliant on 'free inputs' (risk > grace) - just as the jubilee, olympics, and all the other Olympic spectacles rely on labour and capital whose cost of reproduction they have not or will not pay for. Its an aesthetic complement to an economics of 'externalities', and presumes the wider state of exception that helps reproduce them.

Synchronised suffering

Grimly, one can also make out in such displays the image or intimation of the mutilations that they recapitulate, rehearse and repress. These displays of elastically enhanced health and efficiency coincide with the State assault on the disabled. The 'cheerful' display of resilience, of bouncing back in capital's 'school of hard knocks', evokes it's opposite - the being shot or thrown down and not recovering, on which 'recovery' would be predicated.

This brings us to our next station of the Olympic double cross.



"I couldn’t help but notice that something was missing from the picturesque landscape, with prominent landmarks. It was the Council deprived Carpenters Estate, my home for eight years, and home to many others for nearly half a century."

The Games deletes the poor. Here's the visible emblem for the process of making invisible. The Olympic powers want the Carpenter's Lane estate tower block whose upper storeys they have requisitioned not for reproduction of labour - i.e. council housing - but rather magnification and reproduction of the Olympic spectacle. The estate becomes instead a media centre. One kind of reproduction replaces another; a dialectic of reproduction predicated on and resulting in (expanded) non-reproduction.

In the case of the Carpenter's Lane Estate, the image (of the Games), like fictitious capital, expands, while labour and the means for its reproduction is required to disappear. Eliding a council block from the viewing platform of the Arcelor Mittal Orbit is just the pinnacle, as it were, of an anterior material process of expropriation. Commandeering the estate for media purposes and displacing its former occupiers gives the basic plot of the Olympics in nuce. The tower block is repurposed, the poor are removed. This fits the description of 'enlightenment' (aufklarung) in Farocki's analysis in his film 'Images of the World and the Inscription of War': 'aufklarung' also means reconaissance - in WW2 the aerial mapping of enemy territory by the airforce prior to bombing raids. Looking is preliminary to and product of looting and elimination of labour.

This brings to mind the Olympic slogan that no one is now allowed to use if they haven't paid to do so. So let's loot that one back for a moment: Citius Altius Fortius. This is the formula for a race to the bottom - get to the top of the tower block first by grace of Olympic special powers and you can throw everyone out even faster than normal. Forget drugs and doping by athletes, the corruption endemic to modern sport, the Games are the anabolic steroids of exceptional juridical action. The new normal of the Olympics establishes and gives impetus to a new - and greatly accelerated - 'socially necessary looting time', drastically compressing the process of ripping off the poor and lowering the social wage. It's even better than a natural disaster (cf my analysis of Hurrican Katrina as disaster based primitive accumulation, here: ), because people are not only expected to suffer it but are conscripted to cheer it on and voluntarily assist the process. What regeneration could formerly turn around in a decade it now does in months or days. Eviction of all the co-ops, expropriation of council housing, snatch squads and dispersal zones for the poor? Why not. Faster, higher, stronger!

Returning to Carpenter's Lane - here the tower block becomes a viewing platform aimed AT the games and the Orbit (more on this below). The housing estate has become the 'support' (as they used to say in discussions of painting) which at once facilitates and is eclipsed by the olympic spectacle. As everywhere else in the Olympic state of emergency, labour is required to disappear. In fact, labour only 'works' (for capital) when it is rendered invisible and barely-living. As with the slum camp of sub-subsistence Olympics workers, migrants working as cleaners, that was discovered and revealed to the world in the Daily Mail this week, the worker has to be all but deleted so the employers can prise the maximum amount of work/value out of their collective hide. So no proles in the picture, no proles on the ground, just physical and corporate 'athletes' (uebermensch?) and their servants/ faux frais/celebrants. The rest are erased.



All over London Tatlin's Monument to the 3rd International is returning, the surest symptom of some profound affinity between our current crisis economy and that of early Soviet capitalism. But this also gives an intense sense of the contrast between the two historical moments. If the monument to Soviet socialism is now insidiously being recited in the heart of early 21st century TINA-capitalist FIRE economics one gets a shiver of the sense of geographical - historical - psychic displacement and involution going on.

One sees Tatlin's tower quoted, unconsciously or unselfconsciously, in the insignia of the new Pinnacle skyscraper going up in the heart of the City of London. It is much less discussed than the Shard but will be another monument to the economics of oligarchy on which after all the City is predicated. But most clearly one sees it - disfigured - in the form of the Arcelor Mittal Orbit.

Let's compare these two 'signature' buildings.

Tatlin's Tower: never-constructed monument to a fantasy of capitalist development in which Marx's dialectical critique of capital's dialectical spiral is perverted into a really stylish emblem of technological progress and expanded productivity. It is indeed a model, was never realised, any more than the Soviet Union was ever communist, or production in Russia was ever more than a primitive accumulation based scramble toward 'relative surplus value' based extraction in the era Tatlin and his Bolshevik peers were dreaming it. Lenin's Fordist-Taylorist utopia finds its geometric perfectionin Tatlin's tower, a fantasy of growth which, if premature, did, after much destruction and expropriation of capital, 'come true' later on in the Soviet gesammtkunstwerk.

Now compare Tatlin's graceful feat of abstraction with Kapoor's involuted rollercoaster. It lacks the concessions to democracy built into the Tatlin. Space for discussion and debate was an integral part of the (Soviet) spectacle, at least. Anish Kapoor's viewing platform manages to 'vanish the poor' by inserting his signature mirror glass at crucial points, covering over the remaining council housing blocks not yet fully cleansed. This spiral is designed to be seen but also to obfuscate the terrain which it commands lest it become too interesting or revealing to the viewer.

The Orbit's somewhat wayward orbit offers a cognate for the form of contemporary accumulation. This downward spiral is not a dream of expanded reproduction as was Tatlin's. His icon of progress through science, technology and democracy was destined only to be fulfilled after decades of forced collectivisation, looted and coerced labour, fantasy production without realisation, of course. But Kapoor's is all-too-'now', too technocratically feasible, a monument to pragmatism and the refusal to think too much about the future except as the imminent time when things will get better again, somehow. The  Kapoor spiral is mangled, damaged, it incorporates all the 'excesses' and deviations from geometric progression to which the Tatlin gracefully and with true modernist idealism turned a blind eye. It has plenty of swerves, but these are executed with a plodding commitment to 'subversion'. The 'detournment' of Tatlin again seems unconscious - a compulsion in oligarchic architecture to ingest and exgurgitate the modernist/fordist archetypes. The logo for the Pinnacle extrapolates Tatlin's elegant figure into something like a piece of penne. Kapoor downgrades and degrades the spiral, he realises it, and its contradictions, by incorpoarating what in his idealism Tatlin had to leave out. The lumps and bumps and non-linear dynamics of an economy in which looting is just too constitutive to be ignored or disavowed - that, instead, must be celebrated. The Orbit is preemptively catastrophic, self-cannibalising, as if its graceless curves traced the downward spiral of 'disaster capitalism'. 

The old Bolshevik Ricardians transcended reality in imagination, declaring the conscious, forced transition to real subsumption capitalism a programme for 'communism'. Their contemporary successors dream a forced transition to neo-feudalism under the global capitalist oligarchy. No wonder this should take on the physical form of a display of self-botched plumbing. Tatlin's spiral went upwards, elegantly, economically (one might say). Kapoor's goes down, wobbles out, sucks extra-geometrical factors in (non-waged labour, non-reproduced capital) and squeezes out a wonky distraction from the labour camps and displacements going on around it. Of course the Soviet Union was also predicated on famines, on war communist cannibalism of all kinds. But, from capital's perspective, its dream of productivity was at least proleptic of actual expanded reproduction, accumulation, growth. The hypnagogism of contemporary capital is an after-dinner half-sleep dreaming of both its youth and its presumptive eternity. A senescent infinity horribly coupled with intimations - non-reproductive reproductions - of its youthful historical task, now long since accomplished and receding in the rear view mirror of history.

The Orbit is the non-linear model of a capitalism that might very well go on and on, though has lost any compelling argument for why it should do so. This results in an aesthetic naffness unprecedented in imperialist history - as with the bungee jumping displays. Hypnagogic capitalism poised between productivity and a new era of expanded destruction proposes synchronised flailing and self-mangling Meccano follies. Kapoor puts in the 'errors and deviations', thinking himself enlightened, just as the designers of slum camps for migrant workers must congratulate themselves for including leaks and flooding into the plan of their worker's housing. No more Auschwitz for us, today's concentration camps are just not so fascistically well built. Our camps leak!

So we have the aesthetic atrocity of the Orbit balancing and above all distracting from the labour required for its construction housed in the opposite slum camp. A continuum of looting and coercion above and beyond the dull compulsion of wage labour and old fashioned (one might say 'ideal') capitalist exploitation. Tatlin gives us an architectural cognate of the capitalist ideal of the worker who is paid an equivalent for his cost of reproduciton and is fairly, freely exploited (exchange is 'the Eden of the rights of man', mutually binding contracts are observed). Unpaid labour here is simply the surpls value the capitalist takes and feeds into the growing heap of capital which will in turn sustain the next circuit in the upward spiral. Its a kind of rip off, but it isn't direct theft. Tatlin's monument captures the idealism of this true lie, the form of capitalism in which democracy is a requisite for the better functioning of the social machine, in which labour must be integrated (by unions, by party, by political participation) into its reproduction. It elides the constitutively necessary supplement of non-reproduction - the starving and working to death of the population, the expropriation of the peasants, war communism, holodomor.

Kapoor's disfigured modernism gives us a different ideal, more fitted to the times. One which has in an 'enlightened' way incorporated the realities of non-reproduction, all the ways in which labour and capital are not in fact reproduced, in which exchange of equivalents does not take place,  where, by the grace of ever expanding ficititious capital (credit bubbles are now far vaster than in 2007 before the crisis), accumulation by means of looting and social contraction can and does continue. It is a utopian three-dimensional cognate of the present reality - that is, it is dystopian, but somehow pathetic at the same time.



For more on Carpenter's Estate check out this excellent recent piece on Mute: