15 May 2021

today i found a tiny bit of courage floating in the cesspool of compulsory optimism that is our postmodern, postjudgmental world

Subjectivity as the Beginning of the End

Richard Gombin
The Origins of Modern Leftism (1971)
trans. Michael K. Perl (1975)
on the Situationists:

p. 72—"This incorporation of the subjective dimension in the revolutionary quest is a completely new phenomenon in the tradition of the labour movement...
...the struggle of the subjective broadens the front of the old class struggle. ...this notion [is] completely foreign to Marxism..."
It's worth pausing to consider the last bit, ca. 50 or so years on, in light of PoMo, Intersectionality, etc., where this point is acknowledged only to widely varying degrees. Also to reiterate a point which those movements make abundantly clear, and which the Situationists didn't always acknowledge: subjectivity is messy, infinite regress is the rule, and hence this veritably railroads movements into "total contestation," incremental/single-issue work being impossible this way.

[from a post-it, 2018]

The All-None Problem

Richard Gombin
The Origins of Modern Leftism (1971)
trans. Michael K. Perl (1975)
per H. Lefebvre:

pp. 70-71—"...before life can become the art of living, art has to invade life. ...artistic activity enables participation by the individual in the world: art has always been the highest form of creative work. The individual can only become liberated if art ceases to be a specialized activity, ceases to be, in its mercantile form, a reified activity. ...men will only be happy when they are all artists."
And yes, if they are all artists, then none of them are artists. Hence "supersession." Is there more? If we deconstruct the "mercantile form" of modern art just a bit, we in fact find quite a few artists (both pros and committed hobbyists) seeming/claiming to derive their specifically artistic brand of fulfillment either directly or, more often, indirectly (yet unmistakably) from the receipt of external validation via the reified form of practice/reception. It is "reified" per se specifically for creating an exchange value, which is the quantificational vehicle of this external validation. The all/none issue, trite as it may be, thus asks us to consider whether art is really "the highest form of creative work" or whether it is, rather, merely the most powerful differentiator among subjects, hence the most powerful ego stroker. The latter is certainly ripe for supersession, but I suspect the result to be None rather than All, and that sounds less like utopia than a different kind of pestilence.

[from a post-it, 2018]

14 May 2021

Vincent Kaufmann—Debord, Autobiography, Exemplarity

Vincent Kaufmann, trans. Robert Bononno
Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry (2006)
Debord is one of the great autobiographers or self-portraitists of the second half of the twentieth century... He developed an unchallengeable form of autobiographical writing, through which a statement coincides with an act (and could coincide with an act only because it amounted to no more than "not showing himself".)


In this light, it is clear that it is precisely because of their exemplarity that Debord's autobiographical writings must at the same time be "theoretical," or that, at the very least, there is continuity between these and his autobiographical writings in the strict sense of the word. From Saint Augustine to Rousseau and beyond, this has always been the case. Exemplarity always serves ideology (religious, political), at least when the opposite is not the case. With Debord this continuity is especially obvious in the most autobiographical of his films [In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978)]...


The film does not start out autobiographical. It begins, like the film version of The Society of the Spectacle (1973), as a work of social criticism, with themes that will be familiar to anyone who has seen his previous films: the critique of passivity, of separation, of the vapidity of art in general and film in particular... But this tone is abandoned after some twenty pages (and a little more than twenty minutes), replaced by a long and explicitly autobiographical narrative, introduced in the following terms: "Thus, instead of adding one more film to the thousands of commonplace films, I prefer to explain why I shall do nothing of the sort. I am going to replace the frivolous adventures typically recounted by the cinema with the examination of an important subject: myself." There is no film, let's move on to a discussion, to conflict, that is, to me. Such a change of register is indeed an echo of the declaration of 1952, and it is emblematic of Debord's oscillation between "theory" and "self-portraiture," or, if you will, of their continuity. Autobiography is here a form of social criticism by other means; exemplarity, in a way, constitutes the proof of the relevance of theoretical discourse.

As I have already suggested, this exemplarity is negative. The period during which Debord was active, which he anticipated to a certain extent (if we imagine him beginning in 1952), is one in which autobiography, and more generally biography, triumphed. But it's just a short step from triumph to the most repulsive degradation. The death of the author foretold by Barthes and Foucault seems quite distant, and if there ever was a time when the author, modestly converted into an anonymous writer, signed his works only for the sake of form, he is now more alive than ever, and more desirous of proving this, of leaving traces of the life he so enjoys. Proof of this can be found in the recent success of intimate memoirs, correspondence, and biography, and more generally the autobiographical turn taken by contemporary fiction. Hasn't the right to create "personal fiction," as it is called, become as unquestioned as human rights once were? Everything would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds if contemporary authors still had the time, between book signings and television appearances, to lead a life that was unique enough not to depend on the clichés of sentimental personal fiction. It is one thing to have reestablished the author's rights, quite another to identify a life that is prestigious enough and, especially, unique enough to justify their use. The danger of the democratization of the right to self-expression is that when it is overused, the claim to authenticity and singularity that historically justified autobiography quickly fades into indifference and a lack of differentiation. It then becomes no more than a rhetoric of authenticity. Singularity is the condition of authenticity and authenticity is corrupted in the presence of the commonplace. From this point of view, the critical importance of Debord's actions lies in his ability to turn his epoch upside down, to make a break with it, to turn himself into its other." (28-30)
"At the very least, there is continuity between these [theoretical writings] and his autobiographical writings," and the reason is the "exemplarity" of this work, which is to say that "a statement coincides with an act" at all times. (28) VK seems to be getting at something deeper and more profound than mere consistency of words and actions, but I can't tell what. This consistency means that Debord's work is always "theoretical," even when it is also (and more explicitly) "autobiographical." "Exemplarity always serves ideology...at least when the opposite is not the case." (28)

"Exemplarity, in a way, constitutes the relevance of a theoretical discourse." (29) That is, one may prove (such a strong term, but whatever) the validity of a piece of Theory by practicing it oneself; and at that point, a chronicle of such life and living takes on a new relevance.

Importantly, "this exemplarity is negative," (29) meaning that it instantiates an example of living differently than the predominant examples in one's immediate midst. The "most repulsive degradation" of autobiography occurs when authors no longer "lead a life...unique enough not to depend on the clichés of sentimental personal fiction," when "the right to self-expression...is overused [such that] the claim to authenticity and singularity that historically justified autobiography quickly fades into indifference and a lack of differentiation." Seeing this, Debord achieved a certain "critical importance" by "turn[ing] his epoch upside down...mak[ing] a break with it...turn[ing] himself into its Other." This is Negative Exemplarity. Otherwise known as swimming against the current, zigging as others zag, or perhaps simply being born in the wrong era, city, country, milieu, etc. That is certainly not unique, but consistency is, so that as far as that goes the point is well-taken.

The critique of the prevailing practices in "personal fiction" is always timely. I hesitate to say that it is well-articulated here as I have had to reread the passage several times in order to fully grasp it. But let's just say I'll Take It, which is to say it's good to know I'm not crazy for groping towards more or less the same critique of the Autobiographical Turn. In fact I would say that VK actually doesn't go far enough vis-a-vis "the right to create personal fiction" becoming "as unquestioned as human rights once were." In fact the Autobiographical Turn has become an Autobiographical Imperative in many circles. One such circle is populated by the Arts Entrepreneurs or Arts Businessperson (-Milo's verbiage), who have found (or claim to have found) that the personal sells. It would of course be quite fruitful to attempt to ferret out the essential from the contingent here, as well as the simpler question of whether the seeming infallability of this business plan is the reality or merely the perception.
The consequences are rather different for each combination, including one logical impossibility. But regardless of the truth, I'd expect that this Imperative is here to stay for a good while. It is, let's say, quite overdetermined, no?

[from a notebook, 2017]

13 May 2021

Fenstermaker—The Division of Household Labor

Sarah Fenstermaker
"Work and Gender" (orig. 1985)
Doing Gender, Doing Difference: Inequality, Power, and Institutional Change
ed. Fenstermaker and West (2002)
pp. 105-118
p. 110—At least metaphorically, the division of household labor facilitates two production processes: the production of goods and services and what we might call the production of gender. Simultaneously, household members "do" gender, as they "do" housework and child care, and what I have been calling the division of household labor provides for the joint production of household labor and gender; it is the mechanism by which both the material and the symbolic products are realized.
Indeed, are there not as many "symbolic products" manufactured this way as the given society is able to conceive of and value? Because this seems to me also a perfect description of how what might be called status, prestige, distinction, or more likely simply conformity (in a nonetheless intensely value-laden sense) is produced; "normative conceptions," all of them, and none precisely coextensive with "class" per se. Seems to me as well that the holding-to-account that is done with regard to family distinction is, more often than in more widely discussed, historically fraught arenas such as race, undertaken quite bald-facedly and unremorsefully. If indeed it belongs in the category of manufactured accountabilities, it could for this reason be uniquely susceptible to study; but then, for it to be thus studied would require the studiers to treat the artifacts of family distinction as no more absolute or imperative than gender, race, or class identities are treated in Doing Difference; and thereby one may, I think, occasionally be up against the White Bourgeois streak in Feminism that we read so often about but less often can put a finger on.

[from a notebook, 2018]

12 May 2021

Collins and Bilge—(Young) Bolsheviks in the Bathroom

Intersectionality (2016)
Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge

p. 167—schools as "important venues for youth activism," because "that's where they spend their time"

Indeed, they presently spend virtually all of their time there, which forces the channelization of all kinds of impluses into the School life, most of them only rather uncomfortably. This takes the longer-standing suspicion of youthful rebellion by adults and adds the more basic grounds for skepticism that so much such rebellion is so obviously of limited scope. The element of sequestration is, if not more pressing than the issues raised by Freire, certainly more basic and expansive. That is to say that even with an ideal "critical" education, no student can possibly develop evenly if they are sequestered. This has nothing to do with school failing to reflect the Real World; school should not reflect the Real World quite so thoroughly, but nor should students be holed up in one airless corner of it to the extent that the discussion of youth activism necessitates accounting for the peculiar form of their location. It is an unfortunate (and one hopes unintended) consequence of the focus on expanding access that this side of the discussion is more or less beyond the pale for most of the Left. What are we expanding access to? The fact that student activism has a sociological literature devoted to it is one big cue to ask that question.

[from a post-it, late 2017]

Collins and Bilge—It Takes Skills and Time

Intersectionality (2016)
Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge

p. 116-123—on Hip Hop as youth culture

One point of affinity here with "the neoliberal status quo" (117) is this: art is worthy of mere mention only in the context of a (very questionable) theory of youth. Do any adults make Hip Hop?! Does their work aspire or achieve in simlar or different manners? Youth "rarely have the skills and time to get elected to public office" (117), but somehow these limitations are not only surmountable but in fact salutary to their making socially engaged art! This, then, if it is such a great situation, exemplifies art's place in society, namely as literally juvenile and stunted, the best among a few bad options for the unripe to be up-waivered to an adult level of agency without actually living the life of an agent.

Art being among the "areas" of which the authors "could not include an extensive discussion" (viii), this case study is implicitly asked to bear quite a bit more weight than it is able to.

[from a post-it, late 2017]

Collins and Bilge—Disciplinary Segregation

Intersectionality (2016)
Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge
p. 100—"Overall, the non-intersectional approach of each area limited its ability to consider the ways which other areas might shape its distinctive concerns."
My gut reaction to this paragraph was that it is too sweeping/total in its dissent. Upon a second reading, the word "limited" seems a satisfactory qualification. It is even so hard to believe that disciplinary "segregation" was ever fatal; more likely, I would think, the cross pollination, being of that inevitable/ineluctable type that we all love to invoke in situations like this, was, variously: unintentional, inexplicit, fluid, chaotic, ebbing/flowing, etc. If so, the contribution of Intersectional thinking vis-a-vis advancing said work to a more powerful, relevant, effectual place, would be selective and incremental rather than total and sweeping; and that matter bears as heavily on internal academic politics/legitimation/turf wars/etc. as it does on the Cause. Just saying.

[from a post-it, late 2017]

Collins and Bilge—Experience≠Evidence≠Theory

Intersectionality (2016)
Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge
p. 46—"...foregrounds the ways in which activism or experience shape knowledge, an insight that is often lost when theoretical approaches are institutionalized in the academy."
This is something of a false dichotomy, or at least a diversionary one. What both "experience" and "theory" suffer from, statistically speaking, is insufficient sample size. Hence the more technocratic, mainstream methodologies of Sociology proper typically involve a certain gathering of evidence before any conclusions are (or can be) drawn. It is true that this has historically been the site of myriad biases, usually toward Power and whatever groups hold it; but if that is so scary, just look at what an eerily similar conception of knowledge construction via "experience" currently prevails among the alt-right and the ways which it is called into service by them (e.g. D'Souza's "rational discrimination"). Can we really trust informal consortiums of like-minded activists to pool their experience and look for patterns with any meaningful degree of detachment? Probably no more than we can trust ivory tower theoreticians with no "experience" at all to create it in their proverbial laboratories. Scientific empiricism is hardly perfect, but IMHO it beats the pants off the other options, and I do find it conspicuous by its absence here.

[from a post-it, late 2017]

Collins and Bilge—The Applied Focus and Its Discontents

Intersectionality (2016)
Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge
p. 37—"To varying degrees, scholars and practitioners in social work, criminology, public health, law, and education recognize that knowledge production in their respective fields cannot be separated from professional practices. ... Because they straddle scholarship and practice, academic disciplines with a strong clinical or applied focus have been especially receptive to intersectional frameworks. Intersectionality often finds a welcome home in fields that already see theory and practice as interconnected."
The arts (or some version of them) would seem to merit passing mention here, but alas, another example of their failing to register. I tend to think that such conspicuous omissions are informative for artists.

As far as the internal dynamics of particular art practices, the relevance of intersectionality would seem to hinge on a given practice's relationship to notions like personal expression, telling your story, etc.

Certainly the arts also are, to varying degrees, "oriented to public engagement," but of course it is the basest form of this orientation (i.e. marketing) that brings consideration of identity most directly into the dialogue; and to be sure, much ostensibly charitable outreach work deserves to be categorized under the heading of marketing. The basic problem is that class remains a useful catchall vis-a-vis access to the arts, and in a way that the authors specifically deny is the case elsewhere.

[from a post-it, late 2017]

11 May 2021

Karen Offen—Wherein It Takes One To Know One

Both the relational and the individualist modes of argument have historical roots in what historian Temma Kaplan has called "female consciousness," or consciousness of the "rights of gender." The evidence also suggests incontrovertably that proponents of the relational position possessed a "feminist consciousness": they viewed women's collective situation in the culture as unjust, they attributed it to social and political institutions established by men, and they believed that it could be changed by protest and political action. Nevertheless, they insisted that women had a special role, a role distinct from that of men. Thus, it is clearly erroneous to assert, as Kaplan recently did, that "all feminists attack the division of labor by sex, because roles limit freedom, and to mark distinctions is to imply superiority and inferiority." This is a radically individualist, very contemporary, and ultimately very exclusionary perspective on the history of feminism. ("Defining Feminism," 141)
First, recall that KO, having established the validity, if not the importance, of pursuing the question of definition of terms more than cursorily, dismissed the practice of applying the word "feminism" retroactive to its actual existence as "anachronistic" and, more to the point, "conceptually anarchic." (131) The present passage, then, is aimed at something of the opposite problem, i.e. the narrowing of both the temporal and conceptual bands to which "feminism" might be applied, specifically hinging on whether or not it "attack[s] the division of labor by sex." Without saying so quite so explicitly, KO offers a somewhat broader but ultimately just plain differently-oriented definition of "feminist consciousness."

Indicative perhaps of the social and intellectual fracturing inherent in hair-splitting expeditions, I would say that neither of these definitions quite works for me; though I'm happy to grant Feminism whatever leeway it needs, in terms of the interconnection of Feminist insights with wider social issues (and to be sure, both definitions here seem anxious to embrace those connections) I believe a broader, simpler concept of unprejudiced social agency is both sufficient and more pragmatic. The premise that "roles limit freedom" is central to this concept, but it also rejects Kaplan's rejection of "mark[ing] distinctions" on the grounds that distinctions cannot help but emerge even (actually especially) from ideally fair social intercourses; the fairness of the process generally (though certainly not always) will be reflected in the result.

KO's "feminist consciousness" is, in a word, broader than Kaplan's (anti-)role-oriented critique, and it must be pointed out that my "unprejudiced social agency," being broader yet, certainly allows for the eventuality that, given a fair case-by-case sort of interchange with the social world, a sizable group of women may well emerge whose wants and needs look very Traditional in comparison to present and future prevailing social norms, and that as a group within this larger social world they could have valid and distinctive concerns which need to be addressed. That being as it may, given such an ideal scenario, can we expect this group to be any larger than a middling minority? I for one would be quite curious to know the answer, because it so often seems that despite our present patriarchal malaise there persist nonetheless myriad institutional and psycho-social tithes to the bourgeois, quietist aspirations of this vocal minority; hence, for me, having quite different aspriations, KO's "relational" feminism is what makes feminism scary, and "individualist" feminism, while I certainly see its limitations, usually seems closer to curing what ails us.

It is at that point in spite of the admirable breadth and depth of KO's research that this passage crystalizes the impression that there is, as cannot be entirely avoided by any of us, something of an agenda underlying this work, namely to advance a collection of formal (e.g. semantic and historical) arguments for not kicking the family woman out of feminism.
solidarity among women is based not solely on recognition of common oppression but also, historically speaking, on a celebration of shared and differential experience as members of the same sex, the childbearing and nurturing sex. Feminist scholar-activists have discovered, for instance, that women's experience of motherhood as negative and restricting is historically specific and, given a different shape, can potentially offer women much satisfaction. [subsequently argues for a sort of synthesis of the relational and individualistic modes,...]one that can accommodate diversity among women better than either of the two historical approaches can on their own. (155-156)
Suddenly we are mired in consequentialism again: if women lose their greatest (really it is just their easiest)

[now: whoops, this is ambiguous and one of the meanings is offensive; what I mean is that getting pregnant is easy, and deciding to get pregnant is even easier, not that actually birthing or raising kids is easy; e.g. my extremely talented gay roommate at CalArts complaining that his family had lionized his straight brother upon conceiving, just because "he stuck his dick in a pussy"; I'm pretty straight but I resent this kind of thing just like many gay people do; I respect parents bonding over the hard part and I resent them bonding over the easy part; ditto artists; ditto pet owners; ditto scrabble players]

shared experience,

[now: of course she has thought through all this and so says she is actually talking about the hard part; I know this is really mean to say, but I'm dubious about that; please consider the rest of this before dismissing that thought outright]

they could also lose hope of identification with each other, as a group, as women. I would argue that there are more than mere "individualist" arguments to be made for allowing such massive, ancient identifications to stand or fall on the terms of contemporary rather than ancient life. Suddenly KO's brand of relational-individualist synthesis is revealed to have the stunningly flimsy goal of "solidarity" borne of identification, this in service of what is also a very "historically specific" conception, i.e. the need for vigilant feminist organizing/action on a massive scale. There are worse ways to go...but hand to heart, the thought of identification-as-women evaporating seems to me to be the truly radical alternative here, empowerment defined, the conclusive shedding of the Victim Mentality, and the creation of a decentered moving target on which Patriarchy could never hope to strike a direct hit. Merely giving "the cultural experience of motherhood...a different shape" achieves little; rather, individuals (yes, I said it) ought to have the necessary leeway to, for lack of a better way of putting it, find themselves. We can rest assured that plenty of motherliness will arise from such conditions; whether this mode (circumstance, culture, personality, and yes, even a certain accumulation of strictly rational consideration each have a part to play in delivering a person to their Mode of One) needs or deserves to be subsidized, and to what degree, is a rather separate question.

[from a notebook, 2017 or 2018]

Karen Offen—Defining Feminism

Karen Offen
"Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach" (1988)
Signs 14/1 pp. 119-157

pp. 134-135—"relational" and "individualist" modes
Viewed historically, arguments in the relational feminist tradition proposed a gender-based but egalitarian vision of social organization. They featured the primacy of a compassionate, non-hierarchical, male-female couple as the basic unit of society, whereas individualist arguments posited the individual, irrespective of sex or gender, as the basic unit. Relational feminism emphasized women's rights as women (defined principally by their childbearing and/or nurturing capacities) in relation to men. It insisted on women's distinctive contributions in these roles to the broader society and made claims on the commonwealth on the basis of these contributions. By contrast, the individualist feminist tradition of argumentation emphasized more abstract concepts of individual human rights and celebrated the quest for personal independence (or autonomy) in all aspects of life, while downplaying, deprecating, or dismissing as insignificant all socially defined roles and minimizing discussion of sex-linked qualities or contributions, including childbearing and its attendant responsibilities. (135-136)
Thirty or so years on, the phrase that jumps off the page here is, "...made claims on the commonwealth on the basis of these contributions." (136) Indeed, it is only by the logic of what might less charitably be called a sort of genteel difference feminism that a particular "social organization" and/or family structure could be thought so unimpeachable as to entitle its adepts to "claims on the commonwealth." Hence KO's taxonomy here is apt for drawing attention to the profoundly anti-individualistic nature of this orientation, which, even without yet wading into questions of valuation, lays bare the bald-faced contradiction typically committed by today's most simple-minded liberals. I wonder if this cognitive dissonance could ultimately become a stumbling block on the road to UBI of even vaster dimensions than various conservative/right-wing objections, so thorougly ingrained (many on both sides would say organically arising/essential) is the ideal of kids-house-job-car. Concurrently, let's hope that the questioning of the ongoing utility of the rights orientation from within its own tradition might at some point engender a modicum of respect for the myriad non-procreative, non-economic contributions of the willingly childless on behalf of both relationalists and individualists.
Even in Anglo-American thought prior to the twentieth century, these two modes of argument were not always as analytically distinct as I am portraying them here... In earlier centuries, evidence of both these modes can often be located in the utterances of a single individual, or among members of a particular group, exemplifying perhaps that not uncommon human desire to have things both ways. (136)
A very astute conjecture, I think, the missing piece being that such self-contradiction from a psychologistic perspective quite ofen betrays that the utterer is very aware of their own inconsistency.
Lest it be thought that the two approaches I am invoking here represent simply another sorry instance of the much-criticized binary logic endemic to Western thought, or a form of reductionism, let me suggest that there are important sociological reasons for positing two and only two categories rather than "varieties" or "relative degrees" of feminism. These two modes of argument certainly reflect the self/other dualism characteristic of Western thought, but they continue to be meaningful because they also reflect profound differences of opinion that have long existed within Western discourse about basic structural questions of social organization and, specifically, about the relationship of individuals and family groups to society and the state. Both modes must be accounted for if one is to understand feminism historically.
If I might further paraphrase/interpret, the tension between individualism and collectivism IS the essential Feminist issue, of which Feminism's various internal debates can all be understood as proxies. Absolute as it sounds when put so bluntly, there is much to recommend this view, starting with the unfortunate practical political reality that myriad social and political actors' inability/charlatanry vis-a-vis locating themselves and/or their worldview/constituency in this scheme is itself a nearly catastrophic source of friction in the day-to-day functioning of ostensibly democratic institutions. e.g. There seems to me to be some serious cognitive dissonance (or, in the case of groups, unresolved tension) surrounding conceptions of child-rearing as collectivistic ([name of ex-gf redacted]—it's "our obligation" to raise the next, better generation) vs. individualistic (i.e. as the most power the powerless can readily wield; and with that, autonomy in this task of shaping the future according to their views). And yes, it is true that some degree of such confusion is inevitable on account of the ultimate untenability of hard and fast dichotomies; but IMHO, using that as an excuse not to tease out the endpoints of the dialogue seems to me akin to giving up outright.

[from a notebook, 2017 or 2018]

10 May 2021

The Rosetta Stone of Hipsterism

Jean-Michel Mension
The Tribe: Conversations with Gérard Bérréby and
Francesco Milo
trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith
p. 79

On the "Meeting of Failures" event (1950):

But when you announce that you are good-for-nothings, aren't you really thinking that you're everything?

Yes, of course—it's very pretentious.

08 May 2021

Len Bracken—Debord, Adorno, Time

Len Bracken
Guy Debord—Revolutionary (1997)
...the difference between Adorno's ideas and Debord's relates less to the question of what would be desirable in itself than to the question of what is actually possible at the present moment in history. (117)

For Debord, as for Lukács, alienation arises from the predominance of the commodity system in social life; it is thus associated with industrial capitalism, and has not existed for more than about two hundred years. Within such a relatively brief period of time, changes occurring in the space of a decade may naturally assume great importance.

By contrast, the changes of a whole century can carry little weight for Adorno, whose yardsticks for measuring events are "the priority of the object" and "identity." By "exchange" he does not in the first instance mean the exchange of commodities embodying abstract labor...but rather a suprahistorical "exchange in general" that coincides with the entire ratio of the West. The antecedent here was the kind of sacrifice that sought to win the favor of the gods by means of an offering that soon become purely symbolic; this fraudulent aspect of sacrifice foreshadowed the fraud inherent to exchange. (119)
Generally I am strongly inclined towards the Long View, which Adorno represents here as against Debord's Shorter one, even if it would be easy to quibble with a few of the specifics here. The adolescent petulance and self-importance in Situationist writing can be overwhelming, and it seems that even two hundred years is quite a bit vaster than many of those young people's frame of reference. On Adorno's scale of time, rather, Capitalism cannot possibly be a new or unique problem but rather an instantiation of so many ancient problems given modern form. [Name of former roommate redacted] once attempted to stake out just such a position, which was not at all consistent with many of his other opinions, but which in and of itself was not too far off from what is being laid out here, and which I find compelling, at least as far as it goes. It is less clear to me that it is possible or profitable to, as [roommate] was implying, somehow oppose these endemic human problems while simply leaving Capitalism alone to continue to do God's work. "Exchange" is not new, but Capitalism IS built on exchange. Would a better -ism not necessarily be built on something else?

More of the same, but worth including:
One gets the general impression that for Adorno the particularity of different historical periods fades in the face of the working of certain unchanging principles that have obtained since the beginning of history, such as domination and exchange. ...the division between the thing and its concept had already begun in the animistic period with the distinction between the tree in its physical presence and the spirit that dwells within it. Logic arose from the earliest relationships of hierarchical subordination, and the identification of things by means of their ordering by kind begins with the "I" that remains identical through time. ...the same "reason" applied in the pre-Socratic period as applies today. For Adorno, therefore, it ought to be well-nigh impossible to surmount reification, for he sees it as rooted in society's very deepest structures. (119-120)

[from a notebook, 2017]

07 May 2021

The First Angelinos

Song was an integral element of Gabrielino rituals, and although songs could be performed independently of dance or ceremony, the latter activities could not be performed without song. Some songs were associated with specific ceremonies, while others could be adapted to virtually any performance. In addition, songs were commonly linked together to create a "song series."

Songs were inherited along family lines and were rarely disclosed to outsiders. Lineages owned songs, as did individuals, and these could not be sung by others without permission. The tomyaar was responsible for the songs owned by the lineage, just as the head of each family was responsible for family-owned songs. (179)

William McCawley
The First Angelinos: The Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles (1996)

Given my lack of depth on this topic and the reductive nature of the source, all speculation is tenuous. With that disclaimer, here's what sticks out to me.

Songs COULD be performed independently of their necessary function? You would not think this had ever been the case in any tribal culture if you listened to the pre-packaged narratives of undergraduate education; or perhaps I am guilty of absolutizing on this question without realizing it. In any case, it never made sense to me that any culture could have (and value) music without inevitably coming to have (and value) it for its own sake. Whether this impulse rises to the level of post-industrial Decadence or is closely regulated and/or circumscribed (e.g. like casual sex, which WMC finds was strictly discouraged yet allowed during a certain festival) really is rather irrelevant. The degree to which a human need is regulated by a society can probably be explained by the constellation of other social, technological, environmental forces, etc. True needs, if that's what they are, cannot productively be bottled up completely; and of course sex is again the ultimate illustration, pointing to an age-old debate vis-a-vis the relative merits of Judaism/Christianity/Islam and the incessant violence which has followed them everywhere vs. "primitive" tribal societies which, it must be said, we have been too quick to idealize in this way, and yet DO seem to have had surprisingly nuanced, well-developed, time-tested ways of managing conflicts between individual and collective needs. And so it's a mistake to view what seems to us like excessively strict rationing of recreational/leisure/pleasurable activities as evidence that these people conceived of these things vastly differently than we do. Is it possible that the full constellation of socially/historically contingent factors simply yielded a somewhat different recipe for survival which nonetheless reflects very clearly the understanding that you cannot survive under conditions of total deprivation?

That this was, in addition, a Permission Culture vis-a-vis family-owned songs certainly is interesting. WMC remarks several times elsewhere that the individual profit motive and the law of supply and demand were the Gabrielinos' operative economic principles. Yet here he never says that songs were proprietary in the economic sense, just that they were "owned." It is hard to say more without greater depth of study, but certainly that distinction could be important, i.e. it seems that respect for ownership was based on intrinsic and not economic value.

Conversely, Shamans owned their own "power songs" (179) and did profit from their activities.

[from a notebook, 2017]

06 May 2021

Gray Areas

It was not just that Italians did not look white to certain social arbiters, but that they did not act white. In New Orleans Italian immigrants were stigmatized in the post-Civil War period because they accepted economic niches (farm labor and small tenancy, for instance) marked as "black" by local custom, and because they lived and worked comfortably among blacks. ... From being "like negroes" to being "as bad as negroes" was but a trifling step in dominant Southern thinking; and hence in states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia, Italians were known to have been lynched for alleged crimes, or even for violating local racial codes by "fraternizing with blacks." (57)

Matthew Frye Jacobson
Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (1998)

Were there any jazz musicians among these New Orleans Italians' children and grandchildren?

[from a notebook, 2017]

04 May 2021

Engineering Beauty

The fourth and most understandable error we made...was to have turned over all aspects of freeway route selection and design to the engineering profession. Of course, engineering is an absolutely necessary element in the road-building process. But engineering proficiency...is not all that is required. ... Freeways do not exist apart from the world. ...even the Division of Highways recognizes the fact that values of a sort that do not lend themselves to narrow economic analysis are important. ... These "community" values have been ignored partly, perhaps, because of policy, but to a much greater extent because the typical civil engineer is equipped neither by talent, training, or sympathy to evaluate them. (106)

William Bronson
How to Kill a Golden State (1968)

Here is one of those expansive and vexing social problems of which engineers↔"community" values and doctors↔people skills are merely two parochial examples. It often seems that anyone less than a Super(wo)man is bound to wreak havoc when afforded professional/specialist status in high-leverage vocations at propitious times in history. Further, "values" and "esthetic considerations" (106) introduce into any such discourse myriad intractible obstacles which promise to enforce a race to the bottom where the best ideas are compromised away. By steering clear of such procedural obstacles, the narrow technocratic consensus internal to a rigorous and specialized field such as engineering can be implemented rapidly; but of course rapid implementation tonedeaf to the bigger picture can be particularly disastrous.

Hence factors which "do not lend themselves to narrow economic analysis" must not be confused for factors which do not manifest in the economic sphere; but what, then, IS the role and value of such analysis if even those who perform, trumpet, and rely upon it readily concede that it is significantly incomplete?
Of all the professional disciplines we might call upon for judgments of a non-quantitative nature, the last one, in my book, would be engineering. (106)

Asking the Division of Highways to view freeways as "works of art" is roughly comparable to asking the neophytes of St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park to design the Oroville Dam." (107)

Anecdotally this is a view of Engineers which even I've heard before. It probably is not misplaced. The error trap here, rather, is to minimize the extent to which this is not an Engineering or a Medical problem but a Human problem. The panoply of intellectual and personal assets that would enable a technocrat to achieve balanced success is quite exceptional. Shit, even artists don't seem to display much aesthetic sense; in fact as they've become more conscious of themselves as a distinct societal group, the society and the group alike have only become more adept at making end runs around aesthetics.

What are the possible solutions, if there are any?
Boris Pushkarev, the distinguished architect, proposed...a general approach to the over-all design control problem to which I heartily subscribe. "A highway engineer cannot be a regional planner and an architect at once, but regional planners, economists, sculptors, graphic designers, psychologists, biologists and geologists can work together with the engineer in visual coordination teams to integrate the freeway plan with the over-all development plan of the urbanized landscape, and to make the freeway an enduring work of beauty." (107)

Sure they can...this was the 1960s after all. This is, like the rest of the issues dredged up here, a broader human problem which has probably been studied (to the extent possible, of course) by a broader academic contingent. And of course I have often been skeptical of such collaboration in my own bailywick, though ultimately that is not so much a question of essential value as one of process determining results. To wit, is there any doubt that the hypothetical ideal solution is in fact for the engineers to be renaissance (wo)men? And if it has been purely hypothetical and ideal throughout the Industrial era, does Post-Industrial automation and the unplanned obsolescence of the laborer not in fact justify, perhaps eventually enforce a degree of selectivity which was unthinkable before but which threatens, in fact, to become not just possible but necessary?

This (strictly ideal) solution avoids the friction that inevitably arises in the course of the type of collaboration WB and Pushkarev recommend here. This is, to be sure, a friction which is endemic to such enterprises and is magnified exponentially with each added team member, and this, I stand convinced, regardless of how high- or low-functioning the team ultimately proves to be.

Against this proposal is, above all, the difficulty of implementing an effective mechanism of selection at each stage of academic and professional development. The very concept of renaissance (wo)man has long since been thoroughly and irrevocably coopted by the college admission process, and so, as every applicant seems to be one, so none of them seem that way. And again, the introduction of squishier criteria rooted in values, aesthetics, etc., the very point of the whole discussion here, is itself a great source of social friction; in fact, perhaps THE greatest.

[from a notebook, 2017]

03 May 2021

Walter Capps—Erikson, Psychohistory, Worldview

Walter Capps
"Erik Erikson's Contribution Toward Understanding Religion"
in Ideas and Identities: The Life and Work of Erik Erikson (1998)
ed. Wallerstein and Goldberger
pp. 67-78
were the primary Erikson insight writ large, one could make a compelling case that the religious traditions themselves can be approached as extensions and exemplifications of the lives—indeed, the biographies—of their founders. (69)
And in a footnote to a related passage:
In making this suggestion, I wish to call attention to the fact that psychohistorical analyses have been applied to Western figures rather exclusively, and not to representatives of Asian religious and/or cultural traditions.
This is quite an allegation from a scholar who throughout this article appears exceptionally well-read. But perhaps by "psychohistory" he refers to the narrow circle of assembled disciplines rather than to general scholarship.

As for the former excerpt, the sentiment is at once essential and superfluous. Of course any abstraction of a social institution is ultimately populated by real people living their lives; but of course there are often enough of them to choose from that achieving an adequate sample rate is quite a challenge.

Also related:
Perhaps the most profoundly religious factor of all is that, in so many ways, like the equations he studied, the psychoanalyst came to embody the insights he had identified. That is, his study of the human life cycle was reflected in his own stage-by-stage journey through life. (75)
And so besides sample rate, there is the general issue of judgment: who to study and how to study them. Each religion furnishes its own criteria, of course, but then comparison becomes the bugaboo.

Even so, this "profoundly religious factor" leading to "embod[iment] of the insights he had identified" is a beautiful idea. Lots of artists aspire to it, and many more claim to have achieved it than seems plausible. But then, what IS art?! Perhaps they HAVE found its essence and have come to embody it, thereby becoming completely insufferable and self-absorbed!
The adoption of a worldview is not something that is done mechanically, as if one simply selects an "ism," a philosophy, or a religion from within a set of possibilities... Rather, the adoption of a worldview involves highly selective, synthetic, constructive work in which a large set of differentiable, temperamental, and dispositional factors come into play, a large portion of which are probably never brought into full cognizance. Indeed, if one wanted to put this insight into formula, one would say that Immanuel Kant's now famous "apriori/synthetic judgments" are implicit in worldview construction, and much that is assigned to apriori status is of a psychological or, more exactly, psychogenic nature.

Here Erikson can be credited with two very significant accomplishments. First, he recognized all of this to be the case, that is, that worldview construction involves the interdependent coordination of these various elements. Second, in some specific instances, he identified how the construction—or, better, the composition—came into formation. Clearly, here as elsewhere in Erikson's observations, a strong aesthetic element is present. Worldview construction, like the formation of personality, is thoroughly compositional. It is composed and stylized, as are cultures, as are personalities. (71-72)
Yes! And I think it is clear, though not explicitly stated here, that the act of "composition" is the act of an AGENT. One can more easily and profitably distinguish the conscious/unconscious here than the intentional/unintentional. It is all intentional in some sense!

[from a notebook, 2017]

02 May 2021

Riesman on Public Performance

In "progressive schools",
Above all, the walls change their look. The walls of the modern grade school are decorated with the paintings of the children or their montages from the class in social studies. Thus the competitive and contemporary problems of the children look down on them from walls which, like the teacher herself, are no longer impersonal. This looks progressive, looks like a salute to creativeness and individuality; but again we meet paradox. While the school de-emphasizes grades and report cards, the displays seem almost to ask the children: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is fairest of us all?" ...
[now in a footnote]
Still more paradoxically, it often happens that those schools that insist most strongly that the child be original and creative by this very demand make it more difficult for him to be so. He dare not imitate an established master nor, in some cases, even imitate his own earlier work. Though the introduction of the arts into the school opens up the whole art world to many children, who would have no time or stimulation outside, other children are forced to socialize performances that would earlier have gone unnoticed by peers and adults.

David Riesman
The Lonely Crowd
("Abridged edition with a 1969 preface")
(orig. 1950)
p. 62
The last point is crucial and, in spite of the many ways this warhorse work has not aged well, this point still is not adequately reckoned with. In fact I would conjecture that it is less adequately reckoned with now than in 1950 when all of this still looked (to some old-fashioned observers) like the radical change that it is.

Wexler (Brain and Culture, 2008) reports that "average national scores on a variety of different intelligence tests have risen steadily and substantially ever since the tests were first developed." (70) "The causes of this...are not well understood" (72), but the expansion of education and the burgeoning complexity of daily and occupational life seem likely to play a role, while increased practice at taking the tests can safely be ruled out.

Wexler's is a valuable scientific entree to the first half of Milo's observation,
each succeeding generation has "improved" technical wiring...
while Riesman's speculation is one angle in on the denouement,
This is much more inevitable than it is admirable; a natural progression of technique, but, of course, not necessarily resonance.

I do not wish to suggest that either the art or the children themselves should be taken out of school entirely. Clearly, however, the success of "improved technical wiring" is useless (dangerous, actually) without addressing the concurrent failure to develop the second- or third- order faculties of "judgment" (Sennett on pentatonics), "continence" (Mumford on everything), "resonance" (Milo above), etc. I'm just a dabbler, but I have spent a fair amount of time in public schools working with students, both individually and in small breakout groups, often during the school day, and I actually don't think I have ever seen the scenario Riesman describes play itself out in any concrete event that comes easily to mind. Quite to the contrary, I have found it very difficult (no doubt as a consequence of the inscrutability of large brass instruments, especially when the kids are barely large enough to hold onto them) to inspire any kind of personal investment at all in the endeavor. Tweens and adolescents often strongly resist "socializing" their performances, but not at all for the same reasons a self-regarding professional might. This quite precludes the teaching of "judgment" or "continence" in artmaking, of teaching the importance of the "kill ratio" to many great artists' great reputations, of its importance to art as an ecosystem. You can try just telling the 8th grade trombone section that the musical world is an "ecosystem." Don't hold your breath! But the message is paramount because clearly, later, something changes for many students, both those who continue with formal arts study and those who strike out on their own, leading to something like the "oversharing" phenomenon. ("Incontinence" is more expressive but doesn't quite work for this part.)

In short, I know not how to teach these virtues, only how to exemplify them. The culture wars have forced people on the Left to fall hard into line on the side of teaching and the teachers without giving enough thought to this distinction. Of course "role model" is a phrase that administrators love and which kids hear constantly at school (or at least I did). Like their better-paid counterparts in pro sports, new band teachers taking over in challenging circumstances often speak of "building a culture" as the most decisive challenge. They're right of course, but we shouldn't have to design it in a laboratory when there's a whole "culture" out there on the outside for students to reckon with. The context in which someone becomes a role model is very important. The culture-at-large may also be lacking in any number of ways, but its subjects are playing for keeps. That is where I cannot avoid agreeing with JT Gatto, though it goes against everything I was raised to believe, that we now need less school and not more. Not no school, and not just school, which is the false dichotomy bequeathed to us by the culture wars. Personally I'd vote for just barely enough school and as much as possible of everything else. If this is so offensive to the teachers, then just make the second half of the school day completely unstructured and keep the whole bloated bureaucracy situation as it is, let people keep their full-salary pensions, etc. Let's just admit that it's postindustrial day care and lean into the positive potentials of that. Give the teachers a chance to exemplify rather than just teach; it'll be as good for them as it will for their charges. After a couple of classes and a healthy lunch, let all the cool kids go hang out with the cool teacher as much as they want, then let them realize that no one is totally cool or totally uncool, and then let them realize how totally uncool it is to be part of the crowd that hasn't figured this out. Lean into their other-direction! My experience is that kids far more so than adults will pretty quickly have an "aha" moment in a scenario like this. And if not, is the worst case anywhere near as bad as what we currently have?

I realize that none of this is going to happen anytime soon, but thanks for humoring my idealism, again.


I vividly recall a moment in 1st grade which takes Riesman's observation a step further into Progressive modernity. Sitting in Sue Allen's first grade classroom, in what was, for the time being, a Montessori magnet in Minneapolis' very rough near-Northside, I became fascinated not with the art on the walls but with a giant wall chart documenting everyone's progress in completing assignments. Some students had hardly turned in anything while others had done so much extra credit that they had lapped the field (i.e. when their row was completely filled from left to right, the teacher restarted at the left side with a new/different series of markings or stickers in the boxes). If the point was to shame-motivate the laggards, it didn't work at all. But if the point was to awaken any latent armchair sociologists, then it worked on me, because one day I found myself wondering why some kids hardly did any work while others did all the work. And why did a few do an incomprehensible amount of extra work above and beyond the limit of extra credit to influence their actual grade? I certainly have thought more about this memory after the fact than I did at age six, so the standard caveats apply. But I'm sure that I did ask myself a question in that moment, and of course it's a question that has confounded many brilliant adults too, and hence remains unanswered. 

Later on, the district sabotaged the magnet program and I mostly observed fights instead of wall charts. I effectively had no "education" from third through fifth grade save for Mom teaching me long division in a pinch, though I had plenty of the "complex" non-academic stimulation that Wexler says can build up your wiring. What's really amazing to me now is that I even had friends. One of them fought a bully on my behalf. Yet somehow I grew up to be a misanthrope and to write this blog. This also raises some interesting developmental questions.

01 May 2021

Lipstick Traces—Détournement Is Quick, You Are Slow

Greil Marcus
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989)

[My notes say:]

p. 403—"On its own page, "The Cathars Were Right" is funnier and more ominous than I can make it. My translation is slow and détournement is always quick—a new world in a double take, in the blink of an eye."

Even as a skeptic, I can probably grant this much as far as it goes. In fact the quickness angle suggests an unassailable test for the skeptic to deploy in making an empirical or anecdotal study of actual works: if someone doesn't Get It right away, as GM would have it here, the device has in that instance failed.

To me, GM's particular phrasing of this observation suggests comparison with the moment of enlightenment in koan study and similar Adept domains of Buddhist thought. The comparison ends only where the preparatory/groundwork phase is concerned: ironically, the Buddhist version is in some sense consciously cultivated whereas détournement ostensibly plays on conditioning that subjects are mostly unaware they are receiving, or if aware they receive it passively.

[from a post-it, 2017]

Détournement and the Form-Content Binary

Anselm Jappe
Guy Debord (1993)
trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (1999)
...Debord's whole conception of society is founded on détournement: all the elements needed for a free life are already at hand, both culturally and technologically speaking; they have merely to be modified as to their meanings, and organized differently. (61)
In other words, nothing is new under the sun; but does that truism point to the Timelessness of what we've always had, or to its changeability via being "modified as to [its] meanings, and organized differently"? That question indicates that the form-content distinction is maintained intact here; or perhaps materials-process (i.e. "elements"-"meanings") would be more accurate. In any case, if such a distinction were specious or unimportant, it would certainly not be necessary to recapitulate it the way this passage does. And if it is thus indicated to be meaningful, the next question is why this should be so. There are several answers, I think: the statement is far less controversial with regard to production/consumption than it is regarding culture; it is less controversial regarding a Bird's Eye View of society broadly than it is regarding individuals, for whom production/creativity/agency of the type said here to be superfluous may in fact be a basic human (i.e. psychological) need; and is every artefact just this amenable to having its meaning reframed (willfully) by individuals and/or groups according to the ephemeral needs of the moment?

[from a post-it, 2017 or 2018]

Détourn or Deform?

"A Maximum of Openness: Jacqueline de Jong in conversation with Karen Kurczynski"
in Expect Anything Fear Nothing (2011)
ed. Rasmussen and Jakobsen
p. 195
JdJ: ... If you look at it, you can see that I printed it in the smallest font possible so that no one could read it. And it was on purpose. I was already at that moment not very happy with the guys in Drakabygget, mainly Thorsen, I must say. The Drakabygget people were making détournements of articles of mine, such as "Gog and Magog," in their magazine. They even did it with articles by Jorn. You could say there was a degree of faking in what they were doing. One thing that has not been mentioned is that we, the Situationists, always had an anti-copyright declaration in all the magazines. ... Of course it means that everything is permitted, but you don't expect your comrades to deform your texts as they were meant to be serious.

KK: Deform or détourn?

JdJ: Deform, I think. It's a good question.

Vincent Kaufmann on Détournement

Kaufmann/Bononno, Guy Debord
It's true that détournement is also based on a technique of dissimulation, if we insist on using the term, even though it would be more correct to speak of it as a ruse or feint. But it is at the very least problematic to attribute such a technique to the practice—considered shameful or inadmissable— of autobiography, a larvatus prodeo to which no more than a handful of self-proclaimed scholars hold the key. Reading Debord is not like a game of Trivial Pursuit, and I doubt that he was the least bit ashamed of his image or self-portraits. The concept of détournement entails the notion of detour, the intent to circumvent an obstacle, and contains elements of game playing and warfare. Détournement turns the reader or public into a warrior. It incorporates a strategy of blurring appearances, the rejection of comparative quotation demanded by the spectacle, which is currently so intrigued by the cliché of authenticity. Consequently, it also involves a rejection of an entire order of discourse, a logic of allocation, of pigeonholing, of signatures and responsibility through which everyone is in some way put back in his place or finds himself back there. But Debord, the lost child, did everything he could to avoid discovery, to not remain in his place. The spectacle has made authenticity a cliché we are assigned to, it continuously demands that we signal our presence. It is this imperative that détournement rebuffs; it is also, and perhaps especially, a technique of appropriation (which has never concealed its intentions), a technique for making the best possible use of words and texts. "Plagiarism implies progress," wrote Ducasse, it's least improbable inventor, a man Debord deeply admired. With détournement the cliché is taken over for special purposes, as were the Sorbonne much later and, more ephemerally, the Odéon Theater and a handful of factories. There was jubilation rather than dissimulation, none of the sorrow associated with hidden mastery. A challenge was launched against the cliché by a singularity whose self-rediscovery involved abandoning the cliché and reappropriating the belle langue of the century, as Baudelaire—here appropriated—had wanted to do. And Baudelaire, like Debord, was horrified by philanthropic journalists short on inspiration, who wanted to be considered equals or even friends. Charity leads to the spectacle, religiosity to the religious. (37)

dissimulate (v.)—"to hide under a false appearance"
larvatus prodeo—something about a mask (The Internet)
feint — (n.) "a deceptive or pretended blow, thrust, or other movement, especially in boxing or fencing" (Google)

So, for VK it is "more correct" (37) to speak of détournement specifically as a tactical maneuver in a physical confrontation ("feint"), or as a "ruse," which seems not all that different from a "dissimulation." One can only hope that something was lost in translation here, because the difference seems stylistic rather than substantive. And the concept further "entails the notion of the detour, the intent to circumvent an obstacle" (37), from which it follows that the nature of the obstacle in question and one's reasons for attempting circumvention are factors which ineluctably color any potential judgment of the maneuver. In this case the obstacle is "comparative quotation [as] demanded by the spectacle," the "cliché of authenticity," "allocation," "pigeonholing," "signatures and responsibility" (37); in short, the way the spectacle "continuously demands that we signal our presence." (38) Fair enough as a goal, I think, but appropriating existing material seems at best a curious means, at worst an impotent one. Can one's location/presence not be triangulated perfectly well (or well enough) from a series of appropriative maneuvers as from ostensibly original ones? Certainly for me coming to this oeuvre without much of any common background with Debord et al, the attributed references are jarring enough on account of this dynamic as to constantly remind me of the author's presence in a different time and place, while the unattributed passages may as well not be appropriations at all since I'll never catch them. Which is to say that Debord, like most authors who for whatever reason continue to command our attention, is no more or less formed/defined/limited by the unique profile of his intellectual pedigree. That this dynamic is through appropriation manifested as a sort of jigsaw puzzle rather than as a tapestry of Influences is rather meaningless vis-a-vis tactical combat with the spectacle, to which both modus operandi signal one's proverbial presence perfectly adequately. Failing that line of reasoning being convincing, it is a simpler route perhaps to point out that Debord signed plenty of his works with his own name, and that unsigned or pseudonymous works, as VK occasionally chronicles below, while certainly part of Debord's toolkit were the exception rather than the rule.

As for "making the best possible use of words and texts" (38), this is segued into rather facilely as if it were an obvious implication of the above, but I would insist that as a question of valuation (comparative!) it is certainly not so simple. At best this position hews to one far-off endpoint of a continuum, at the other end of which lies the whole-cloth ideal which is responsible for supplying the plagiarist's ammunition in the first place. i.e. There is nothing to plagiarize (or nothing fresh and unspoiled) without the products of the whole cloth conceit, and similarly no getting off the ground for practitioners of this conceit without first making a certain peace with the inevitability of influence and the fact of its multiple pathways to manifestation. This much is noncontroversial; but to posit appropriation as the search for an ideal repurposing opens up another, discrete can of worms. Certainly the unquestioned reverence for an author's use of his/her own material is neither necessary nor constructive; this phenomenon (The Composer's Intent is a pop-musicological phrase which comes to mind) would seem to fall under the heading of "authenticity" as it appears in the text here, and the problematizing of this impulse on grounds of resistance to The Spectacle certainly is timely and proper. But the same principles which support an irreverence for authenticity point equally clearly and strongly toward an irreverence for the appropriator's conceit to having found, if not the "best possible use" (!!), then even a better one, quote-unquote, than anyone else (the original, "authentic" author included) has or could. The end run around this obstacle is of course to objectify such value based on function within a social system. This is exactly what VK seems to be claiming Debord was interested in. If that is so, I think that is precisely where the Intentional Fallacy can rightly be called. There is no way to control the reception of such a work by anything as complex as even the most rudimentary social system worthy of the name.

[from a notebook, 2017]

Détournement as Resistance to Ownership of the Commons

McKenzie Wark
The Beach Beneath the Street (2011)

pp.40-41—Détournement as resistance to ownership of the commons

The only problem I have with this is that it deprives the person making the reclamation of the transformative struggle which comes with striving for a unique, original accomplishment. Perhaps wholesale appropriations are crucial for their potential to remind collective society of its collective aspects; but the perpetrator has, as I take Debord to have said repeatedly, not accomplished much for themselves. They have Never Worked in one important sense, and again, while someone's gotta do it, a whole mess of such someone's isn't socially sustainable.

[from a post-it, 2017]
[The passage:]
Michel Foucault (1926-84) undermines the romantic theory of authorship by speaking of discourse as a distribution of author functions. For Foucault, a statement is authorized by a particular form of discourse, a regime of truth, a procedure for assigning truth-value to statements. It's not hard to see why this captivated the minds of academics. It made the procedures in which academics are obsessively drilled the very form of power itself. As if that by which academics are made, the molding of their bodies to desks and texts, that about which they know the most, even more than they know their allotted fields, were the very index of power. Reading Foucault is like taking a masterclass on how the game of academic scholarship is to be played, and with the reliable alibi that this knowledge of power, of knowledge as power, is to be used in the interests of resistance to something or other. Détournement, on the other hand, turns the tables, upends the game.

The device of détournement restores all the subversive qualities to past critical judgments that have congealed into respectable truths. Détournement makes for a type of communication aware of its inability to enshrine any inherent and definitive certainty. This language is inaccessible in the highest degree to confirmation by any earlier or supra-critical reference point. On the contrary, its internal coherence and its adequacy in respect of the practically possible are what validate the symbolic remnants that it restores. Détournement founds its cause on nothing but its own practice as a critique at work in the present. Détournement creates anti-statements. For the Situationists, the very act of unauthorized appropriation is the truth content of détournement. (40-41)

Debord and Wolman—Détournement

Guy Debord and Gil J Wolman
"A User's Guide to Détournement" (1956)
in Situationist International Anthology (2006)
trans. and ed. Ken Knabb
pp. 14-21
It is not just returning to the past which is reactionary; even "modern" cultural objectives are ultimately reactionary since they depend on ideological formulations of a past society that has prolonged its death agony to the present. The only historically justified tactic is extremist innovation. (14)
Unfortunately it is not only our various underlying "ideological formulations" which are products of the past but also the whole of our knowledge. Hence "extremist innovation" can be extreme only relative to current conditions; it cannot be any more or less rooted in the dead past than can any other point on this continuum.
Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can be used to make new combinations. The discoveries of modern poetry regarding the analogical structure of images demonstrate that when two objects are brought together, no matter how far apart their original contexts may be, a relationship is always formed. Restricting oneself to a personal arrangement of words is mere convention. The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the juxtaposition of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy. Anything can be used.

It goes without saying that one is not limited to correcting a work or to integrating diverse fragments of out-of-date works into a new one; one can also alter the meaning of those fragments in any appropriate way, leaving the imbeciles to their slavish reference to "citations." (15)
Imbeciles being now and forever a sizable majority, I would imagine the fate of this device to be thusly sealed. If the artist has such high (that is, concrete) hopes for their productions, then it is up to them to design imbecile-proof strategies for realization of this objective. Even the notion that "a relationship is always formed" is perhaps too charitable; some relationship or other may arise, but different imbeciles may harbor different imbecilities; and in extreme cases the "juxtaposition" itself may not be perceptible, or not equally to all. Again, the specificity of the intent necessitates a proportionate degree of responsibility taken by the artist. One does not detect a great deal of affinity here with the notion of responsibility, however.
the tendencies toward détournement that can be observed in contemporary expression are for the most part unconscious or accidental. It is in the advertising industry, more than in the domain of decaying aesthetic production, that one can find the best examples. (16)
A strikingly early mention of the affinity between marketing and pastiche. Much later, J. Wagner would remark in class that by the late 1980s Hollywood literally "couldn't afford NOT" to incorporate bits and pieces of damn near everything. So there is something prophetic here, but also a motivated inability to dig deeper and ask whether the appearance of these techniques first in the area of marketing is ACTUALLY accidental/unconscious, or whether the techniques are not in fact DEFINED by this marketing orientation. And from there it is but a small step to question the conceit to a total fluidity of relationships between détourned elements; if this were possible, advertising would not be limited to a few very particular tropes, nor would the industry need to expend nearly so much effort researching in order to determine which tropes might work.
the main impact of a détournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements.


The idea of pure, absolute expression is dead... (17)
A characteristically Debordian irreverence for engaging with dynamic social processes on their own terms is very much on display here. He can see that absolute expression is dead, but not that "original contexts are every bit as dynamic and varied. The theory of détournement is every bit as dependent on being grounded at some archimedean point as is the romantic conception of expressive communication through artworks. Far from rejecting pure/absolute expression, the authors seem intent on using the pure/absolute/monolithic element in stultified marketing-oriented culture as a springboard to communicate tractability. And yet as monolithic as mass culture seems to get, this has remained impossible.
Détournement is less effective the more it approaches a rational reply. ... The more the rational character of the reply is apparent, the more indistinguishable it becomes from the ordinary spirit of repartee... (17)
Very true as far as it goes, but this should also be a clue that this is, as the above points would have it, not very far at all. If the "rational" and the semantic spoil the fun, this is because their own conceits to objectivity are immediately exploded when deployed in this way. The various irr-/pseudo-rational alternatives are not more effective, they merely conceal the process more completely, protecting their conceits.
It is a real means of proletarian artistic education, the first step toward a literary communism. (18)
This seems about right, actually. A "first step" in the sense of being inherently elementary, juvenile, unripe. Yet still the authors are ambiguous on the question of agency: is the prole to practice détournement as a vehicle of social and cultural agency, or merely to passively consume the expertly crafted détournements of Debord and Wolman according to the "laws" set down in these pages?
...Griffith's Birth of a Nation is one of the most important films in the history of cinema because of its wealth of innovations. On the other hand, it is a racist film and therefore absolutely does not merit being shown in its present form. But its total prohibition could be seen as regrettable from the point of view of the secondary, but potentially worthier, domain of the cinema. It would be better to détourn it as a whole, without necessarily even altering the montage, by adding a soundtrack that made a powerful denunciation of the horrors of imperialist war and of the activiites of the Ku Klux Klan... (19)
A smart and totally reasonable proposal which has become, alas, completely untenable on account of the trigger warning crowd, and also by way of what R. Gombin calls "total contestation." Debord having had a hand in establishing the latter, and also in declaring the death of film years before this article appeared, one wonders if this passage is not an instance of Wolman getting a word in edgewise. In any case, the Trigger Warning phenomenon is an apt devil's advocate avenue for contemporary skeptics of the cult of détournement, since it renders the proposal here totally untenable, intentions be damned.
In itself, the theory of détournement scarcely interests us. But we find it linked to almost all the constructive aspects of the presituationist period of transition. Thus its enrichment, through practice, seems necessary. (21)
The reluctant virtuoso defers. Détournement is simply an idea whose time has come. Artistic innovation, expression, and aesthetics are no longer possible, hence a bounded inventory of cultural artefacts with stable meanings from which may be selected and juxtaposed any and all of them according not to the personal whim of the artist but to the demands of the political situation.

[from a notebook, probably 2018]