Institutional Clinique – on recuperation and contemporary art [Kunsthal Aarhus, 2014]

In general usage the word ‘recuperation’ means the return to normal health after illness, but in a sociological sense it refers specifically to the process by which radical ideas and subversive practices become neutralized and co-opted back into mainstream culture. During the student uprisings of May 1968 in Paris, the Situationist Guy Debord used this term to describe the way in which society actively feeds off the energy of dissent, repackaging the spectacle of counter-culture as a commodity for everyday consumption. According to Debord, recuperation is a process by which “avant-garde innovations might be recovered for use by the reigning social order, that revolutionary negativity might be recouped to strengthen bourgeois affirmation.”[1] The ‘social body’ quickly absorbs such troublesome activity, building up its resistance to cultural pathogens for the future.

Applying this corporeal analogy to the arts, philosopher Gilles Deleuze asserted that “literature is an enterprise of health”,[2] describing his literary theory as ‘clinical’ as well as ‘critical’. In a process of creative self-examination the artist reflects upon their own symptoms of pathology in relation to social convention and through self-diagnosis, which is inherently bound up with an awareness of the distribution of power in society, seeks out new re-vitalizing forms of expression, and, thus, of cultural renewal. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, who described both philosophers and artists as ‘physicians of civilisation’, diagnosing the values of which cultural products and institutions are the symptoms, Deleuze saw philosophers and artists as united by a shared interest in ‘symptomatology’, the practice of arranging symptoms creatively in order to diagnose new diseases. For Deleuze, the specificity of an author’s style becomes synonymous with the symptoms of a particular cultural condition, or ‘illness’, and thus can be understood in the same way that the proper name of a clinician becomes attached to certain disorders, as in Parkinson’s disease or Crohn’s disease. A generally accepted example is ‘masochism’, named after the literature of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, but one might equally refer to the conditions of ‘Kafka’, ‘Beckett’ or ‘Artaud’. Thus the symptomatologist, in the literary sense, does not simply suffer his or her illness but gains a rigorous perspective on it through the formal innovations of his or her writing, and thus manages to be both doctor and patient at once.

In Anti-Oedipus,[3] largely developed around the literary ‘condition’ of Antonin Artaud’s schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari proposed the idea of ‘schizoanalysis’ as a “universal clinical theory”. For Deleuze and Guattari, “literature is like schizophrenia: a process and not a goal, a production and not an expression”, while the (Freudian) problem of Oedipus “is in fact literary before being psychoanalytic”, declaring that “there is no longer even any need for applying psychoanalysis to the work of art, since the work itself constitutes a successful psychoanalysis, a sublime ‘transference’…” Social transformation, they argued, can only be achieved through the liberation of subjective desire from the confines of the Oedipal apparatus, from “the narrow cells of the type ‘couple’, ‘family’, ‘person’, ‘objects’ …” Deleuze and Guattari saw desire as the real force of production, “not a theatre, but a factory”, a “Desiring-Machine” which “creates all social and historical reality”. To re-connect with the liberating forces of desire, with the engine that generates culture in all its manifestations, will require “a whole scouring of the unconscious, a complete curettage”, as they described their method of schizoanalysis. “Destroy Oedipus, the illusion of the ego, the puppet of the superego, guilt, law, castration”, and in so doing create a subject which exists “well below the conditions of identity.”

Post-1968, the critical theory of Michel Foucault fundamentally re-shaped an understanding of the relationship between institutions and subjectivity. The asylum, the prison, the school, (the art gallery) all of those institutional bodies that form the matrix of modern society, were now analyzed as mechanisms of discipline, and the kind of subjectivities they produced as modes of subjection. Foucault characterized his work as a ‘genealogy of the modern subject’: a history of how people are socially constructed as different types of subjects, whether as delinquents, homosexuals, mentally ill, or, through such exclusions, as ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’. By focusing on the ‘histories of the present’, such as the history of sexuality, madness or criminality, Foucault aimed to show how our subjective conceptions of reality and social relations are entirely relative, shaped by “a precarious and fragile history.”[4]

Contemporary art is generally perceived to be a space for ‘re-thinking subjectivity’. What is less clear is how the singular subjectivity of the artist can work to transform the disciplinary matrix of institutions, described by Foucault, and thus effect change in a wider social context. The process of institutionalisation of art has long been seen as the anti-thesis of the ‘avant-garde’, threatening its vitality and undermining the freedom of the artist, even though the artist depends upon the recognition and legitimacy that the art institution confers upon them. Sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu described the paradox of an ‘inverted economy’ whereby art is esteemed (and thus patronised) by the mainstream for the very distance it takes from its own established measures of value: wealth, power, popularity, etc. As soon as the artist becomes involved with the institutional structures of art, the focus must inevitably shift away from subjectivity and the politics of representation towards the more introspective questions of recuperation, and the artist’s own implication in the processes of absorption and neutralization by the mainstream.

Since the late 1960s many artists, from Marcel Broodthaers to Hans Haacke, Fred Wilson to Andrea Fraser, have made work that specifically focuses on a critique of the institution that houses it, and the apparatus – financial and ideological – that supports it. However critical such art may itself be of the power structures and vested interests of the art world, ironically, it also serves to highlight the liberalism of the institution, by allowing it to be there in the first place. Inevitably such inclusiveness diffuses the very criticism being offered. It is as if the critique has been turned into a form of validation for the institution; as if the act of dissent has been drained of its power to effect change and turned, instead, into a hollow signifier of liberal democracy in action. Thus, despite an artist’s best intentions, as soon as they partake in the public discourse of contemporary art they are inevitably implicated in a process of recuperation.

Parallel to the increasing corporatization of larger museums and cultural spaces, and the development of global art brands, that has been taking place since the 1990s, new forms of more flexible art institutions have emerged, working in close alliance with artists’ critique. Whereas in the 1960s criticism was directed against the institution from the ‘outside’, more recently this reflexive principle has been internalized as a kind of auto-critique by the institution itself. What is fundamental to the philosophy of these more progressive ‘institutions of critique’ is a radically different understanding of the public sphere. Rather than conceiving of a singular, homogenized and essentially passive public, which demands a populist programme of mass appeal, the ‘new institutionalism’ seeks to actively produce multiple and diverse communities of interest, as co-generators of meaning. The public sphere is conceived of as a space of contestation, structured by diversity, in which different conflicting interests exist in parallel and antagonism is recognised as an inevitable and productive condition. However, as Nina Montmann has observed, over the past decade public funding for many of these institutions has been cut, and some have been forced to close. Montmann concludes, “What is not wanted, in short, is criticality. Criticality didn’t survive the ‘corporate turn’ in the institutional landscape.”[5]

With the shift from ‘the modern’ to ‘the contemporary’, the justification for institutional support for critical art practice has radically changed. Whereas modernism required an ‘avant-garde’ to constantly critique and refresh it, as a key part of its future-oriented progression, the future-less present of the contemporary no longer provides such an over-arching rationale. As philosopher, Peter Osborne writes, “If modernity projects a present of permanent transition, forever reaching beyond itself, the contemporary fixes or enfolds such transitoriness within the duration of a conjuncture, or at its most extreme, the stasis of a present moment,”[6] which he refers to as the ‘historical present’. With the acceleration of globalization, the influence of digital technology and the spread of neoliberalism over the last twenty-five years, many disparate, or ‘disjunct’, worlds have become interconnected and contemporaneous with each other. This new multiplicity is characterised by massive demographic shifts, diasporas, labour migrations, the movements of global capital, and rapid processes of cultural circulation and hybridization. Thus the contemporary could be said to refer to a worldwide situation, the most definitive characteristic of which is the experience of being immersed, utterly, in a world marked by an unprecedented diversity and depth of difference, by the coexistence of incommensurable viewpoints, and by the absence of an all-encompassing narrative (including those of modernity or post-modernity) that will enlist the participation of all. With this convergence of disjunctive temporalities in the historical present, with no clear vision of the future (effectively, a disavowal of politics), the idea of an experimental ‘avant-garde’ is no longer sustainable. There is a pressing need, therefore, to make a new case for the wider relevance of critical art practices, and for the ‘institutions of critique’, or other organizational structures, that will support them.

Philosopher, Giorgio Agamben defined the very idea of the contemporary as being out of step with the historical present. “Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it, through a disjunction and an anachronism.”[7] In the terms of Deleuze’s clinical critique, this definition might well apply to the ‘sickly’ condition of the artist, in their relationship to the contemporary mainstream. The question remains, however, as to how this singular creative disjunction can connect, beyond the realm of art alone, to the socio-political and the world-historical, or, in other words, to an idea of the future?

In A Thousand Plateaus,[8] Deleuze and Guattari adopted Nietzsche’s notion of ‘the untimely’, as a disjunction with the stasis of the historical present, in order to develop a philosophy of the future which they referred to as ‘becoming-’, a process of change that could generate new ways of being. Rather than seeking an over-arching common denominator to narrate the future, or attempting to appeal to a total conjunction of present times, the process of becoming serves to account for relationships formed organically between the discrete elements of an “assemblage” (whether social, linguistic, conceptual, ‘practical’ or otherwise). In the process of becoming, one piece of an assemblage is drawn into the territory of another, changing its value as an element and bringing about a new unity. An example that Deleuze and Guattari use to illustrate this principle is the way in which atoms are drawn into an assemblage with nearby atoms through affinities rather than an organizational purpose. This process of ‘deterritorialization’ is one in which the properties of the constituent element disappear and are replaced by the new properties of the emerging assemblage—”becomings-molecular of all kinds, becomings-particles”. Thus, in a process of permanent molecular revolution, the disjunctive singularity of the artist could be seen to function as a kind of ‘free radical’, deterritorializing rigid social structures and helping to form new collective assemblages of subjectivity, through elective affinities.

Throughout his work, as a philosopher, clinical psychotherapist and political activist, Félix Guattari focused on the production of subjectivity, and the related formation of collective assemblages of subjectivity. In his late essay, The Three Ecologies,[9] he extended the definition of ecology to encompass social relations and human subjectivity, as well as environmental concerns. Guattari argued that just as the planet is being destroyed by globalization so is society and our own mental health. To counter the homogenization of mass consumerism, there is a need to recover “intensities”, to re-claim “existential territories” through the “singularity” of the creative imagination, which is of course the privileged domain of the artist. Similar to the feminist slogan of the 1970s, ‘the personal is political’, Guattari called for a “re-singularization of life”, a “micropolitics of desire”, in the battle for the future. The primary force of production for the new collective assemblages of subjectivity that emerge will be a myriad liberated ‘Desiring-Machines’. Thus the self-critical, creative imagination – embodied in the singular ‘untimely’ condition of the artist – is understood to be a means to bring about social change.

== Text by Tom Trevor for The Perfect Institution, Kunstal Aarhus 2014 ==

[1] Guy Debord and the Situationst International, October, MIT Press 2002, ed. Tom McDonough

[2] Essays Critical and Clinical, Gilles Deleuze, Verso 1998

[3] Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Minuit 1972

[4] Structuralism and Post-Structuralism: an Interview with Michel Foucault Gerard Raulet, Telos no. 55, 1983

[5] The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism: perspectives on a possible future, Nina Montmann, MayFly Books 2009

[6] Anywhere or Not At All: philosophy of contemporary art, Peter Osborne, Verso 2013

[7] “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus and Other Essays, Giorgio Agamben, Stanford University Press 2009

[8] A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Minuit 1980

[9] The Three Ecologies, Félix Guattari, Editions Gallilee 1989

Image: Joseph Beuys, When You Cut Your Finger, Bandage the Knife, 1962


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