Take Me To The River – currents of the contemporary [Osaka]

The opening sentence of Hōjōki, written in 1212 by Kamo no Chōmei, is celebrated in Japanese literature as an expression of mujō (the transience of things): “The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before.”[1] In the Western tradition, a surprisingly similar saying is ascribed to Heraclitus, circa 500 BC: “You cannot step into the same river twice”, along with the famous declaration: “Everything flows, nothing stands still.”[2] Both employ the image of a river as a metaphor for the flow of time, and thus impermanence, evoking a sense of the ephemeral nature of existence and the continual process of transformation that renders all social certainties, and their associated hierarchies, transitory and, ultimately, inconsequential. The common ground shared by these two viewpoints on the world, deriving from very different philosophical traditions, is the riverbank on which a human subject is standing, contemplating the flow of time and its passage into the future.

In more recent times, Manuel Castells defined a new “space of flows”, in The Rise of the Network Society, arising out of the all-pervasive flux of communications now circulating around the planet. With the acceleration of globalization, the rapid developments of information technology and the advance of neo-liberalism over the last twenty-five years, many disparate worlds have become interconnected and contemporaneous with each other. This new ‘multiplicity’ is characterized by massive demographic shifts, diaspora, labour migrations, movements of global capital and rapid processes of cultural 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 in a deluge of information, marked by an unprecedented diversity and depth of difference, by the coexistence of incommensurable viewpoints and by the absence of an all-encompassing narrative (such as modernity or post-modernity) that will enlist the participation of all. Within this confluence of multiple temporalities that make up the global contemporary, many different ‘currents’ compete for ascendency, but with no clear vision of the future. The flow of time has accelerated to such an extent that we seem to be locked in a perpetual present, described by Castells as a “timeless time”, in which “the space of flows … dissolves time, by disordering the sequence of events and making them simultaneous, thus installing society in an eternal ephemerality.”[3]

With the shift from ‘the modern’ to ‘the contemporary’, and the convergence of multiple worlds that constitute our present times, the conditions for experimental art practice have radically changed too. 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 can no longer support such a utopian rationale. As 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.”[4]The analytic, psychological, and libidinal structures of twentieth century art and politics were beholden to the temporal form of the future, and to the continual transformation of society for the better. It was a great and empowering myth, but few believe in the future any longer. Instead, Osborne says, contemporary art now functions as an expression of the “disjunctive unity of present times.”[5] Or, as artist Hito Steyerl puts it, “contemporary art shows us the lack of a (global) time and space. Moreover, it projects a fictional unity onto a variety of different ideas of time and space, thus providing a common surface where there is none. Contemporary art thus becomes a proxy for the global commons, for the lack of any common ground, temporality, or space.”[6]

In the emerging global condition of flux, the idea of a common ground from which to reflect upon the passage of time, along with traditional notions of the self as grounded in a communal sense of place, has been washed away, replaced by a ‘network culture’ of shifting meanings and values. In this fluid state, meanings and values no longer derive from individuals or places, or from fixed intrinsic qualities, but rather they are contingent and relational, generated by interactions in the space of flows. Effectively, the nexus of social relations has shifted to people’s place in time rather than in space, defined by dynamic movement rather than by static location. The question arises, how will the singularity of the artist function and change in relation to these new conditions? What happens when the subjective self is set adrift on the space of flows – when you ‘take me to the river’?

The Space of Flows

Castells’ notion of the space of flows is based upon a hypothesis of social change: “A new society emerges when and if a structural transformation can be observed in the relationships of production, in the relationships of power, and in the relationships of experience.”[7] He suggests that a new aggressive form of ‘communicative’ capitalism emerged towards the end of the twentieth century, which is rapidly transforming social and economic conditions around the globe. This has been challenged by a multitude of social movements on behalf of cultural singularity and people’s control over their own lives and their environment. Thus, according to Castells: “Our societies are increasingly structured around the bipolar opposition of the Net and the Self.”[8] In this polarity, the Net stands for the new fluid formations arising from the pervasive use of networked communication media, while the Self symbolizes the activities through which people try to re-affirm their identities under the conditions of structural change and instability that go along with the re-organization of core social and economic activities into dynamic networks. New social formations emerge around primary identities, which may be sexual, religious, ethnic, territorial or nationalist in focus, in opposition to the shifting relativity of the network society.

The emerging space of flows, made up of the global movements of things and people, is characterized by being continuous and in ‘real time’. There have long been cultures that were built on trade and exchange across large distances, of course, but now these interactions are instantaneous. What differentiates the new global economy from the world economy of previous ages is that it has the capacity to work as a unit in ‘real time’ on a planetary scale. One of the consequences of being digital is that the space of flows can expand and contract very quickly. The volatility of the financial markets, for example, has a lot to do with the volume and speed of electronic trading. Significantly, such changes are not only quantitative (changes in size) but also qualitative (changes in kind). As flows change their volume and direction, the parties interacting in the network change their characteristics too. In contrast to the traditional place-based paradigm, the characteristics of each element in the flow are less dependent on their internal qualities than on their relationship to others. In other words, function, value and meaning in the space of flows are relational and not absolute. As the network changes, as old connections die and new ones are established, meanings and values change too.

One of the latent effects of the space of flows is to make the world ‘flat’. Under these new conditions, Pascal Gielen suggests, “time-honoured hierarchies, traditions, elites, canons, and forms of ‘grandeur’ are now subject to eroding movements that have a tendency to always gravitate towards mediocrity… In short, today’s networked society has a problem with qualitative judgement, or verticality.” [9] The democratization of art, for example, suggests that anyone can have an opinion about the quality of a work of art, and this is symptomatic of a new general horizontality in society at large. Neo-liberalism, flowing freely through the veins of the global network, guarantees the dominance of only one hierarchy, that of numbers, or ‘quantities’, which effectively make every quality relative. In this global regime of reductive equivalence, everything is exchangeable and nothing exists outside exchange. Thus, in a flat world, all qualities are henceforth to be expressed in terms of quantity, making any quality inter-changeable with, or at least comparable to, any other quality. This not only impacts on the supposedly ‘singular’ qualities of the artist’s aesthetic but also on the institutions that support them, which traditionally stood for verticality but now must be justified in terms of measurable quantities and outputs.

If things and people are no longer defined by their intrinsic qualities but by their relational position to one another, the unit of analysis can no longer be the single element, such as an individual or a unique object, but what happens ‘in between’, and what is created through association. Such an associative set of relations, or ‘assemblage’, does not have an inner essence that determines the whole. Rather, as Manuel DeLanda has written, assemblages are “wholes characterized by relations of exteriority”, where the “properties of component parts can never explain the relations which constitute a whole”.[10] Thus, if two people are engaged in a conversation and develop a new idea, the idea does not stem from one or the other of them, but from the association that they have created. Scott Lash takes this idea further, describing a new “technological form of life”[11] (referencing Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘lebensform’ but placing an added emphasis on the fact that these associations are increasingly made possible by information technology). This shift towards the relational has powerful implications, of course, not only for the idea of ‘the individual’, but also, more specifically, for the integrity of the artist, as a subjective singularity.

The Dissolution of the Artist

In the Enlightenment paradigm, the individual was seen as the primary form of subjectivity. C.B. MacPherson locates a ‘possessive individualism’ at the heart of the liberal theory of the seventeenth century, which conceived of the individual ”as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them.”[12] For liberal thinkers, “the human essence is freedom from dependence on the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession.”[13] The lone artist described by modernism, ‘autonomous’ and free from social constraints, could perhaps be viewed as the ultimate embodiment of such a liberal conception of free will. However, if we step back from this normative position, privileging the individual as the proper or exclusive form of subjectivity, then it could be argued, to the contrary, that this culturally constructed identity is, rather, a political form of separation and enclosure. Indeed, political theorist, Jodi Dean describes the “pathology of the individual” afflicting bourgeois capitalism as “a form endeavouring to abolish collective subjectivity by separating it into and containing it within individuated bodies and psyches.”[14]

Prior to modernism, and the privileging of the individual form of subjectivity, the main pre-occupation of ‘the artist’, across many different cultural traditions, was to overcome their own particularity, and to get rid of their specific point of view so as to gain access to a general, universal world view that would be valid everywhere and at every time. In his essay, Entering the Flow, Boris Groys describes this as a “search for totality”.[15] However, Groys says: “during the period of modernity we got accustomed to the view [that] human beings are incurably mortal, finite and therefore irreparably determined by specific material conditions of their existence. The humans cannot escape these conditions even by the flight of imagination because every such flight always takes the reality of their existence as a starting point. In other words, the materialist understanding of the world seems to deny to the human beings the access to the totality of the world that was secured to them by religious and philosophical tradition. “[16]

With the waning of modernism, post-1968, the relationship between subjectivity and the social apparatus was radically revised in the writings of Michel Foucault. The nuclear family, the asylum, the prison, the school, (the art gallery) all of those institutional bodies that form the matrix of modern society were now analysed 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.”[17] Thus the special subjectivity of the artist, privileged by modernism, becomes just one amongst many constructed identities, now fast dissolving in the reductive equivalence of the contemporary space of flows.

Whereas in the late 1960s artists had begun to draw attention to the socially constructed nature of identities, artists of the current generation frequently represent an idea of identity that is not only constructed but that is unstable, mutable and inconsistent. In the twenty-first century, social media, surveillance, reality TV and digital technologies are having a dramatic effect on the idea and representation of selfhood, collapsing the distinction between the public and the private, the real and the fictional. The idea of the body augmented by technology, and an understanding of identity that is visibly mapped by networks of social relationships, aligned to brands, expressed through lifestyle behaviour, and performed for an anonymous all-seeing audience, has become a defining notion of contemporary existence. This is likely to become an increasingly uncontested idea of identity as we progress through the next decade, and as the Net increasingly infiltrates our sense of Self.

After the Future

With the decline of Enlightenment values, the end of modernism and the rapid penetration of the Net into all aspects of Self, the new invasive form of communicative or ‘cognitive’ capitalism that now prevails is actively redefining subjectivity in relation to ‘immaterial production’. Where the processes of subjection arising with modern industrial societies required a disciplining of the body (for physical labour), the rise of post-Fordist modes of production take the mind, language and creativity as its primary tools. In the sphere of digital production, exploitation is exerted essentially on the semiotic flux produced by human time at work. It is in this sense that the term ‘immaterial’ is applied. As Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi writes, “Language and money are not at all metaphors, and yet they are immaterial. They are nothing, and yet can do everything: they move, displace, multiply, destroy. They are the soul of Semiocapital.”[18] Under these contemporary conditions, genuine subjective singularity can only be a hindrance to the smooth operation of immaterial production (at least, until it has been recuperated and co-opted into the neo-liberal narratives of the so-called ‘creative industries’).

Berardi describes the process of redefining subjectivity as ‘desingularisation’. “Desingularization of living thought and activity is mandatory for access to the network. In the global network there are not working persons, but an infinite brain-sprawl, an ever-changing mosaic of fractal cells of available nervous energy. The person is nothing but the residue – therefore precarious – of the process of valorization.”[19] Subjectivity and desire are constantly disciplined by the semiotic flux of communicative capitalism. Our relationship to language, and thus to others, is mutated by the demands of the Net, “more and more to do with inorganic connection, and less and less to do with the body of the mother.”[20] Berardi goes on to illustrate what happens when access to language is separated from the body and from affection, reduced to mere interoperability between machinic elements of an emotionless exchange:

“Let us think of the crowd of people sitting in the subway every morning. They are precarious workers moving toward the industrial and financial districts of the city, toward the places where they are working in precarious conditions. Everyone wears headphones, everybody looks at their cellular device, everybody sits alone and silent, never looking at the people who sit close, never speaking or smiling or exchanging any kind of signal. They are travelling alone in their lonely relationship with the universal electronic flow. Their cognitive and affective formation has made of them the perfect object of a process of desingularization. They have been pre-emptied and transformed into carriers of abstract fractal ability to connect, devoid of sensitive empathy so as to become smooth, compatible parts of a system of interoperability. Although they suffer from nervous aggression, and from the exploitation that semiocapitalism is imposing on them, although they suffer from the separation between functional being and sensible body and mind, they seem incapable of human communication and solidarity; in short, they seem unable to start any process of conscious collective subjectivation.”[21]

In this universal electronic flow, attention is the primary unit of currency. As Matthew Crawford writes, “attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it.” [22] If economics is the study of how a society uses its scarce resources then it is attention rather than information that is most in demand. We are drowning in information, but it means nothing if it cannot command our attention. Herbert Simon first defined the concept of an ‘attention economy’ in 1971, writing, “in an information-rich world … the wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”[23]Michael Goldhaber goes further and speculates that transactions of attention will rapidly replace monetary exchange, declaring that: “attention can ground an economy because it is a fundamental human desire and is intrinsically, unavoidably scarce… People trade attention at work, at home, and in between, day in and day out. Anyone tied into the Web might make hundreds of such transactions a day, far more than the number of monetary transactions they are likely to be involved in.”[24]

So how might the subjective singularity of the artist relate to this rapidly emerging attention economy, and the utopian desire for a ‘resingularization’ of lived reality? How could such singular resistance to the homogenisation of global network culture, and the disciplinary matrix of social institutions, contribute to a process of conscious collective subjectivation? How can the artist help to re-introduce a poetics of empathy into the emotionless space of flows, reconnecting language with the body, and affection? In short, why should we continue to pay attention to the artist?


In answer to the question ‘What is the Contemporary?’ Giorgio Agamben defined the very essence of contemporaneity 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.”[25] Within this framework, the condition of the contemporary artist could be conceived of as a kind of disjunction, out of synch with the cultural mainstream, or as a kind of ‘malaise’. 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. Hence, philosopher, Gilles Deleuze asserted that “literature is an enterprise of health”[26], describing his literary theory as ‘clinical’ as well as critical. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Deleuze saw philosophers and artists as being united by a shared interest in ‘symptomatology’, the practice of arranging symptoms creatively in order to diagnose the ‘diseases’ of cultural life. The question remains, however, as to how the disjunctive ‘pathology’ of the artist can connect, beyond the realm of art alone, to the socio-political and to the world-historical, or, in other words, to a renewed idea of the future?

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and his long-term collaborator, Félix 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 a universal common ground from which 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 part 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 other 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.”[27] Thus, in a process of ‘molecular revolution’, the disjunctive singularity of the artist could be seen to function as a kind of ‘free radical’, de-territorializing rigid social structures and helping to form new collective assemblages of subjectivity, through elective affinities.

For Deleuze and Guattari, social transformation can only be achieved through the liberation of subjectivity and desire from the confines of the disciplinary apparatus. In Anti-Oedipus, they proposed the idea of ‘schizoanalysis’ as a ‘universal clinical theory’ of subjectivity, calling for an uprising against “the narrow cells of the type ‘couple’, ‘family’, ‘person’, ‘objects’…”[28] They saw subjective desire as the real force of production, “not a theatre, but a factory”, a “Desiring-Machine… that creates all social and historical reality.”[29] To re-connect with the liberating forces of desire, the engine that generates culture in all its manifestations, will require, “a whole scouring of the unconscious, a complete curettage”, as they described their schizoanalytic method. “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.”[30] Only then can a process of resingularization and conscious collective subjectivation begin.

Félix Guattari took this idea of personal transformation further, in his late essay, The Three Ecologies, extending the definition of ecology to encompass social relations and human subjectivity, as well as the environment. 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, he said, there is a need to recover “intensities”, [31] to re-claim “existential territories”[32] through the singularity of the creative imagination (specifically the domain of the artist). Like the consciousness raising movements of the 1970s, with slogans such as ‘the personal is political’, Guattari called for a “resingularization of life” – a “micropolitics of desire”[33]– in the battle for the future. The primary force of production for the new collective assemblages of subjectivity that will emerge will be a myriad liberated Desiring-Machines. Thus the creative imagination – as embodied in the singular ‘untimely’ condition of the artist – is understood to be a means to bring about social change.

In order to resist the reductive equivalence of the space of flows, these resingularized forms of life must combat the principle of exchange with a poetics of intimacy, re-introducing affection and ‘the body of the mother’ into social relations, through the counter principle of sharing (and its corollary, ‘the commons’[34]). Different from any form of economic or symbolic exchange, the principle of sharing eludes a simple reduction to equivalence, as it is based upon forms that yield no return because they remain outside of exchange and, indeed, cannot be exchanged. Georges Batailles referred to this “excess”, outside exchange, as “the accursed share”,[35] including the arts as an example of non-recuperable surplus energy within the general economy. Sharing, and the ‘gift economy’, run counter to the rationalist assumption about human behaviour, that individuals tend to act out of selfish motivations which means that most behaviours can be understood in terms of exchange (‘we give something in order to get something back’, ‘we do something because we get something out of it’). To the contrary, sharing actively resists the establishment of equivalencies between values, and cannot be grasped in terms of rationality or exchange.

The ‘existential’ nature of sharing is based upon the fact that we give freely of ourselves in our own lived ‘real time’. We cannot share without communicating, and without putting our own selves, our own being, into play. It is this connection to intimacy, and with the limitations and fragility of our own bodies, that also represents an inner limitation of sharing. So while sharing as a political act limits exchange, it is itself limited through the finitude of existence as well. Thus the act of sharing is an existential experience, reminding us that the world, and the meanings we generate by virtue of having a world, is already a shared world. In fact, it is quite impossible to think of the world in any other way. No one can exist as a cultural being and not share. These anti-economic, political and existential meanings make up the core of sharing. They make it an activity in which we create ourselves as communities of beings before we do anything else. Thus intimacy can be understood to be an antidote to the desingularization of the contemporary space of flows, and the act of sharing our existential singularity, in lived ‘real time’, as part of a process of conscious collective subjectivation, and thus the ‘micro-political’ basis for the future transformation of society. Perhaps this might also explain the continued significance of the artist today?

“What is intimate, in the strong sense, is what has the passion of an absence of individuality, the imperceptible sonority of a river …”[36]

Georges Batailles

[1] Hōjōki, Kamo no Chōmei, 1212, from Hōjōki, Penguin Classic, 2013

[2] Heraclitus of Epheseus, c. 501 BC, from Fragments, Penguin Classics, 2003

[3] The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells, 1996

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Duty-Free Art”, Hito Steyerl, in E-Flux March 2015

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells, 1996

[9] “When Flatness Rules”, Pascal Gielen in Institutional Attitudes: Instituting Art in a Flat World, 2013

[10] A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity, Manuel DeLanda, 2006

[11] “Technological Forms of Life”, Scott Lash in Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 18, no.1, 2001

[12] The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, C.B. MacPherson, 2010

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Collective Desire and the Pathology of the Individual”, Jodi Dean in The Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism, Part One, 2013

[15] Entering the Flow, Boris Groys, 2013

[16] Ibid.

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

[18] The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, 2009

[19] After the Future, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, 2011

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Introduction, Attention as a Cultural Problem”, Matthew Crawford in The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, 2015

[23] ”Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World”, Herbert Simon in Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest, 1971

[24] “Attention Shoppers!” Michael Goldhaber, in Wired, December 1997

[25] “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus and Other Essays, Giorgio Agamben, 2009

[26] Essays Critical and Clinical, Gilles Deleuze, 1998

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

[28] Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, 1968

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] The Three Ecologies, Félix Guattari, 1989

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] The term ‘commons’ derives from the traditional English legal term for common land. In modern economic theory, the commons has come to refer to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. [Source: Wikipedia]

[35] The Accursed Share: an essay on general economy, Georges Batailles, 1949

[36] Theory of Religion, Georges Batailles, 1973 (written in the 1940s, but published posthumously)

== Text by Tom Trevor published in the catalogue of the 4th Dojima River Biennale, Osaka (2015) ==

Image: Liquidity Inc. (2014), Hito Steyerl


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