Since at least the late 1990s, the concepts of creative industries and creative labour have come to define the working conditions of the vast majority artists in industrialized countries. While the overwhelming tenor of the discussion is oriented towards the neoliberal engineering of a post-welfare state economy, with authors like Charles Leadbeater and Richard Florida sharing the limelight, a more radical space had opened up in the areas of critical theory and progressive left discourse generally, where the term creative industries is accompanied not only by such notions as intellectual property and falling rates of profit, but by concepts such as immaterial labour, precarity, creative commons and general intellect.1 While those who feed at the table of corporate capitalism are free to talk among themselves, it is by way of intervention, and in relation to the latter discussion, that I wish to advance a sociologically and psychoanalytically informed model of avant-garde practice. To merely raise the spectre of the avant garde is of course to run the risk of offending those postmodernists who reject anything that involves such notions as the Marxist theory of social totality (presumed to be totalitarian), class analysis (presumed to lead to masculinism), universal emancipation (presumed to mask its hidden hegemonic contingencies) and even radical party politics (presumed to be outmoded for post-structuralists who are ‘beyond left and right’ and indeed beyond good and evil). Against such contemporary doxa, this essay proposes a decidedly Marxist class analysis of creative cultural production in the context of the global (state) mode of production.

In an essay on the “non-productive role of the artist,” I argued that for good or bad, economic growth is today associated with creativity and that this fact, more than anything, is the problem faced by artists today.2 In contrast to those who consider cultural and symbolic products and services to have become the “immaterial” basis to capitalist surplus, I argued instead that Marx’s labour theory of value and the distinction between productive and non-productive labour are necessary concepts if we wish to appreciate the global division of labour and its distinctly imperialist character. Notwithstanding the decentralization involved in flexible regimes of accumulation, “just-in-time” manufacturing, and the international nature of trade regimes, I find myself in agreement with the late Chris Harman who argues that the destructive effects of the capitalist system are not restricted to economic phenomena.3 Those like Michael Hard and Antonio Negri who welcome new forms of capitalism for the kinds of unforeseen social assemblages they bring into being and who resist not so much the contradictions of capitalism but the biopolitical engineering involved in societies of control, tend to fold the relations of production in with the new technological and communicative means of production and leave out the superstructural effects and mediations that operate at the level of law, philosophy, politics and culture.4

In contrast to schizo-anarchist and workerist comrades, I have found it less useful to think in terms of exodus from creative industry institutions – universities, museums, state planning – and more helpful to think in terms of what I call, following Lacanian psychoanalysis, synthomeopathic practice, an identification with the symptoms of late capitalist social engineering.5 Against the Clinton era catch phrase ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’, the creative industries reduction of social life to capitalist calculation should be countered with the equally blunt ‘It’s the ideology, stupid!’ As Slavoj Žižek asserts, emancipatory struggle should be defined today as the struggle against liberal democracy, the predominant ideological form that is often the background of the predominant topics of progressive academia: postcolonial and queer studies, gender studies and various forms of difference politics concerned with intolerance towards Otherness. Identity struggles, however, are only the more obvious symptoms of a post-traumatic condition in which the left hesitates to confront both its failures and its achievements. When matters of civil rights and social equality are thought to mitigate against revolutionary theory, we are decidedly in the midst of a culture war in which the terms of reference favour liberal democratic capitalism as the only possible outcome. As Žižek writes: “What, today, prevents the radical questioning of capitalism itself is precisely this belief in the democratic form of the struggle against capitalism.”6 Consequently, discourses regarding the multitude of struggles confirm the kinds of postmodern post-politics that are allowed by the system.7 Among the keystones of the postmodern notion of the multitude of decentred struggles we find the repudiation of universality, the shift away from class politics, and the kind of ultrapolitics that depoliticizes the culture wars and identity conflicts that are generated by the capitalist system. Even Hardt and Negri in fact are critical of identitarian and nationalistic “capture devices.” What I wish to do differently from theorists who are influenced by Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and attendant notions of creative and affective subjectivation within biopolitical regimes of normalization, is relate subjectivity to a sociological class analysis and to psychoanalysis, and this, as part of the effort to rehabilitate a much maligned if not forgotten critical dialectical realism.

What then is an adequate model of avant-garde practice and what are its theoretical premises? One question that must be broached is that of both political and aesthetic autonomy. Most will view the Leninist version of the engaged artist as a committed party artist to be evidently out of step with an actuality in which there are no revolutionary organizations or even nation states that are powerful enough to lead the capitalist democracies to a new world situation. On this count, the socio-historical conditions that led to the emergence of avant-garde movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have shifted perceptibly toward the biocapitalist administration of culture, confirming rather than denying the thesis of art’s tendency towards autonomization, understood here in terms of capitalist reification. The argument that the artist is no longer a solitary and autonomous ‘genius’ producer, that art objects no longer have a sacred aura of uniqueness connected to the cult of beauty, and that cultural spaces are now opened up by electronic media to democratic modes of consumption are quite beside the point.8 Autonomy exists in contemporary culture even insofar as it is enacted paradoxically through dispersed strategies of complicity, compliance, identification, sociality and relationality. Discussing in 2010 the extensive social networking required to even qualify for an interview for a job in a publicly funded, low-paying Montreal artist-run centre, I was told by a young art gallery attendant – proudly sporting that season’s half-faux-hawk head shave – that this is because “we live in a social economy now.” Out of the head of Adam Smith, I thought, capitalism reaffirms itself as cooperation not only in the factory but outside as well – in this case, as corporatized art world social relations masquerading as local community. This cool, affirmative strategy, however, pressured by the logic of networking and careerism, is little more than a survival strategy within the conditions that prevail.

The strategy of resistance that I propose insists, in dialectical fashion, that no pure synthesis is possible between the levels of culture and politics, a claim that resists the post-structural reduction of art to a cultural politics of representation and a social constructionism that acts as little more than a new version of the thesis of false consciousness. Instead, what a critical praxis requires is a concept of ideology that allows us to renew with the project of a critical realism in which art’s awareness of its inconsequentiality as innocuous compensation leads not only back to life but back to a critical vision of the present: creative labour and cultural institutions in the service of a universal emancipatory project. In keeping with Alain Badiou’s notion of the “communist hypothesis,” the contemporary class analysis of the field of cultural production that I propose asserts that, pace Badiou, “all those who abandon this hypothesis immediately resign themselves to the market economy, the parliamentary democracy – the form of the state suited to capitalism – and to the withdrawal and ‘natural’ character of the most monstrous inequalities.”9

Whereas the left’s intellectual contribution to thinking through the limits of neoliberal economics, both socially and economically, gained respectability in the wake of the economic meltdown of 2008, the ideological reaction was palpable. To take a few examples, the anti-democratic Conservative Party in Canada continued to lead with a minority government, the Lib-Dem coalition in the UK signaled the exhaustion of “third way” Labour Party compromises, and the encroachment of populist Tea Parties in the Republican Party in the US greeted with racist contempt the Obama administration’s goal of realizing (on the whole) the continuation George Bush’s foreign and domestic policies. Cadres in the cultural and knowledge industries could agree with critiques of global capitalism but they found radical solutions too idealistic. Pragmatism remains the name of the game. In the academic art world at least, the crises of capitalism are to be overcome with post-structuralist twists on phraseology and various other post-phenomenal deconstructions that do more to indicate the decline of symbolic efficiency than the will to change things.

None of this comes as a surprise when we consider the prohibition on class politics that has structured so much social thinking in the decades since Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney. However, because neoliberalism has remained the privileged formula for both state policy as well as international forms of governance, class polarization – a process of actual polarization between the rich and the poor combined with an entrenched ‘middle’ class phenomenon of petty bourgeois identification with the liberal ideology of classlessness – has taken place on an increasingly global scale.10 This transformation has occurred primarily in relation to the growth of a distinctly international petty bourgeois class formation.11 Its optimism concerning the public virtues of democracy masks the latter’s basis in market capitalism and altogether ignores the imperialist relations on which industrial and post-industrial capitalism continue to be built.

What are the political characteristics of this tertiary ‘middle’ class and what can an unabashedly “orthodox” class analysis contribute to thinking through the possibilities of anti-capitalism in a world commandeered by forms of neoliberal governance? If we could adequately address this question, I argue, we could better understand the relentless capitalization of culture through the mediating role of political, cultural and educational institutions. Strictly speaking, the contemporary petty bourgeoisie is unlike the middle class in that it does not own the means of production and numbers among salaried professionals and white-collar “post-industrial” workers – referred to by Andrew Ross as “no-collar” workers. Post-industrial theory assumes that such workers require more autonomy and decision-making power. Psychologically, the new de-proletarianized petty bourgeois class wishes to be distinguished from the working poor and from the proletariat. This reflects the fact that they are in fact less proletarianized and have more technical training and access to knowledge production than the industrial proletariat. The relation of the petty bourgeoisie towards the middle class is similar to that of the small and medium-size business owner vis-à-vis the large capitalist enterprise. In contrast to the view that class conflict implies a direct relation between the working class and the middle class, Marx argued that in modern societies, a petty bourgeois class is created, which fluctuates between the two but renews itself as a supplementary part of bourgeois society. (No wonder then that many of the struggles of 2011 and 2012 failed to lead to radical politicization.) Another term the petty bourgeoisie that is used by Marx and Engels is that of a bourgeois proletariat, alienated from its progressive role by industrial capitalism. We can also speak of a “petty bourgeois complex,” a fantasy of capitalistic affluence that has become a permanent feature of late capitalism, which includes post-Keynesian palliatives, structural unemployment or chronic underemployment, third world debt, war expenditure, commodity fetishism and sales promotion, inflation, and environmental catastrophe.12

In some respects, it could simplify matters to understand today’s petty bourgeoisie as simply the middle class: it is not the ruling capitalist class, able to devalue both labour and professionalism, and it is not the working class, against which the middle class resentfully guards its symbolic capital from demands for equal opportunity. Robert Resch argues that the “middle” class of professional petty bourgeois workers is divided between a liberal humanist fraction that is based in the public sector, the media and universities, and a “social darwinist” fraction based in the private sector and corporations. This class as a whole is unable to understand and resist the restructuring of global capitalism inasmuch as it refuses to consider the analysis of economic determination as class struggle. The more blatant the recent effects of economic determination and class exploitation, he argues, the more the ideological response of this class is to blame its failures on the concessions it once gave to Marxism, whether at the level of the welfare state, state socialism, or at the level of social theory.13

It is in the 1960s and 70s, in the paradigm shift from the old left to the New Left that the critique of alienation and reification was replaced by the critique of institutions, a consequence of the view that class struggle had been abolished, or neutralized, by parliamentary democracy and the welfare state, on the one hand, and by bureaucratic socialism on the other. The New Left tended to equate class struggle with the critique of existing institutions and the struggle to create new ones. Today, class struggle disappears inasmuch as wealth creation in industrial societies has led to the disappearance of boundaries between classes and the rise of a tertiary class that is neither bourgeois nor proletarian. Despite its position as a working class, the new petty bourgeois class of managers and “creative” service workers has witnessed a class polarization that plays a determining structural role vis-à-vis class praxis. As Nicos Poulantzas long ago argued, the petty bourgeois social formation reproduces itself through polarization. In the postwar period, its distinct class practice has been to abandon class struggle in favour of identity struggles and the struggle against institutions.14 While the critique of institutions has allowed numerous forms of oppression to become the object of criticism, analysis and research, it also contributes to class inequality. What is missing from many of the new models of cultural practice is a distinction between the kind of criticism that accepts the concept of social formation as an expression of the mode of production, and a Marxist sociology that explains social formation as the mode of reproduction of the modes of production. Institutions are key in this regard as they create a space of mediation that allows for the separation of modes of production from social relations. The ideological tendency thus tends towards the urge to create “alternative” institutions as complements to the new imperative towards networked sociality. Consequently, class polarization, rather than cultural difference, is the open secret, the obscene supplement of contemporary post-politics and its cultural manifestations.

One of the most succinct expressions of the links between globalization and social reproduction through culture has been Bill Readings’ book, The University in Ruins. In it Readings argues that in a world of transnational globalization, the language of economic management replaces that of cultural and class conflict. He cites Giorgio Agamben, whose book, The Coming Community, proposes that a new planetary petty bourgeoisie has replaced social classes and has “freed itself from the Fascist positioning of the [prewar] petty bourgeoisie.”15 According to Agamben,

The planetary petty bourgeoisie has instead freed itself from these dreams [of false popular identity] and has taken over the aptitude of the proletariat to refuse any recognizable social identity… They know only the improper and the inauthentic and even refuse the idea of a discourse that could be proper to them. That which constituted the truth and falsity of the peoples and generations that have followed one another on the earth – differences of language, of dialect, of ways of life, of character, of custom, and even the physical particularities of each person – has lost any meaning for them and any capacity for expression and communication. In the petty bourgeoisie, the diversities that have marked the tragicomedy of universal history are brought together and exposed in a phantasmagorical vacuousness.16

According to Readings, this global petty bourgeoisie refuses a specifically political dimension in favour of a purely economic and post-historical logic of administration. In this sense, the liberal belief that North America represents a classless society has paved the way for the economic dominance of a global class that refuses all recognizable or fixed social identity. Because of this, it considers both traditional bourgeois and socialist society to have nothing to do with its technical expertise and vision of the good life.

The paradoxical class position of the petty bourgeoisie is that it is neither working class nor middle class but both; its ideological effect is, one the one hand, polarization, and on the other, a certain invisibility inasmuch as it privileges the thesis of classlessness. Technocratic powers have learned to exploit this contradiction to great effect and could do so because neoliberalism seems to them not only the engine of trade and deregulation, as the most advanced form of “turbo” capitalism, but also as a protective reaction to the vagaries of uncontrolled markets – noticed in particular in the creation of international trade blocks, in religious fundamentalisms and xenophobic nationalisms.17 In ways that Agamben could not have foreseen in the early 1990s, the militarization of the state in the capitalist democracies has been deepened through the biocapitalist manipulation of fear and delegitimation measures that have been normalized through the reactionary transformation of “civil society” institutions. One should be careful not to overstate the control exerted by disciplinary state apparatuses, however, since the purpose of neoliberal governmentality is largely to produce self-interested subjects who can act autonomously within market relations of inequality.

According to Readings, the standards of excellence and evaluation criteria that now operate in universities, museums, the publishing industry and similar culture industry sectors, are subject to a constant evaluation vis-à-vis performance indicators, opinion polls, cost-benefit analysis, economic development statistics and marketing objectives. The integrative functionalization of culture requires that artists and institutions be allowed to experiment so that they can better be controlled by the power of bureaucracies and so that research can be synergistically tied to economic development.

Following Readings’ analysis, contemporary cultural production can benefit from a re-contextualization of Bourdieu’s theory of the “cultural goodwill” of the lower middle class as a key political sector of the social space. The general mode of production and consumption, or class habitus, that Bourdieu defined as the petty bourgeois mode was that of allodoxia: an empty form of goodwill and reverence towards bourgeois culture that is based in mistaken identifications combined with anxiety about one’s social status.18 While allodoxia owes its sense of distinction to the mode of consumption that is proper to legitimate culture, it confuses aesthetic disinterestedness with popular culture and prefers accessible versions of avant-garde experimentation. Here, as with avant-garde intervention, the political content of the artwork functions at the social level above that of its formal specificity, but the content is the impossible one of an unspecified form of the political.

The petty bourgeois mode of production and consumption attempts to operate as a disengaged and neutral index of the power of institutions to impose cultural capital. The forms of cultural capital are of course historical and Peter Bürger’s well-known sociological model of the development of the bourgeois mode of cultural production and consumption is an important element in our analysis. By adapting Bürger’s model of the sociological development of aesthetic autonomy to Bourdieu’s study of the social space of positions, I would like to propose the current existence of a new field of relations.19 The table below adapts Bürger’s model by adding a fourth column at the right. Such a re-mapping of the universe of possibles allows us to perceive some of the ways in which the imposition of news forms of cultural legitimacy via creative industries policies, including progressive models of practice, avoids what Bourdieu described as a discernment of reality in terms of class composition.

FUNCTION cult object representational object portrayal of individual
MODE OF PRODUCTION collective craft guilds individual academies individual studio networked culture industry
MODE OF CONSUMPTION collective religious collective sociable individual alienated post-enlightenment
STATUS OF THE WORK magical secret iconic treasure pageantry alchemical autonomous
avant garde
market value

Within a petty bourgeois framework, the kind of avant-garde arrogance and insolence that is derived from the “heroic” certainty of possessing culture through serious engagement is replaced by the permanent anxiety of those who pretentiously overidentify with culture. They are, we could say, “possessed” by culture in the same way that bourgeois ideology is “possessed” by class. According to Bourdieu, the pretense of identification is objectively based in the petty bourgeois desire to escape from proletarianization and to subsume culture under the sign of class mobility. Because of this race against the order of time, a process that installs class identity as a surplus mode of enjoyment, and because the order of time is marked by the growing gap between the working poor and the wealth of a small number of individuals and mega corporations, the petty bourgeois mode of appropriating culture dominates the so-called creative industries. Among the modalities of petty bourgeois allodoxia, Bourdieu proposed the following processes: structural indeterminacy vis-à-vis the social field; countercultural resentment that verges on nihilism; a taste for the new and a willingness to submit to lifestyle changes (especially among the rising, executant petty bourgeoisie); the creation and selling of new products; new occupations that allow symbolic rehabilitation strategies; occupations that emphasize symbolic production, especially in the areas of communications and new media; the euphemization of seriousness; the fun ethic; relaxation strategies and conviviality; affectation in simplicity; flair combined with bluff; sympathy with discourses that challenge the cultural order; the denunciation of hierarchy; an emphasis on personal health and psychological therapy; an imperative of sexual relation; the offering of one’s art of living as an example to others; pragmatic utopianism; and a measure of psychic distance from the direct impact of market forces.

All of these liberated manners and lifestyle choices, Bourdieu argued, betray an effort to defy the gravity of the social field.20 The challenge to authority is a particularly telling feature of class structure and is one that figures prominently in relation to the charismatic conception of the artist, a fact that facilitated challenges to bourgeois power as a general condition for the constitution of the field of aesthetic autonomy. Authority boundaries, however, are the most permeable of class boundaries, in comparison with the more static boundaries of skill, knowledge, and property.21

One of the features of neoliberalism has been the weakening of the value of skill and knowledge, and with this the corresponding mechanisms of professionalism in favour of property relations. This was an overt feature of the “neoconservative” years of Thatcher and the downsizing mentality that witnessed the wholesale restructuring of institutions and corporations. In this, petty bourgeois allodoxia plays a crucial role, setting what appear to be the social criteria of affectivity and connectivity above all considerations of necessity. However, as Thomas Frank argues in his book The Conquest of Cool, these conservative values are part and parcel of what appears to be their opposite: counter-cultural resistance to what is construed in idealist terms as traditional and outdated forms of authority and morality.22

One possible objection that should be addressed is the view that Bourdieu’s work prevents forms of analysis that are not based in class analysis. In the section of his book Distinction titled “Social Space and Its Transformations,” Bourdieu argues against the concept of class as a container or property. Instead, he states that social class is defined by a “structure of relations” that must also take into account “secondary characteristics” and determinants. Specific agents cannot be defined by one set of characteristics only, and in the context of struggle, secondary principles of division can become primary principles and therefore no determinants are necessarily and always primary.23 Like the unconscious, secondary determinants should not be viewed as truths revealed, but as indices of the structure of subjectivity. In this, we should insist that subjects are incomplete, created and self-created in conditions not of their making. Within capitalist society, class operates in terms of ideology, as a fantasy that attaches us to a particular social formation. As a mode of enjoyment, this ideology, as Jodi Dean writes in relation to Žižek’s interpretation of Lacan, structures “the practices in which we persist even as we know better.” Ideology creates a distance that relieves us of responsibility for what we do, and, moreover from the belief that I act as an individual. As long as I believe that others act in ways that are class specific, I can continue believing that my actions are individual and autonomous. In this, I can act collectively; for example, I can participate in anti-capitalist organizing. That is why, at this moment of disintegration of belief in individualism, liberals argue, allodoxically, that economic and political inequality can be resisted by “rebuilding” the middle class.24

Because middle-class liberalism by and large continues to function as the stated and unstated ideology of capitalist institutions, the actual sociological entrenchment of the petty bourgeois habitus remains largely invisible. As Poulantzas recognized, the ideological and political articulation of the social position of the new petty bourgeoisie is very narrowly defined by the high level of competition and hierarchy in creative fields.25 While the economic profile of the cultural worker may effectively be middle class, their relationship to culture is, sociologically speaking, petty bourgeois. If we discount the terms of class analysis, we can more readily understand these processes as simply social relations, defined vis-à-vis new modes of production and the communications revolution brought on by personal computers and the Internet. In an essay titled “Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Flexible Personality, Networked Resisrtance,” the cultural critic Brian Holmes asks whether it is possible for this “virtual (middle) class” to build networked resistance to corporate capitalism.26 The archetypal oppression of workers in the industrial era, he argues, has shifted to that of a disciplinary society in which the assertion of subjectivity is pervasive. Vanguard movements and intellectuals become obsolete as new flexible regimes of labour and freelance culture produce a “general nomadism” that implies new modes of control based on flexibility and the refusal of hierarchy. The looser, creative lifestyles that developed in the 1960s and 70s were a result of the replacement of unionized work with an unregulated form of global marketing and distribution. In a social mode of production similar to what Aldous Huxley described in Brave New World, the desires of the flexible personality are fed back into the production process, giving rise to creative producers, digital artisans and immaterial workers.27 This pluralism, he cautions, hides a social pathology which is the perfection of the system, its integrative corporate monitoring, guidance systems, and consolidation of a war economy – what the media theorist Arthur Kroker elsewhere described as the liberal fascism of the virtual class.

The limitation of such a fairly straightforward analysis is that it does not adequately address the ideological underpinnings of capital accumulation, which is partly responsible for the dismantling of the welfare state and the displacement of western industrial labour to offshore third world locations, where labour is cheap and where proletarianization advances at an incredible rate. With the displacement of vast populations that is expected to occur as a result of global warming, such proletarianization will only increase in the decades ahead. The growth of a petty bourgeois “creative” class in First World industrialized economies contributes to a declining tax base and with it the erosion of public-mindedness and progressive social criticism as welfare policies are replaced by privatization and the neo-liberalization of markets, including creative fields. This tendency toward global proletarianization abroad and imperialist myopia at home contributes to the proliferation of petty bourgeois polarization.

The argument that I wish to make with regard to the modification of Peter Bürger’s historical model is that the transformation of the bourgeois criteria of aesthetic autonomy has not fully taken place and that petty bourgeois allodoxia today plays an uneven and contradictory role. Because of class polarization, the major shifts to cultural production that have marked the twentieth century often go unrecognized. In the developed countries of the West, neither has the concept of aesthetics been displaced, nor has a cultural revolution comparable to the first decades of the early Soviet Union or Maoist China in the 50s and 60s taken place. Instead, the features of polarization have gained in ascendancy. Inasmuch as the field of culture continues to exploit the reserves of “legitimate” culture, new subjectivities are compelled to engage in the schizoid performativity of individual competition, sometimes translated into activist engagement, subsuming interestedness to the contradictions of bourgeois culture, including academia’s rarefied post-humanist discourses. What this means is that aesthetics should not be thought of in positive terms; there is no properly bourgeois, petty bourgeois or proletarian aesthetic – there are only works, gestures and images that substitute for a fundamental social antagonism.

In the context of neoliberalism, the reduction of the cultural sphere to a positive signifying “creative industries” economy functions as an attempt to politically and economically manage class differences. Radical practice, instead, strives to create culture that is unconstrained by a privileged social mediation. Thus, whatever operates today as an avant garde, we could say, functions as the supernumerary of aesthetic autonomy; its activity corresponds to the failure of culture to produce social coherence. The problem for avant-garde practitioners is to find a way to enable critical dissatisfaction and to subvert established forms of (dis)identification through a radical subjectivation of politics. In terms of criticism, this implies the diversification of art’s audience, being, as Baudelaire once declared, “partial, passionate, and political.”

In the context of a renewed anti-capitalist militancy, we can begin to reconceive the role of radical cultural practice and with this make some proposals for the advancement of the project of avant-garde contestation. The strict articulation of anti-capitalist struggle in terms of renewal might occasion more contention that is warranted. It is agreed that whatever new forms of revolutionary struggle are practiced, they will never again be those that characterized the twentieth century. By communism, therefore, I understand a universal expression of collective social emancipation, one that builds on the lessons of past experiences, including those associated with identity struggles, post-colonialism, feminism, gay liberation and environmentalism. One of the rare voices in the arena of avant-garde contestation is the Brussles and Rotterdam-based collective BAVO. BAVO’s members, Gideon Boie and Matthias Pauwels, have produced a significant body of essays and publications dedicated to the radical criticism of neoliberal politics.28 Drawing on Jacques Lacan’s and Slavoj Žižek’s psychoanalytically informed theories of social and subject formation, BAVO have presented an incisive critique of the ways that contemporary cultural practices work to depoliticize the social space by maintaining the privileges of art. The concept of over-identification that they have developed in recent writings draws on the widely discredited concept of totality as a path to understanding how it is that the production of surplus value is the necessary condition for efforts on the part of engaged cultural actors to bring about radical social change. Whereas neoliberalism maintains social and economic relations through the regulation of legal, political, educational and cultural institutions, the goal of over-identification, as a form of class struggle, serves to render visible the ideological supports of social relations. We insist at the outset that over-identification cannot be a totalizing practice, but only part of a strategy of resistance and subversion of the dominant forces of our times. Just as radical cultural practice never overestimates the social benefits of aesthetics, over-identification practices are not put forth as a totalizing panacea nor a method of justified transgression for the sake of individualistic ego-tripping or collective political cred. It’s not a matter of over-identifying with everything all of the time, but rather a technique among others that can be used on strategic occasions in which the meanings and effects that are occasioned reflect the goal of social conscientization, which includes the agent of conscientization.

Following Žižek’s endorsement of Neue Slowenische Kunst and the musical group Laibach, BAVO has defined and described practices of social subversion through over-identification as a specific mode of cultural contestation. It is my view that over-identification should be conceived as a dialectical mediation of political and cultural practice; it is neither singularly aesthetic nor singularly political. The ultimate failure of the effectiveness of any particular work of over-identification – say, a work by the Yes Men, by Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, or an episode of the television show The Colbert Report – is not equivalent to the failure of a political option; practice in this case need not lead to immediately recognizable changes to have been effective. Over-identification strategies may have as a desirable outcome the rejection of the work by audiences and/or their ironic appreciation. Unlike some forms of socially ameliorative art activism, the function of over-identification is not an immediate socially ameliorative action or the representation of a future political redemption but an immediate subversion of the predominant symbolic order, an undermining of the symbolic authority of existing social structures and institutional arrangements. To be clear, in order to be considered avant-garde, a work of over-identification must nevertheless presuppose certain regulatory schema concerning the opposition to ruling class relations. In this, it is different in conception from micro-political practices that presuppose an endless constellation, or spurious infinity, of so-called pre-subjective positions, as argued by Gilles Deleuze. Against the “communicational stupidities” of Deleuze’s “machinic assemblages,” we uphold the Lacanian view according to which it is possible to break eggs, but it is not possible to make an hommelette; one is born a trotte-bébé, but one does not remain one for an entire lifetime. This emphasis on subjectivity allows for the minimum of distance necessary to break with the ideological seamlessnes of social formations, in particular capitalist class relations and the moral economy of petty bourgeois reformism.

A fundamental presupposition of over-identification as an avant-garde tendency is the view that the artistic transgression of conventional cultural codes works to reproduce social relations rather than change them. In this sense, BAVO’s refusal of the superego injunction to obey social codes resembles Peter Bürger’s distinction between bohemian and historical avant-gardes. The main difference between Bürger’s position and the Žižekian paradigm, however, is the loosening of the laws of historical materialism in terms of the Lacanian paradox of surplus enjoyment, the problem that the desire of avant-garde contestation (and for consecration) confronts dissidents as an external demand, mediated by various institutional determinations, including contemporary political injunctions to abandon class struggle in favour of a politics of equivalence or a workerist multitude where all of producing labour is by and large equated with the workings of capitalist valorization. What is the creative industries mantra if not precisely this demand for subjectivized productivity? In contrast to Bürger’s pessimistic view of the position of the postwar neo-avant gardes, Žižek’s reading of the revolutionary situation emphasizes the radical contingency of practice.

Žižek’s Lacanian understanding of Law, language and norms helps us to understand the crucial difference between the kind of radical practice that BAVO advocates and the proliferation of socially engaged cultural practices that we find in the forms of connective, dialogical, and relational aesthetics, or in Deleuzian forms of transversal activism.29 One of the primary distinctions, we might say, is Žižek’s view that Law is constitutively split between the official public letter and its obscene superego supplement. Žižek’s work advocates a shift from the obscene supplement – that which binds social formations by repressing social antagonism – to that of universal norms – which alone recognize exception (the identity of opposites) as the basis for the emergence of a universal form of politicization. Following Žižek’s work, BAVO proposes an over-identification with the unstated, obscene demands of capitalist universality as a means of marking the specific ways that liberal democracy organizes the link between the public law (affirmations of the formal space of culture) and its perverse underside (class struggle). In contrast to the Foucauldian view that law produces its self-sustaining forms of transgression, the Lacanian split law points to the possibility of radical social and cultural change, revealing the autonomy of law as a traumatic disturbance.

In putting forward a theory of avant-garde over-identification, BAVO proposes that we exit the loop of the capitalist demand for activist artworks and enter the space of exception: the objective positing of class struggle as the basis for an ethical critique of consumer capitalism and its management of identity-based conflicts. The psychoanalytic concept of the sinthome (identification with the symptom – and not the cause of the symptom) is crucial here as the supplement that provides practice with a synthetic sense of consistency and that is able to link subjectivity to a collective socio-historical project. Rather than deny the desire of the Other in the form of the integrative force of the culture industries, we take into account drive as an endosomatic internal force, the measure of demand made upon the mind for work and its always inhibited, partial satisfaction.

According to Žižek, “desire thrives in the gaps of a demand – in what is in a demand more than a demand.”30 The Lacanian insight on the desire of the big Other as the superego demand, the constitutive alienation of the subject in the symbolic order, offers a path to a radical political understanding of national-to-transnational cultural politics. Explicit in Žižek’s reading of Lacan is the view than any authentic act that seeks to bring about social change involves, at the subjective level, a shift from desire to drive that subjectively assumes responsibility for a world that does not rely on another’s supposed difference from oneself. To give an example, one does not expect foreigners and immigrants to share the same values and social habits as oneself just because they wish to occupy the same territorial region. To do so is to hold the foreigner to a false presupposition of sameness, which is fundamentally unethical. Whatever social laws all members of society are expected to conform to must be the outcome of explicit rules that reflect all members’ aspirations to equality. The level of subjectivity is the level at which these terms of difference are overdetermined. Desire, Žižek argues, is always sustained by some pathological object-cause of desire, by some obscene demand to enjoy that is productive of subjectivity, but that is denied at the level of the unconscious as an impossible contingency. As he argues in The Puppet and the Dwarf, the form of surplus value that structures social relations is today the dominant form of enjoyment.32 In this book and elsewhere, Žižek argues that there is an analogy between the Marxist theory of surplus value and Lacan’s theory of surplus enjoyment (jouissance as the correlate of the plus de jouir). In contrast to the view that capitalism blocks the relational field of affect and that this same relationality challenges capitalist homogenization, Žižek argues that surplus value is what propels affective productivity, and further, that we should renounce this activity inasmuch as it operates as the support of revolutionary activity.

Here we encounter the enigma at the heart of contemporary cultural practice. Inasmuch as jouissance, in the form of surplus value, confronts the creative subject with the traumatic core of their being, it becomes impossible for him or her to separate the network of signifiers that structure his or her social existence from the fantasmatic enjoyment of its operations. Whereas the free construction of culture requires that we be non-believers, that we assume our own enjoyment of activity without further mediation, the capitalist relations of production reinscribe the subject into his or her own image in the guise of a consumer. The paradox of the artist’s relation to what he produces is the commodity (or, to extend the analysis, the cultural and social services as product – in short, commodity relations), the supplement to the subject’s relation to reality. The commodity is the means by which I, the artist, am included in my own production; it is that which bears witness to my social existence, the Thing whose “metaphysical subtlety” lies precisely in my social interactions with others but which nevertheless leads me to believe in its magical powers. Relationality and participation in contemporary art are essentially a masked or perhaps more advanced version of this same magical power of commodities, which in Marx’s Captial come to life as talking and dancing phantasmagoria. The key point here is that the subject is not the absolute correlate of the commodity. In the context of the depoliticization of cultural production, the first task of the artist is to debunk the symbolic innocence of the globalized culture industry and to reassert the state of alienation. Such a sinthomeopathic act of social antagonism works to reveal the deep solidarity that links the bureaucratic class of arts managers with the creative class and its “underground” reserve army of surplus labour. Against the tendency of today’s art activists and networked relational artists to realize the means of their exploitation by buying back what they produce in a free play of exploitation and resistance, we should attempt to conceive, as Fredric Jameson did in his essay on postmodernism, the dominant cultural logic against which genuine difference can be assessed, and to project, as he wrote, “some conception of a new systematic cultural norm and its reproduction in order to reflect more adequately on the most effective forms of any radical cultural politics today.“32

American artist and critic Gregory Sholette has posed the problem of cultural labour in terms of the proletarianization of artists and the production of what he calls “dark matter.” In the context of the deregulation of markets and the encouragement of “creative,” flexible work, the productivity of today’s engaged artists leads to a détente between artists and neoliberalism. The conditions of competition, however, depend to a great extent on successful artists sharing the same fate as the surplus army of “failed” artists, reproducing the next generation of artists for the market.33 Adam Arvidsson suggests that the class of urban professionals who work in various sectors of cognitive and cultural production depends for its existence on the appropriation of the work of a relatively autonomous but unsalaried creative proletariat.34 This “underground” of artists who contribute to arts, design, fashion and music scenes cooperate, he says, in the value added productivity of the creative industries. Underground entrepreneurs typically measure success by negotiating with the business world but without “selling out,” preserving one’s goodwill towards biopolitical circulation and communication and mobilizing one’s name and reputation through altruistic provisions of parties, free beer, electronic files and contacts. The autonomy of underground producers, he says, is nevertheless challenged by the precarious economic situation they live in and the privatization of culture. This contradictory situation, where artistic work is praised as a source of value in the new economy and simultaneously subject to redundancy and pauperization, requires the construction of new relations between the specific economy of the sphere of culture and its artistic model of transgression.35 Pierre Bourdieu’s insight into the economy of culture is that it lacks official criteria of selection. Art succeeds by imitating the effects of exclusivity, a striving that is constrained in its relation to larger assemblages like institutional canons and collections, and more immediate obstacles like taste cultures or art movements. The administration of the cultural economy operates through executive, technocratic gate-keepers who seek to win the acquiescence of the excluded and impose norms of enlightened conservatism. The “symptomal torsion” in this compromise situation is the link between self-transformation, the delivery one’s self and one’s social, cultural and political preferences in new cultural forms, submitting oneself to domination, and the suspension of the very artistic, creative or aesthetic priorities that are the specific demand of capitalist institutions, the motor of capitalist self-revolutionizing.

Along these lines, Sholette suggests that dissident collectives and informal cultural cells offer the best potential for using artistic methods to project “an image of power well beyond their actual size” and to “turn institutional power back on itself.”36 What if, however, resistance through small-scale autonomous cells and collectives turns out to be a perverse fantasy, sustaining the notion that we are the instruments of the system, merely projecting the subordinate predicament of the left and its emancipatory struggle? Is this struggle, then, fought within the realm of culture, not the fundamental fantasy or mistaken presupposition of all artists, who, perhaps better than most, know how to derive pleasure from pain? No wonder then that arts administrators routinely insist on the utopian nature of cultural production, detached from all determinations and necessities, and more to the point, detached from an open acknowledgement of the class determinations of cultural production. Indeed, the fundamental fantasy of the cultural producer is the impossible subjectivization of class, caught as it is in the dialectic of desire. For this reason, we should knowingly assert that the avant-garde artist is the artist “doomed to castration.”37

This doomed character of creative cultural resistance should, however, be supplemented by nonpathological subjectivization, allowing for a shift from dis-identification (ignoring the exploitative aspects of the capitalist restructuring and transformation of the arts sector) to over-identification (deciding for ourselves what are the determinant political choices). Art in capitalist society arises as a displacement of class struggle, covered over by non- and anti-institutional practices that tend to refuse the thought of the artwork as a commodity and cultural participation as capitalist social relations. This disavowal of critical thought is combined with the perverted pleasure of resistance, which, paradoxically, creates a self-sabotaging behaviour, a minimum of freedom that is the object of institutional regulation. The assertion of a conditional autonomy, of autonomization, is the gesture of “art,” representing, since the nineteenth century at least, the formal subsumption of cultural production under capital. Autonomization is the elementary form of symbolization that allows reality to be supplied with meaning but whose ultimate function is the circulation of commodities and the reproduction of capitalist relations. In orthodox Marxist terminology, autonomization represents the superstructural effect of the modes and relations of production, the real subsumption of art within the culture industries.

Reflecting on the contradictions of autonomization at this moment following the “end of history,” the supposed end of alternatives to liberal capitalism, BAVO suggest that cultural producers who remain ambivalent toward the legacy of the avant gardes either accept that there are no alternatives to liberal democracy, or, have a relaxed, fetishistic belief that their progressive cultural work, especially at the level of the representation of social differences, actually counters neoliberal hegemony. In their essay on the “Spectre of the Avant Garde,” BAVO rejects the Foucauldian view that resistance is produced strictly by the system, for the system.38 They draw on the law of uneven development to demonstrate that art is not a direct reflection of social struggle but that, because art is a human product, and not a product of nature, it betrays the belief we may have in the naturalness of existing social relations and in the determining aspects of economics and technocratic planning. They argue that, as part of hegemonic social regulation, late capitalism commands artists to compulsively engage in forms of “interpassive” cultural and social activism that then become obstacles to real subversion and means to come to terms with commodification.39 Only by endorsing a masochistic position inside the system, they argue, can artists represent the kind of critique that cannot be assigned a proper place, and that, as avant-garde work, can lead to cultural change. The official message to the avant garde, they add, is “keep up the perversion, please!”40 What is valorized in critical art practice is not necessarily what is instituted. This, however, is not due to bad faith on the part of audiences, but to the fact that the art system as we know it, and the way it links up with other aspects of social life – cities, governments, highways, airports, television, music, web sites, cafés – has become second nature and autonomous. Inasmuch as artists are treated as avatars of cultural transgression, as “subjects supposed to subvert,” BAVO proposes that the project of the avant garde can be renewed by becoming aware of this administration of transgression (the failure to offer an alternative to dominant forms of production) and by subverting the position of art in the chain of signifiers.

BAVO recommends to today’s artists what we could otherwise call a practice of dialectical negation, a renewal of the realist mediation of naturalism and rationality. The first thing artists should do is make artistic transgression autonomous (internal) by emphasizing the link between perverse subversion and the demands of the cultural market. The next step is to ignore the mechanism of transgression and try to affirm the official line by dirtying one’s hands and doing what the left typically doesn’t do – even if, they say, it becomes idiotic entertainment. Much radicalism, in this instance, may at first pass for conservatism. Lastly, negate the first stage, the awareness of art’s link in the chain of equivalence, by abstaining from the demand to enjoy: remain indifferent to the properly cultural demands of your work. In this way, the demand of the capitalist market for avant-garde subversion encounters the emptiness of its rule, its nothingness, and the link between subversion and demand is momentarily undermined.41

BAVO’s strategy thus corresponds to Lacan’s view that the discourse of psychoanalysis can contribute to social change by revealing the fantasy structure that sustains identification with a given set of master signifiers. The particular set that we are concerned with here is the economy of culture and its interpellation of the aspiring, activist wing of the so-called creative class. The change that BAVO proposes takes into consideration not only the function of jouissance in modes of identification but also the specific laws and policies that anchor jouissance in ideological terms. While radical democrats dispute the historical necessity and the very possibility of imposing new master signifiers, the “end of history” ideology that BAVO is committed to dissolving imposes the need to recognize that forms of ideology and alienation, however these may come about, will be part of any collective effort to alter the existing conditions that structure the desire for social change. From the position of analyst, I argue, BAVO asks artists to reconsider the ideal ego image of themselves as socially disruptive and to consider the coordinates of the ego ideal (the capitalist mode of production), the obvious symbolic reality that either confirms or undermines their fantasies. By working through the fundamental fantasy that cultural activism will contribute to meaningful social change, the activist becomes aware of their means of jouissance.

In a more recent publication, titled Cultural Activism Today: The Art of Over-Identification, BAVO elaborates its strategy of over-identification in relation to cultural work designed to propose creative solutions to social problems.42 In an age where the idealism of art activism substitutes for radical change at the level of state power and international law, over-identification begins by rejecting “positive” symbolic experiences and by directly conceding to capitalism’s merciless reduction of the social world to economic markets and humans to units of measure. To do otherwise is to play the game of neoliberalism as a “free” subject. In this, BAVO has produced one of the most trenchant critiques of the new paradigm of the artist as community activist. Rather than operate as supplements to the ruling order, BAVO calls on artists to reproduce the contradictions and attack the idea of the artist as the ideal troubleshooter through a positive over-identification that, again, reveals the sadomasochistic contract between Law and its obscene underside.

BAVO’s model of over-identification confronts the fundamental fantasy of one’s own desire, the fetishistic disavowal of reality in the belief that a happier life is possible. The discourse of immaterial labour, of the creative activity that drives a substantial sector of the economy and that also relies on the surplus value of productive labour, retains its symbolic effectiveness inasmuch as one sustains oneself in a fantasy of resistance. Unlike micro-political practices that resist forms of constituted power (the kind of power that is believed to circulate through inherently corrupt institutional links, media spectacles, vanguard forms of organization and party leadership), over-identification operates through the risky traversal of the Law, exposing the unwritten social codes that double the official identifications of the Law as, today, post-ideological and post-enlightenment enjoyment – also read in terms of enjoyme(a)nt, symbolizing the return of the repressed and the plus de jouir that is beyond the pleasure principle. What is at stake, then, is what Žižek calls the paradox of truth, the obedience to Law as a symbolic prohibition that accepts the excess of political identification as a consequence of the path to social progress. The revolutionary act, supplemented by cultural devices as the mediated form of subjective destitution, seeks to overcome this mediation and its logic of transgression, to lift the prohibition on the prohibition against avant-gardism by articulating its objective structures. More concretely, this implies according a place to the state as a stage in the movement towards a form of governance able to counter the destructive action that free markets impose on working conditions and the public interest.43 The lifting of bans on prohibitions should never be made the responsibility of an individual, though heroic acts are indeed possible and necessary. In broader terms, leftist solidarity must make room for the political inconsistency of practice in comparison with the lucidity of theory and critique.

The question of over-identification, posed by BAVO as a form of cultural activism, is appropriately defined as a strategy of over-identification with the worst features of late capitalism, in contrast with the idealistic styles of “NGO art” and “embedded” cultural activisms that propose constructive solutions – precisely what is demanded of the field of art as adjunct to representative democracy.44 No wonder then that so many artists, caught as they are in a relation of desire with the system, release their aggressivity by devising socially elaborated situations in which social differences are staged symbolically and ideologized as part of a postmodern discourse of pluralistic tolerance.45 The way in which consciousness disguises itself in the form of a reflection of the other was defined by Hegel as the doctrine of the Beautiful Soul, a complacent sensibility and an attitude towards communion and love that, according to Henri Lefebvre, finds its end in morose delectation. In this regard, much contemporary engaged art naively reproduces the liberal tropes of the eighteenth-century picturesque and the nihilism of early twentieth-century schadenfreude. It is, nevertheless, important is to recognize the elements of this process – reason, the mimetic faculty, the structure of subjectivity and the world historical situation – and recover from it realist forms of alienation.

In the introduction and the first chapter of Cultural Activism Today, “Always Choose the Worst Option: Artistic Resistance and the Strategy of Over-Identification,” BAVO defines today’s “blackmail of constructive critique” as the symptom of the impossibility of real critique.46 The paradox for artists concerned with change is the fact that today’s politically correct tendency art, diplomatic cultural consultancy designed to engage local actors in social empowerment, in the affective production of sociability and the recognition of difference, is viewed primarily from the place of neo-liberalism. Capital, as Žižek insists, is the concrete universal of our historical epoch.47 If engaged art’s circulation functions as little more than a means to reproduce art’s reduction to economic growth, BAVO argues, it is because effective social criticism is either not wanted or impossible within existing conditions. Mainstream culture thus accommodates the activist art sector as a palliative but only inasmuch as it does not dramatically politicize the contexts in which it operates. BAVO suggests that artists should work to expose the demand to offer practical solutions to social problems as symptomatic, as a “pragmatic blinding” to the deep systematic aspects of exploitation. This demand should be refused as a sign of the impotence or unwillingness of the ruling order to do what it can and must do to impose pragmatic solutions to systemic problems.

Inasmuch as art discourse functions as the repressed underside of commodification, the subject appears bereft of agency. The paradoxical procedure through which this operation occurs is the fetishistic construal of everyone as creative, thereby subjugating artists – the “part with no part” – and denying this “virtual class” the knowledge of historical agency by attributing this power to market relations and instructing it on how to survive in a competitive world. Here, the expert managers of the creative economy provide us with facts and statistics, with positivist knowledge about wealth distribution and market indicators – not to mention cartloads of hype and persuasive rhetoric – but do not tell us what those facts mean or how we should evaluate them.48 Artists are treated as objects of technocratic control; their productions are subjugated to ponzi schemes and arbitrary criteria of economic value that are bereft of higher purpose. These relations of production are dependent on the superstructural aspects of the field – the relative autonomy of culture and knowledge, the efficiency of meaning making and symbolic production – and yet they appear to be neutral, as though the political decisions that affect the artwork’s or the artist’s performance in the market has no bearing on social relations. The subjects of the discourse of the creative industries are thus construed, perversely, as the “invisible hand of the market,” according to the so-called laws of supply and demand. In order to hide from themselves their own political performance, as well as the devastating consequences of supply-side economics, technocrats now offer “socially relevant” cultural entertainments. Rather than provide for conditions that could lead to progressive change, this objectifying process fixes subjects through endless diversification, virtualized through the digitalization and financialization of the social field. It is thus incumbent upon us to realize that something can be done to alter the course of the creative industries by becoming aware of ourselves as the invisible part with no part. We should perhaps start by changing the name of creative industries to something else – perhaps the Ministry of Dreams and Illusions.


  1. See Charles Leadbeater, Living on Thin Air: The New Economy (London: Viking, 1999) and Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002).^
  2. Marc James Léger, “The Non-Productive Role of the Artist: The Creative Industries in Canada,” Third Text 24:5 (September 2010) 557-570.^
  3. Chris Harman, Zombie Capitalism: Global Resistance and the Relevance of Marx (London: Bookmarks Publications, 2009).^
  4. The chapter in Empire titled “Postmodernization, or, The Information of Production,” defines what Hardt and Negri refer to in Deleuzian terms as “new modes of becoming”: namely, immaterial labour, labour that produces a service, a cultural product, knowledge or communication, and affective labour, caring, entertainment, and activities that produce feeling and manipulate affect. See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) 280-303.^
  5. According to Virno: “Politics of the multitude, as politics of the exodus, does not mean seizing power or building a new state, but rather removing the state. Compared to social collaboration, the form of the modern sovereign state has become such a blunt tool! So I am talking about the exodus as an escape from the form of the state. Which of course also means severing oneself from the classic workers’ movement that, contrarily, has always aspired to become a state, to realize a workers’ state.” In Pascal Gielen and Sonja Lavaert, “The Dismeasure of Art: An Interview with Paolo Virno,” Open #17 (2009), See also, Gerlad Raunig, “On the Breach,” Artforum (May 2008) 341-343; Brian Holmes, Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Essays in Reverse Imagineering (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2008) and Escape the Overcode: Activist Art in the Control Society (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 2009). For an introduction to the development of Autonomous Marxism in Italy, see Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, eds. Autonomia: Post-Political Politics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007).^
  6. Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008) 183.^
  7. I would go so far as to add that this is the case even when the system does not tolerate the oppositional resistance of the multitude. The recent G8 and G20 meetings in Toronto Canada in June 2010 are a case in point. Regardless of the mass arrest of more than 1000 protesters, with ongoing legal repercussion for activist organisers, it is the $1 billion ($900,000 above the usual summit security costs) that the Conservative government awarded to security and police organizations that gives an indication of how media manipulation allows corporate interests to hijack crises, as argued by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2008).^
  8. These are some of the starting points for the discussions contained in Konrad Becker and Jim Fleming, eds. Critical Strategies in Art and Media: Perspectives on New Cultural Practices (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2010). Notwithstanding changes in communications technologies and the rise of post-structuralist formalism, the insights of Janet Wolff’s seminal work retain their explanatory power. See Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art (New York: New York University Press, [1981] 1993).^
  9. Alain Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy, trans. David Fernabch (London: Verso, [2007] 2008) 97-98.^
  10. This section offers a modified account of the arguments I presented in “Welcome to the Cultural Goodwill Revolution: On Class Composition in the Age of Classless Struggle,” Journal of Aesthetics and Protest #7 (2009), available online at .^
  11. Note that writing on the petty ‘middle’ class is not a new phenomenon but tends to be replaced by the liberal concern for the decline or disappearance of the middle class, as well as cultural studies of subaltern groups. One finds in the litterature on the middle petty bourgeois class not only the classic works of Siegfried Karcauer and C. Wright Mills, but more recent theorization by writers like Barbara Ehrenreich, Alex Callinicos, and Andrew Ross. See Siegfried Kracauser, The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany (London: Verso, [1930] 1998); C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953); Alex Callinicos, “The ‘New Middle Class’ and Socialists,” International Socialism 2:20 (Summer 1983); Barbara Ehrenreich, “The Professional-Managerial Class,” in Bruce Robbins, ed. Intellectuals: Aesthetics, Politics, Academics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990) 173-185; Andrew Ross, No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs (New York: Basic Books, 2003) and Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labour in Precarious Times (New York: New York University Press, 2009).^
  12. See Asok Sen, “Marxism and the Petty-Bourgeois Default,” in P.C. Josji, ed. Homage to Karl Marx: A Symposium (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1969) 158-162. See also Erik Olin Wright, Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).^
  13. Robert Paul Resch, Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 11.^
  14. Nicos Poulantzas, Les classes sociales dans le capitalisme aujourd’hui (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1974) 195-207.^
  15. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996) 49.^
  16. Agamben cited in Readings, The University in Ruins, 50. See Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1990], 2007).^
  17. On this subject, contemporary economists have returned to the Karl Polanyi’s 1940 text The Great Transformation, which argued that society would develop protective responses to market capitalism and warned that nothing could guarantee that such reflexes would be democratic.^
  18. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, [1979], 1984) 323.^
  19. See Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1974], 1984).^
  20. Bourdieu, Distinction, 318-71.^
  21. The triad of skill, knowledge and property addresses the symbiotic link between creative innovation and urban renewal. See Erik Olin Wright, Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 199.^
  22. See Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).^
  23. See Bourdieu, Distinction, 99-107.^
  24. See Jodi Dean, Žižek’s Politics (New York: Routledge, 2006).^
  25. Poulantzas, Les classes sociales dans le capitalisme aujourd’hui, 277.^
  26. Brian Holmes, “Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Flexible Personality, Networked Resistance,” in Holmes, Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Essays in Reverse Imagineering (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2008) 15-27.^
  27. Holmes, “Unleashing the Collective Phantoms,” 19-20.^
  28. These are available on their website^
  29. See Gerald Raunig, Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the New Century, trans. Aileen Derieg (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e),2005 2007).^
  30. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006) 296.^
  31. See Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003).^
  32. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991) 6.^
  33. Gregory Sholette, Speaking Clown to Power published in “Re:(Image)ining Resistance”, 2008; see also Sholette, “Dark Matter: Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere,” in Andrew Hemingway et al., eds. As Radical as Reality Itself (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007) 429-57.^
  34. Adam Arvidsson, “Creative Class or Administrative Class? On Advertising and the ‘Underground’,” Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization 7:1 (February 2007): available at^
  35. See Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, [1979] 1984).^
  36. Sholette, Speaking Clown to Power published in “Re:(Image)ining Resistance”, 2008; Some of the artists’ collectives mentioned in his essay are The Yes Men, Center for Tactical Magic, Yomango, Howling Mob Society, Reverend Billy, Critical Art Ensemble, Gran Fury, Knit for Peace, ATSA, CSpace, NeMe, AREA, Change You Want to See, City Beautification Ensemble, Wochenklausur, Les panthères roses, Temporary Services, N55 and the Biotic Baking Brigade.^
  37. ee Lacan’s Séminaire XIV, “La logique du fantasme,” at .^
  38. BAVO, “The Spectre of the Avant-Garde: Contemporary Reassertions of the Programme of Subversion in Cultural Production,” Andere Sinema #176 (2006) 27-8.^
  39. BAVO, “The Spectre of the Avant-Garde,” 31-2.^
  40. BAVO, “The Spectre of the Avant-Garde,” 35.^
  41. BAVO, “The Spectre of the Avant-Garde,” 37-9.^
  42. BAVO, Cultural Activism Today: The Art of Over-Identification (Rotterdam: Episode Publishers, 2007).^
  43. Pierre Bourdieu, Contre-feux: Propos pour servir à la résistance contre l’invasion néo-libérale (Paris: Éditions RAISONS D’AGIR, 1998) 119.^
  44. On this see BAVO, “Neoliberalism with Dutch Characteristics: The Big Fix-Up of the Netherlands and the Practice of Embedded Cultural Activism,” in Rosi Braidotti, Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova, eds. Citizens and Subjects: The Netherlands, for Example (Zürich: JRP Ringier, 2007) 51-63.^
  45. See Žižek, “Tolerance as an Ideological Category,” Critical Inquiry #34 (Summer 2008) 660-82.^
  46. BAVO, Cultural Activism Today, 19.^
  47. Class struggle is the concrete universal that overrides cultural difference and the series of antagonisms that structure today’s social processes. Žižek argues that this “does not mean that class struggle is the ultimate referent and horizon of meaning of all other struggles; it means that class struggle is the structuring principle which allows us to account for the very ‘inconsistent’ plurality of ways in which other antagonisms can be articulated into ‘chains of equivalences’ [as argued by Laclau and Mouffe].” In Žižek, The Parallax View, 361-2. See also, Žižek, “Class Struggle or Postmodernism? Yes, Please!” in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000) 90-135.^
  48. It goes without saying that capitalist cheerleaders like Charles Leadbeater and Richard Florida and many other similar proponents of the “creativity revolution,” however liberal they may seem in comparison with their neo-conservative class allies, work to perpetuate what Barbara Ehrenreich referred to as the moral economy of capitalism. On this see her book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009).^


Marc James Léger is an artist, writer and educator living in Montreal. His essays in cultural theory have been published in such places as Afterimage, Art Journal, Art Papers, C Magazine, Etc, FUSE, Inter, Parachute, Public, Creative Industries Journal, Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Left Curve, Monthly Review, Reviews in Cultural Theory, Topia, RACAR, Radical Criminology, On Curating, Third Text, One + One Filmmakers Journal and the Canadian Journal of Film Studies. He is editor of Bruce Barber’s collected essays and interviews in Performance, [Performance] and Performers (YYZBOOKS, 2007) and in Littoral Art and Communicative Action (Common Ground, 2013). He is also editor of Culture and Contestation in the New Century (Intellect, 2011) and of The Idea of the Avant Garde – And What It Means Today (Left Curve, forthcoming). Forthcoming is a book of essays on film titled Drive In Cinema.

This essay is a slightly modified version of the essay that appeared under the same title in Creative Industries Journal 3:2 (2010) 151-67 and that is an offshoot of the essays “Welcome to the Cultural Goodwill Revolution” and “The Subject Supposed to Over-Identify: BAVO and the Fundamental Fantasy of a Cultural Avant Garde,” both of which are published in Marc James Léger, Brave New Avant Garde: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012).


ID: 1642
Posted: 07 December 2013
Short URL:
TEXT: Mark James Léger


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