Anti-Social Practice Against Communicative Capitalism?

Political philosophers often use terms like “having a voice” or “legibility” to describe an individual’s or group’s relationship to power and to hegemonic institutions. But these terms, “voice” and “legibility,” they’re aesthetic terms used to describe political phenomena. Why, in such instances, is the aesthetic so politically descriptive? In her famous “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Guyatri Spivak explains, via Marx, that European liberalism links a specific concept of political representation (Vertretung) with a specific concept of artistic representation (Darstellung). We Westerners think that the legibility of individual subjects in/to the public sphere and the legibility of political speech, speech-acts, agency, rights, and other sorts of political “claims” generally follow the same underlying epistemic framework. For every regime of Darstellung, there is a corresponding regime of Vertretung. This is a claim that’s fairly similar to Jacques Ranciere’s idea of “the politics of aesthetics” (archipolitics:the ethical regime of art::metapolitics:the aesthetic regime of art, etc.).

How does contemporary mainstream political discourse in Western liberal democracies understand the relationship between (a) political legibility (enfranchisement, having a ‘voice’) and (b) artistic or aesthetic legibility?

I have argued elsewhere that the shift from classically liberal to neoliberal Vertretung manifests to a corresponding shift from 2D to 4D Darstellung. Here I want to use Nancy Fraser’s work in Fortunes of Feminism to track this shift.

Fraser notes a shift in the content and practice of political debate. “Disputes that used to focus exclusively on the question of WHAT is owed as a matter of justice to community members now turn quickly into disputes about WHO should count as a member and WHICH is the relevant community” (192; emphasis mine). “Who” and “how” questions frame the “what” question–you can only ask “what” once you’ve determined who’s participating in the conversation, and the norms or rules of the conversation (i.e., the how). The “how” and “how” questions frame the what question–they’re the epistemic framework that brings content into focus. According to Fraser, the older model of political debate took the frame for granted, while the newer model debates the frame itself.

What Fraser identifies as the “Keynesian-Westphalian” model (198) asks “what” questions because it takes the “who” and “how” questions for granted. The nation-state is the naturalized, “self-eviden[t]” frame. But now with globalization, we can’t take the nation-state for granted as the default frame. Just as globalization has made visible injustices of misframing, so transformative

struggles against neoliberal globalization are making visible the injustice of meta-political misrepresentation…democratic processes of determination must be applied not only to the ‘what’ of justice, but also to the ‘who’ and the ‘how” (206-7).

While we used to argue about content (“what”), we now argue about the process of arguing itself (who can participate, what the metric is for measuring justice, etc.). In a sense, Fraser is arguing that what Ranciere calls “disagreement” has now come to constitute so-called political (in a general, non-specific sense) practice as such. This means that disagreement isn’t disruptive and revolutionary; it’s the very means of normalization and policing (in Ranciere’s strict sense). Jodi Dean calls this “communicative capitalism”: we rehearse vehement agonistic crossfire, and this is the normal everyday tenor of public speech/life/sphere. BUT, precisely because the disruption is normalized, it has no political effect, just a policing effect (in Ranciere’s sense of these two terms). If, in the Keynesean-Westphalian model, the frame was policed by its “self-evidence” (191), in neoliberalism the frame is policed through its explicit questioning.

This shift from “who” to “what and how” is a shift in Vertretung, i.e., in models of political representation. It is also a shift in Darstellung, i.e., in models of artistic representation. Artists and art historians distinguish between 2D, 3D, and 4D media: 2D is flat, static images like paintings and photographs; 3D is sculpture, installation, ceramics, fabrics, and other, well, three-dimensional media; 4D includes sound art, film, video, digital media, social practice/relational–anything that is process-oriented time-based. Whereas the Keynsean-Westphalian frame is 2D (literally–the borders of the nation-state are cartographically represented on a two-dimensional map (longitude/latitude)), this new, neoliberal/globalized frame is 4D. The Keynesean-Westphalian model frames space; neoliberal “globalization” frames processes. As Fraser puts it, “the forces that perpetuate injustice belong not to ‘the space of places,’ but to ‘the space of flows’” (201). These “flows” are 4D processes, processes that unfold over time (how exactly that time is understood–linearly or intensively–is something for another post). In this model, “political injustice” manifests as “the question of the ‘how’” (205)–as in, how “deliberations and decisions concerning the ‘who’” (206) are made. So, political injustice is a matter of process, of method, of practice. To emphasize the point I made at the end of the previous paragraph, the asking of “how” questions–i.e., the debating of the frame–is not revolutionary, but normalizing and hegemonic. When we rehearse questions about “diversity” (i.e., “who” questions), we’re just playing into neoliberal MRWaSP.

If “deliberations and decisions concerning the ‘who’” and attempts to consider “the failure to institutionalize parity of participation” (206) are how neoliberal hegemony produces and maintains itself, this begs some serious political questions about relational aesthetics, social practice, and neoliberal hegemony. If the Darstellung that goes with neoliberal Vertretung is “relational,” then social practice/relational aesthetics aren’t necessarily revolutionary or counter-hegemonic–they’re the very means, methods, and indeed media of hegemonic normalization. Social practice, relational aesthetics, they’re the neoliberal police (in Ranciere’s sense). In this case, it seems that “anti-social practice” would be necessary to accomplish any genuinely political (i.e., counter-hegemonic, revolutionary) work.

And I totally don’t have any time to develop this point here, but it seems to me that the kind of anti-sociality or a-relationality of this Vertretung/Darstellung regime is something sorta different than what’s commonly meant by these terms in contemporary queer theory….the ideas are in the same galaxy, but their different conceptual/theoretical genealogies would suggest that there are some important, specific differences.

This post is originally intended for use in my Feminist Theory graduate seminar, but it’s also related to some work I’m doing on a book manuscript on neoliberalism’s sonic epistemology.