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Towards a Politics of Evasiveness

May 04, 2011

As a cultural practitioner interested in questions of art and activism, there seems to me a need today to rethink these terminologies, if only to resist habitual ways of thinking about them. I am interested in getting at another modality than a strictly oppositional stance by cataloging and collecting under the concept of "evasion" other possibilities for practice. Throughout, a persistent question for me is what a practice of evasion can lead to in my work and the work of those around me.

Levy works with artists, communities, and institutions to develop cultural projects that...


In the course of undertaking recent projects in the United States, for instance, I have witnessed an escalating, and disorienting, reclamation of key concepts and language associated with art and activism. From the "grass-roots" activism and "civil rights" rallies of the Tea Party, to the corporate embrace of "organic" terminology, the militarization of "humanitarian aid" in Afghanistan, or the museological embrace of 'institutional critique,' these terms now correlate to seemingly antithetical goals and aspirations.[1]

I am also concerned that positions and arguments that address environmental sustainability and green urbanism on an exclusively local level undervalue the consequences of allowing public policy to remain unchanged. The intensification of focusing on the local has to be accompanied by a radical rethinking of our ability to enact changes on a larger scale. Further compounding this predicament, I am worried that the left has often relied on political discourses that reproduce the aggressiveness it should instead resist, as the Italian philosopher Rosi Braidotti has recently argued.[2] I feel that there is an ambiguity concerning how to speak about activism and responsibly enact change which is further exacerbated when we undertake inter-cultural collaborations, where the concept of "culture" itself is not immediately translatable across such different social and political contexts.

Advances in social, political, and environmental justice require significant transformations in existing political and economic frameworks—but these transformations may only be achievable alongside a radical rethinking of art and activism. The arts are a powerful and public domain of aesthetic signification that should not be discounted, although they are always in accord with forces of power. The question that particularly concerns me today is how art and artists can aspire to a critical stance amidst their complicity. Perhaps we can begin by noting Karl Marx's warning in 1869, in a letter to his friend Edward Beesly concerning those who would desire to bring about change, that "whoever drafts programs for the future is a reactionary."[3] His concern was not with those who advocate for change, but rather, I believe, with those who seek to program it in accordance with the present and without acknowledging their own complicity—lest they foreclose on the possibilities that only the future, in all its indeterminateness, can deliver.

If there is an urgency to these considerations, it is because I believe that my generation has inherited from certain artistic avant-gardes—including Futurism and Surrealism—a vague Utopianism and an oppositional political ideology. Similarly, I am concerned that the post-war avant-gardes of the 1960s and 70s, in obsessively focusing on the present, often never fully thought through how their movements (to the degree that they were movements) might end and what they might leave behind, or else they were uninterested in the consequences of their actions for others.[4] They neither anticipated, nor fully theorized, the implications of a permanent or sustained avant-garde, nor the fundamental complicities and institutional compromises such a project has inevitably demanded.

By marginalizing questions concerning the future of the avant-garde, they bequeathed generations such as mine conceptual categories and dichotomies that are no longer useful or valid—though I and others may continue to struggle with them—such as the distinction between a bourgeois and an oppositional culture, between politics and aesthetics, and between periphery and center.[5] Even when certain artists did think about such questions—including André Breton and Bertolt Brecht, who never ceased thinking about their present and future—their ideas were nevertheless superseded by the emergence of critical theory, which equally affected artists and critical responses. Many thinkers have already begun to reflect on this transformation of the avant-garde through post-structuralist theory and its consequences for the present. Herbert Blau, for instance, has argued that the dynamics of the artistic avant-garde were sublimated into theory through Barthes and other "para-aesthetic" thinkers. I myself wonder if this radicalization of the notion of creativity as a form of theory, and theory, in turn, as another from of creativity, has in fact led to its further integration into a "system" that discourages actual practice, as Boris Groys similarly remarks about the avant-garde in his catalog essay for Open Systems. Clearly, there is an urgency in recovering these complex histories that we have recently inherited, if only to diagnose their contemporary implications.

Speculations

Our proximity to, but also our increasing distance from, these historical periods should guide us in reflecting on what art and activism can once again mean. Given the complexity of the contemporary socio-political landscape, is there a possibility for what I am calling an "evasive" position or methodology, and what would it entail? What might the cultural communities that I am part of aspire to evade, through what practices, and ultimately towards what end? I employ the term evasive because a perennial concern of the politics and theory that surrounds the artistic avant-garde has always been the question of power, and what needs to be expanded upon is power as it can be challenged and in turn deployed.

What if new avenues for contemporary practice considered this concept of evasion in order to, with some self-reflexivity, rethink notions of imagination, and new lexicons for activism and art? For artists and activists who are trying to change paradigms, I believe that the first step is to become conscious of how much we have each already internalized the values and dictates of the old paradigm, if not the very focus of our resistance.

I do not have answers to these questions and concerns, nor a complete program for evasiveness, though the concept has become generative of recent initiatives at Slought Foundation. These include Evasions of Power, a symposium and now publication that I organized with Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss and Katherine Carl as well as the Perpetual Peace Project. As part of that undertaking, I have spent much of the last year working in institutions and with cultural communities in the European Union, Pakistan, China, and the United States, engaging artists, students, philosophers, and activists on this topic through a variety of workshops.

A first step is to qualify what we each mean by "evasion," to explore past and present examples, and to consider to what extent our practices are equipped to deal with the complexity of the world in which we live. I am concerned that I myself, but also those around me, persistently resort to a kind of oppositional politics which has become so defeating, and which reenacts an unsustainable positioning.

For example, as a resident of the United States, I am concerned that freedom here is associated almost exclusively with this country's self-image, while non-freedom is associated with others and often becomes the subject of much moralizing. There is also a tendency in the United States to overlook how the public sphere is a space that enables, but also regulates and limits, modes of discourse and practice. Rather than try to contrast the relative levels of freedom in the countries that I have worked in, I am often struck by the duality of freedom and unfreedom that coexists in every society. There are many degrees and frameworks for and about freedom that extend it beyond the juridical definition of "freedom of speech."

Afterthoughts

Over the last few months, as I have been listening to the people I have been working with, I feel that there is an emergent interest in concepts such as peace and the art of listening that are perhaps the preface to a poetics of evasiveness. In many ways, I believe that listening as a form of speech and dialogue can lead to a conscious and imaginative practice, and it is for this reason that it informs my methodology with the Perpetual Peace Project. I also find it interesting that dialogue, for Mikhail Bakhtin and other theorists, has a richer sense in being dialogical, insofar as selves and others are more aware of their common ideas and meanings. This suggests that the process of recognizing the speech of others should be a given in all exchanges, and it implies assuming a responsibility when responding, according to an ethic of communication.

Perhaps evasiveness, much like peace, can be thought from this dialogic perspective. It is a process that involves engaging other forms of discourse and dialogue, and then refining and rethinking this practice on an ongoing basis so that it does not become serially reproduced. This has the potential to generate practices in each of us that don't formalize themselves as particularly oppositional or establish their own authoritative vector, but rather construct, with a humility and self-reflexiveness, a poetics of agreement.

Notes

  • I am indebted to Arthur Sabatini, a professor of Performance studies at Arizona State University, for helping me to think through the relationship between dialogue, dialogics, and activism.
  1. See an analysis of the Tea Party rally on the Washington Mall, which coincided with the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I have a Dream' speech: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1306961/Glenn-Beck-criticisedstaging- massive-Tea-Party-rally-Martin-Luther-King-anniversary.html
  2. See Rosi Braidotti, "The Politics of Peace," in Perpetual Peace, a DVD publication forthcoming from Slought Foundation in 2011. For more information on the Perpetual Peace Project, or to watch video selections: http://perpetualpeaceproject.org
  3. Thanks to Eduardo Cadava for bringing Marx's letter to my attention in his essay "The Promise of Emancipation," forthcoming in Evasions of Power (Philadelphia: Slought Foundation, 2011). For a discussion of Walter Benjamin's and Sorel's readings of Karl Marx's revolutionary politics, including Lujo Brentano's story about Marx's 1869 letter to Edward Beesly in which this quote appears, see Carlo Salzani, "Violence as Pure Praxis: Sorel on Strike, Myth, and Ethics," in Colloquy, 16 (December 2008): 33, http://www.colloquy.monash.edu.au/issue016/salzani.pdf. See also Matthias Fritsch, The promise of memory: history and politics in Marx, Benjamin, and Derrida (New York: Suny Press, 2006) 211. Fritsch discusses Marx's definition of Communism in the German Ideology not as a reality to be established, but rather as an ideal.
  4. For more on the history of the avant-garde and its institutionalization, see Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (Cambridge: MIT Press), 2008.
  5. A range of conservative critics have been quick to pounce on this 'shortcoming.'

First published in Domus magazine (https://www.domusweb.it/en/op-ed/2011/05/04/towards-a-politics-of-evasiveness.html)