14 June 2012

Things as They Are (Reprise)

One of the first seminars, if not the first, I took when I started grad school back in the mid '90s was on devoted to "Art of 1970s." The instructor was a British expat who was widely regarded as an authority on all things Fluxus and who over the years had made frequent excursion across the water to participate in various Neoist events and "apartment festivals." One of the things he warned us about at the start was that any research we did in the course of the seminar would most likely involve primary research, since the art of the decade in question had (at that point) suffered from a comprehensive degree of art-historical and -critical neglect.

At any rate, at the beginning of the seminar he gave as a quick grounding in the state of things back in 1970, in the days when the artworld was transitioning out of the culturally transformative days of the 1960s. One of the things he chose to focus on was FOOD, the lower Manhattan co-op kitchen and restaurant founded by artist Gordon Matta-Clark and his wife and a bunch of their friends in 1971.

As he told us about the collaborative effort that went into the place and how it served as a anchor and hub for the proto-Soho art community of its day, some of the students expressed amazement. How did they manage to do it, one of them asked, how could they find the resources to put such a thing together?

"You have to remember that the economy was different then," the instructor told us. "And New York was in bad shape at the time, so rents and real estate in many parts of the city were quite cheap."

"But, no," the student insisted, "How did they find the time?"

"We all had a lot more time in those days," he responded. "Seemed like everyone did. Thing is, we thought that that was how things were going to be from there on out. That thanks to automation and whatnot, we would all have the time to pursue all sort of creative or constructive things of that sort."

"But...what happened to all of that?"

"I don't know,' he replied, looking genuinely flummoxed by the question. "All I can say is that none of us ever imagined that in the future we'd all have to work so damned hard."

* * * *

Which brings me to the following somethings. Here's David Graeber, via the latest edition of The Baffler, on why it is you never got that rocket pack and/or hover car....

"Why did the projected explosion of technological growth everyone was expecting—the moon bases, the robot factories—fail to happen? There are two possibilities. Either our expectations about the pace of technological change were unrealistic (in which case, we need to know why so many intelligent people believed they were not) or our expectations were not unrealistic (in which case, we need to know what happened to derail so many credible ideas and prospects)."

A number of dubious or debatable assertions made throughout, a number of things that beg for qualification; but it makes for a thumping good, enthralling read nonetheless. It also contains perhaps to most concise and compact dismissal of Alvin Toffler I've come across; which may or may not be such a major feat since I imagine Toffler's a pretty easy target. Still, as Graeber asserts, Toffler's not so insignificant as all that given the Newt Gengrich/neocon thinktank association. Then there's this lengthy interview with Graeber over at Bookforum, in which by way of cross-reference we see that Toffler and Fredric Jameson had something in common, that being the debt that each owed to Ernest Mandel.

One of the core assertions that Graeber makes in the Baffler piece gets echoed in the Bookforum interview, phrased differently, and dovetailing into an illustrative personal anecdote...

"Over the course of twelve years of activism, I’ve come to realize that whoever is running this system is obsessed with winning the conceptual war—much more so, in fact, than with actual economic viability. Given the choice between an option that makes capitalism seem like the only possible system and an option that actually makes capitalism a more viable long-term system, they always choose the former.

Oddly enough, I first picked up on this in an activist context. It was 2002, and we went to the IMF meetings [in Washington]. And we were scared, because it was right after 9/11. Sure enough, they overwhelmed us with police and endless security. Considering our numbers, it was shocking that they would devote all of these resources to containing us. And we all went home feeling pretty depressed. It was only later that I learned how profoundly we’d disrupted things. The IMF actually held some of their meetings via teleconference because of the security risk we ostensibly posed. All the parties were canceled. Basically, the police shut down the meetings for us. I realized that the fact that three hundred anarchists go home depressed seems much more important to them than whether the IMF meetings actually happened. That was a revelation. As the whole thing falls apart in front of us, the one battle they’ve won is over the imagination."

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