(Cultural) Workers Gone Political

Ana Vujanović (2014/15)

This article presents a brief discussion on contemporary artists citizens. It will examine the public life, and the political activity in particular (vita activa), of the critical cultural worker in neoliberal capitalist society. Here, a critical cultural worker—theoretician, artist, curator, journal editor, cultural producer, etc.—means the one who wants and tries to be political,[1] hence the cultural worker gone political. The purpose of the article is to unpack, through discussing dubious politicality of the critical cultural worker, a tension between the work and the politics in today’s society, and to propose a few thoughts on what the politics today could be and how it could look like once we recognize its classical definition as socially and historically inadequate.

In the numerous debates I have heard at contemporary cultural-artistic scenes in Belgrade and throughout Europe over the last 15 years, as well as in “The University and the Undercommons“ by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten[2] there is the following opposition: the subversive intellectual versus the critical academic. According to Harney and Moten, subversive intellectual disappears into the “undercommons of enlightenment“, and is called uncollegial, impractical, naive, unprofessional, and passionate. What we have in the opposite camp is the academic, a notion signifying two figures: critical academic and professional academic. Critical academic as characterised by scepticism and an “enlightenment type of critique“ is in a seeming opposition to the professional academic, who is characterised by competence and preservation of objects, status quo, or by what the authors name a “site-specific ethics“. But in fact, after Harney and Moten, “critical education only attempts to perfect professional education.” (Harney and Moten, 2013, p. 32) Accordingly, at the end, critical academics are the professionals par excellence. “To distance oneself professionally through critique, is this not the most active consent to privatize the social individual?”, they ask. (Ibid., p. 38) Since their answer to this intriguing question is positive, it follows that critical academic and professional academic equally belong to the notion of the academic, as opposed to subversive intellectual. Subversive intellectual is not (necessarily) an extra-institutional figure; nevertheless, while existing in the underground of the institution, she does not operate on its public stage, where the commons is discussed and shared. That is what topologically distinguishes subversive intellectual from critical academic, who could have been close to her on the basis of her socio-political claims, concerns, standpoints, etc. From a broader perspective, the same two notions—critical academic and subversive intellectual—could be transposed to the grassroots / bottom-up / DIY activist versus the NGO activist, to the subversive cultural producer on the self-organized independent scene versus the critical curator employed in a Kunsthalle, or even to the leftist aRtivist versus the professional critical artist. The demarcation line that Harney and Moten draw operates to an extent in all these cases: The subversive intellectual is unprofessional, passionate and disloyal, constantly challenging the limits of preexisting frameworks, while the critical academic is competent, professional, and at the end of the day loyal to the institution. It may seem somewhat schematic, but for the moment I would comply with this differentiation, since I myself have played both “social roles“[3] and faced the circumstances and challenges that this vocabulary somewhat schematically signifies.

In this brief paper I decided to focus firstly on the critical academic, trying to shake the opposition between her and the subversive intellectual, and thereby introduce the betwixt and between figure of the cultural worker (gone political). Indicating points of intersection between the two roles, I:

  • draw on a dialectical approach the social community as a contradictory agency that is defined by being united in its sharing the common (comm-unity, Lat. comm-unitas (from Lat.: communis and unitas))[4] and, at the same time, being linked by a lack and debt in sharing obligation and duty (com-munity, Lat. com-munitas (from Lat.: com- and munus)),[5] and
  • would like to offer a sketch for unpacking the tensions between work (labor) and politics, and thereby between the worker and the citizen in our neoliberal capitalist and democratic society.

I hope that the following examination of the critical academic will outline the rationale of the wider gesture, which will not be fully developed within the scope of the present article. I find it a proper point of departure, taking into account the context of the debate (University of Giessen) and the profile of the majority of the participants (scholars and artists), myself included. So let’s start with ourselves, in an old-school Marxist self-critical manner.

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In my view, it would be a hasty resolution to simply disqualify the critical academic from the debate on politics today by stating that she is just preserving the socio-political status quo by her critical practice, which sustains capitalist knowledge production and state ideology. I would rather see her as a contradictory figure whose paradoxical vita activa points to the core of the bond between work and politics in today’s neoliberal society.

First of all, let me return to the similarities and differences between the critical and the professional academic. In spite of the important structural similarities between them that were explained above, I want to stress that the critical academic is not just an “academic“; she is the academic who does not want to be reduced to a professional (a highly-valued craftsman, a skillful producer of knowledge, a bookworm in a research center), and who opts instead for making waves—for having a voice in the public sphere, for practicing parrhesia, for examining her citizenship, and for influencing political decisions. That is what differentiates her from fellows who (just) try to get as many research grants as possible, to invest as little energy into teaching as possible, to take as high a position in the university hierarchy as possible, to publish as many books with the most highly ranked publishers as they can, etc. In a word, the critical academic doesn’t accept being an “idiot“ (in strict terms) just because she is a professional.

Still, her politicality is always in question, exactly because of her structural place in the academy. How is a critical academic political today? How can she be political? How much is she political? How much are her (or our) critical talks, artworks, conferences, books political? And how much are they not? These questions are recurrently raised by another sort of fellow—the one from the subversive intellectual camp. It seems that the critical academic with all her criticism and politicality is, in the last instance, opportunistic, walking hand in hand with neoliberal capitalist society and feeding its knowledge production machinery. This is partially true, and we cannot but acknowledge it. Moreover, we have to acknowledge it, and take that problem as a point of departure in understanding her politicality. However, this point could be a dead end, and it usually really shuts the mouth of the critical academic, if she is sincere in her criticality, politicality, and declared ideas. In the art world an illustrative example of this contradictory position of critical academic can be found in the numerous contemporary dance works that deal critically with either the structure of the contemporary dance institution or the relations between the First World and the rest of the world, the EU and the rest of Europe, etc., while at the same time touring throughout the EU, supported by those dance institutions.

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If all this is not just about hypocrisy, then how should we understand this contradiction? And why do I still hesitate to disqualify the critical academic from consideration? Definitely not only because I am one of them. I want to keep her involved in order to register that the main problem here is that in today’s capitalist democracy, the critical academic—like professional theorists, artists, curators, cultural activists, etc. whose work and practice are critical—tries to practice politics as a citizen in ancient Greek sense while at the same time, in that sense, materially having the status of the slave. That is, they do not have private property and have to work; in a word, they are the precariat. Let me unpack that bombastic comparison. The doubts about a cultural worker’s political practice, in my view, come from an understanding of politics or citizenship practice in broader sense, which refers to the ancient Greek democracy, or its ideal image. In Athens, as we know from political history, only citizens were politically active. And in order to do so they were free in two senses: they expressed their freedom of speech and were free of private material concerns. Interestingly enough, these two freedoms are firmly bound together: in order to speak freely and act politically for the sake of the polis, one should be free from labor, economy, and thus private interests. However, to be free from labor practically meant—to have slaves who run the household, business and production, which also provided citizens with free time to deal with a disinterested political life.[6]

However, a number of critical theorizations of politics have noted a profound change, even the disappearance of politics in this classical sense, due to the establishment of capitalist social and production relations, which legitimise private interests and private property as publicly relevant. Among many voices I would mention here only Hannah Arendt, not because I completely agree with her[7] but because her view is especially intriguing in regard to the dubious political life of a critical cultural worker today. According to her,[8] in modern capitalist society, starting with the French Revolution, politics as a specific and distinct social practice has increasingly taken an interest in “social issues”, whereby it legitimated the entrance of private interests and the distribution of goods into the public sphere. For Arendt, that socialisation of politics and its approximating economics led to an instrumentalisation of politics in modern capitalist society and at the end its demise.

This could sound as a puritanist view, which to an extent romanticizes Athenian democracy. However, there is something completely unromantic to be learnt here. I, for instance, as a precarious critical cultural worker, am at the same time a professional who earns her living by practicing critical theory and art, and want to be a citizen who actively takes part in the public sphere and practice politics by the same theory, art, and related cultural activities. This is where the clash between the slave and the citizen reappears. Hannah Arendt explained that condition in historical terms, however without paying enough attention to its paradoxical nature and the problems it raised:

The chief difference between slave labor and modern, free labor is not that the laborer possesses personal freedom—freedom of movement, economic activity, and personal inviolability—but that he is admitted to the political realm and fully emancipated as a citizen. The turning point in the history of labor came with the abolition of property qualifications for the right to vote. (Arendt, 1998, p. 217)

But is it so? In other words, shouldn’t the full emancipation of former slaves into citizens in the shape of workers led to a profound change of politics itself? This has never really happened. And exactly because of the understanding of politics as a disinterested public practice of free citizens, which has become a common sense, we cultural workers gone political have to pay the toll: we are never political enough, since our critical, alternative, radical, subversive proposals, books, talks, actions, artworks, etc. are seen as always-already part of the dirty capitalist state machinery of knowledge production at the university, or even on the independent art scene that to an extent depends of public funds, international art and culture foundations, sponsorship, etc. The recurrent leftist argument against the cultural-artistic field and the NGO sector is this: You get money for the actions you carry out from international foundations, sponsors, and other big capitalist players. Insofar as you take that money, you are no longer politically clean, and in fact you work for the benefit of the machinery.[9]

So I want to point out that the university itself or the critical academic herself is not a unique problem. They should be seen within a wider figure of the cultural worker (gone political), where they are rather a symptom of a systematic problem of how to be political while working, when it is clear that our work is not free from serving the system we criticize, dispute, or protest against. That’s what Harney and Moton clearly notice. However, their alternative—the “undercommons“—does not seem convincing to me, since from my view, to the opposition: either you will take part in the system and thereby get dirty hands (CA position), or you will go into its underground, where you are clean (SI position), an appendix should be added to SI position: yet invisible and cannot effectuate a wider socio-political change. Therefore, one should be more cautious and precise here. Contemporary theory for instance, has always had a paradoxical position in the society. Although it went to the streets and even took to the streets in the late 60s, and has here and there pierced through mass media in the figure of public intellectual, it has been always firmly tied to the university, as the main source of theory and the main place where it has been practiced. Thus, it constitutively belongs to an institution, a social and socially assigned institution whose function is both to preserve the social values and to project other possibilities of living and thinking the social. Nevertheless, this ambivalence shouldn’t be the final deadlock. That kind of fatalistic (self-)criticism could be even seen an alibi that paralyses critical practice and neglects those that already exist, though on the scales more modest than the world revolution. Of course, a remarkable part of all activity is always-already commodified. Yet, if a critical academic takes a contextual approach to her practice on the one hand and—just since and because it is her own context—embodies her matters of concern on the other, she could still make even an ordinary academic lecturing or writing a platform where the narratives of the actual society can be discussed and confronted with those of what the society could or might be.

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If all this sounds insufficient, I will at the end turn the analytical screw once again. Politics in its pure democratic sense—factual or imaginary—is allegedly a social meta-activity. It is a privilege of a freeman who has already resolved the material trivialities of life, a privilege I am not granted. On the contrary, I and we, cultural workers gone political are precarious, do not possess material infrastructure and have to work, and so if we won’t opt for enslaving others to free ourselves, we have to fight for our practice of politics as the precarious. I propose this course of action instead of purist (self-)criticism toward dubious politicality of critical academic or cultural workers since it is a fight for legitimizing workers’ politics in the context where most of citizens are workers themselves. True, our hands are always-already dirty, but if we recognize this basic paradox we could stop dreaming about a pure politics that deals with a common world, and could perhaps see that our paradox is one of the main socio-political problems of today. That is, workers who own only their labor are never free enough to act disinterestedly in public sphere; they always act for the sake of a more just distribution of (surplus) value they produce and a more open public sphere, where voices coming from different and various interests could be heard. Shouldn’t then our dirty hands be a political strength and argument, or should they be despised, while we disappear into the realm of the invisible, leaving the public sphere to only one interest that than could be seen as disinterestedness, as it was in democratic Greece?[10]

One more argument in favor of that thesis comes from my understanding that our social community is based not (only) on the goods and the commons we share, but rather or even more on the lack, the duty, the debt (munus) that keeps us together with all our individual and mass precariousness and lacking goods. In such a society nothing makes more sense than to take that situation of mass lack, debt, and thus obligation not as an obstacle, a dubious margin or a deviation of the politics, but as the premise of politics and its primary concern.


The text was first presented as a brief statement at the conference The Public Commons and the Undercommons of Art, Education, and Labor at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies / MA program Choreography and Performance in Giessen (DE), May 29 – June 1 2014. See more at: https://www.inst.uni-giessen.de/theater/de/forschung/symposien/the-undercommons

The text was published in English and Serbo-Croatian as Ana Vujanović, “(Cultural) Workers Gone Political“, TkH, No. 23 in collaboration with the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies, Giessen, 2016. See the whole issue and download PDF at: http://www.tkh-generator.net/portfolio-type/tkh-journal/

[1] To be political here means to take part in the public sphere, thereby contributing to the organization of the society she lives in; in a nutshell, to be active beyond her own private “business“ (interests, profit, or benefit).
[2] In Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons, New York: Minor Compositions, 2013, pp. 22-44.
[3] Most of my life I have been a freelance cultural worker—writer, dramaturge, lecturer, journal editor, program coordinator, etc.—at the independent cultural-artistic scene in Belgrade as well as in other European contexts. At the same time I have lectured at several universities and collaborated with various state- or city theater houses, galleries, and cultural centers. Currently, I also work as an international visiting professor at the Performance studies department of the University Hamburg.
[4] This is primarily Victor Turner’s understanding of the notion of communitas. See especially Victor Turner, “Liminality and Communitas,” in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1969, pp. 95-131.
[5] This is Roberto Esposito’s understanding of the notion and its etymology, developed in: Roberto Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. See also how I developed Esposito’s view in parallel and in juxtaposition with Turner’s in: “Chapter 5: Social drama“, in Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović, Public Sphere by Performance, Berlin – Paris: b_books – Les laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, 2012, pp. 77-97, and especially in Ana Vujanović, “Performing Ideology: Communitas and immunitas in today’s neoliberal democratic society“, in: Victoria Perez Rojo, Isabel de Naveran (ed.), There is no other poetry than action, Madrid: Artea, forthcoming (2014)
[6] I would like to stress that I am aware that Greek slaves and other non-citizens were not necessarily poorer than citizens, yet they participated only in the domain of the private. As I said, the main criterion of political practice in democratic Athens was personal or private disinterest, which is the reason why only free citizens, whose decisions were not influenced by private interests took part in politics.
[7] I would agree more with Marx and to an extent to Jacques Rancière, when they explain the importance of the question of labor and production and its investment into political life, moreover its foundational role in politics. I will return to that question in a while.
[8] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998., and On Revolution, New York: The Viking Press, 1963.
[9] The other problem is how and when to deal politically with the public issues on top of all the work we have to do on daily basis, though the work is to write and talk about culture, politics, and related public issues. This, however, opens a new broad topic and needs to be discussed in some other article.
[10] Which never questioned slavery, seen as a private, economic matter.