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Answering the question: What is to be done?

Answering the question: What is to be done? (education)

David cunningham

The question ʻWhat is to be done?ʼ, Adorno remarked, frequently ʻsabotages the logical progress of knowledge that alone allows for changeʼ . However, despite being always-already-inscribed within the imperatives of instrumental rationality, it is, he acknowledged, nonetheless ʻunavoidableʼ. [1] This is especially so for the Left, and for a radical philosophy that is obliged to consider what ʻanti-capitalismʼ might mean today, beyond its rhetorical functioning as placeholder for a desired solidarity of opposition to the current state of things.

Of course, if this question continues to haunt the Left it is because of the canonical status assured it by Lenin. Published just two years into the last century (its recent centenary deafeningly silent), What is to be Done? was the essential communist handbook of organizational tasks for the first part of the twentieth century at least. The relation of its conception of the party to Marxʼs remains contentious, as does the degree of its debt to Blanquist–Jacobin ideas of revolutionary conspiracy. But it is certain that little could be less compelling or fashionable today – Slavoj Žižekʼs liberal-baiting bid for an ambiguous revival of ʻLenin contra Leninismʼ notwithstanding. Indeed, in the intellectual milieu of the Leftʼs own global ʻtheoryworldʼ, [2] there is near universal agreement that any idea of the party as the privileged organizational form of militant activism has long since outlived its moment.

Unavoidable as it may well be, then, the very question ʻWhat is to be done?ʼ can seem somewhat quaint under present circumstances. It implies a sense of collective political power and purpose that few can currently muster. Which begs the question of what it means that it should be asked again today, not in the troubled context of ʻthe socialist projectʼ – as even Adorno might still have understood the promise embodied in that phrase – but in that of an art event, itself conceived under the sign of a certain ʻradicalityʼ? What does this mean for politics and for art, and for the current relationship between them? In what sense might it be ʻin art and its mediationʼ that we would find ʻembeddedʼ a ʻglobal complex of cultural translationʼ, which, so Roger Buergel claims, ʻsets the stage for a potentially all-inclusive public debateʼ? And what does this suggest about the role played by cultural forms within current reconfigurations of political identities, desires, and conditions of possibility in an emergent global capitalist modernity?

These are not, in themselves, unfamiliar issues.

Indeed they have been much debated within the pages of Radical Philosophy, as elsewhere, over the last few years. The whole question of the dual contemporary legacy of the concept of the ʻavant-gardeʼ, as historically operative in both politics and art, and the glue that once promised to bind them together, suggests one obvious starting point here. For it is this term that Lenin, in What is to be Done?, borrows from the French radical lexicon of the nineteenth century to define the Communist Partyʼs revolutionary role as ʻvanguardʼ (avangard). Much once rested upon the precarious intersection this seemed to invite between the Party and the various cultural avant-gardes that flourished during the first decade after 1917 – between the Bolsheviks and those who ʻheard and understood the Revolutionʼ, above all, because ʻits present was dependent on a futureʼ. [3]

The story has been told often enough, and it finds itself repeated, in less overtly dramatic situations, within the histories of various ʻWesternʼ avant-gardes such as surrealism. Moreover, it is the loss or failure of this conjunction that constitutes at least one motive for the obituary notices for the avant-garde, constantly announced from the early 1960s onwards. Yet the ʻdefeatʼ of an ʻoriginaryʼ instance here does not thereby negate the problematic of the avant-garde, as is too often supposed. (If nothing else, events like Documenta continue to attest to this. [4] ) Nor is it clear that it could do so, to the degree that, politically, it is still the artworkʼs capacity to be ʻvibrated by the reflexes of the futureʼ (in Bretonʼs evocative phrase) that provides its essential criteria of value, and critical meaning, in a global capitalist culture. [5] Indeed, the whole question of contemporary artʼs capacity to institute some future space for ʻadvanced, open and autonomous working practicesʼ, as the Documenta working paper imagines it, is dependent on this.Nonetheless, and precisely to the extent that the question of the avant-garde ʻcontinues inexorably to exert its demands and responsibilitiesʼ upon the present, the social and political context within which this happens has patently changed. [6] Vibrated by the reflexes of those demands and responsibilities that constitute the avant-gardeʼs persistence, at its most productive, this creates an obligation, for what Walter Benjamin called an art that would be ʻbased on politicsʼ to rethink its critical work and social functions under the changed conditions of ʻourʼ present. Yet, given this, the desire for a concrete politicization of art, as yet another counter-move to the aestheticization of politics within commodity culture, entails the question of just exactly what ʻpoliticizationʼ might mean at a historical moment in which the narrative horizons that have hitherto sustained the Left have come to seem untenable. And if this is the point at which artistic questions ʻcollide with social questions such as the existence or non-existence of a collective social subjectʼ, then it is the seeming lack of such a subject, at least as it was largely taken for granted by the avant-gardes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that thus must frame the question of what it means for a practice to be political today. [7]

It is, in fact, precisely in this light that what is most distinctive about contemporary criticism of the broadly Leninist model of the avant-garde becomes clear. For, necessary as it may be, this criticism often appears to entail that issues of organizational form – the theoretical elaboration of abstract conceptual figures of networks, rhizomes, and so on – run far ahead of any attempt to articulate identifiable political content to such forms, in a determinate sense. No doubt inevitably so. To note as much is not to question the importance of ʻnew forms of organization and self-organizationʼ as themselves a political issue. For it is of course true that, in some fundamental way, political form simply is its content; always, but perhaps particularly so for any politics operating under the sign of some radical democracy to come. (Indeed, Leninism might precisely be said to have failed because of its fatal incapacity to come to terms with this.) Yet it can hardly be ignored that where the question of determinate political possibility emerges – the basis, once, for the Marxian Leftʼs rigorous delineation of its difference from all utopianism, for its belief in ʻthe real movement which abolishes the present state of thingsʼ – the issue of the concrete contents and processes at stake in contemporary opposition, protest and resistance remains (like Iraq for Tony Blair) the unmentioned elephant in the room.

In practical terms, a tacit agreement to disagree, as the only basis for both coalition and diversity (as manifested in the various metropolitan, national, continental and global social forums), is undoubtedly unavoidable. In fact, it is desirable, on some level, as a democratic ʻgoodʼ in itself. But, as Martin Ryle noted in Radical Philosophy 114, it can also amount to an effective agreement to evade or suppress the question of what is thereby actually at stake in the oppositional endeavours of contemporary anti-capitalism. [8] At the very least, this indeterminacy or self-defining absence – which makes the emphatically futural character of the question ʻWhat is to be done?ʼ such a source of anxiety – needs to be made explicit and its implications thought through. (Ironically, this may well be the unintended critical function of Hardt and Negriʼs celebrated intervention – its essential failure to substantialize the Multitude as a political or social category, in comparison to the analysis of Empire.) Certainly, contemporary political and art theory have something in common at this point. Indeed, from the perspective of the artworld, they can often seem to overlap, in so far as artʼs intrinsic relevance is now seen to be located not so much in the critical value accorded to art-specific judgements or forms of experience, as in the wider formal problems of the ʻglobal complex of cultural translationʼ that the artworld engenders.

Trafficking the avant-garde

Why, then, as Buergel presents it in his third Documenta 12 question, might such a question situate itself today within a global problematic organized around an idea of education? Why, indeed, to put it in a rather different way, should it be in redefining artʼs vocation in terms of some educative process that an apparently utopian (if not utopianist) spark might be located?

Such an idea is hardly foreign to the history of the avant-garde. Using ʻode or song, story or novelʼ, writes the utopian socialist Olinde Rodriguez in 1825, ʻweʼ the ʻavant-gardeʼ will ʻspread new ideas amongst menʼ, staging the basis for artʼs recovery of ʻa great political roleʼ akin to that it played for the ʻpeoples of antiquityʼ. [9] Such general sentiments were familiar for a good hundred years or more to follow. In a more directly political register, they find one echo in the Leninist conception of the partyʼs vanguard/avantgarde role itself, which establishes the foundation for a distinctive pedagogical determination of the political operativity of both theory and culture. At the same time, they connect with a somewhat different tradition, to be found most clearly in Schillerʼs Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind – a text that Jacques Rancière has recently claimed as an inaugural moment for both the avant-garde and a modern aesthetic regime more generally. Mediating between alienated present and de-alienated future, it is artʼs ʻpromise of equality, the promise of a new way of sharing a common worldʼ, that provides the basis for an aesthetic education and self-education of humanity as a process of learning to live in a future free political community. For Rancière, it thus ʻclears a path to the [romantic] idea of an aesthetic revolution … fostering the Marxian idea of the “human revolution” by contrast to the merely political revolution, and culminating in the Futurist and Constructivist programmes in the first quarter of the twentieth centuryʼ. [10]

Yet itʼs fairly hard to see this as a plausible model for whatever new Bildung might be at stake in the international artworld today. Rather, it threatens simply to repeat the impasses of the romantic linkage of art to politics, through a failure to engage the actual workings of capitalism that condition it at every point. Certainly, to conceive of the artworldʼs developing and (at least partially) decentralized network of sites, even speculatively, as the generation of some genuinely global public space – in which the emergence of an immediate form of de-alienated non-capitalist life and cultural exchange might somehow be visible on the horizon – is sheer romanticism, an abstract utopianism of organizational form. One personʼs heterotopic enclave is anotherʼs gated community (however globally dispersed). [11] At best, only as constituted through some immanent critique of the capitalist formation of the social, of its abstraction by the value form – as the production of some reflective form of critical knowledge of that abstraction12 – would what Buergel envisages as the staging of some politicized ʻpublic debateʼ around art and its mediation seem to be remotely imaginable or tenable today, given the inherent limitations to any constitution of a ʻpublicʼ that are all too obviously apparent here. At stake here would not be yet another passage through the consolations of romantic anti-capitalism, but a critical articulation of the violences of artʼs own social condition, the larger social divisions and inequalities that determine the division between art and politics themselves.

If, then, it is true that ʻ[a]rtists educate themselves by working through form and subject matterʼ, and ʻaudiences educate themselves by experiencing things aestheticallyʼ, [13] perhaps we still need to think, in a fairly sober and straightforward fashion, about what is entailed by ʻeducationʼ in some of its most basic senses – that is, as a question, ultimately, about the social relations (and spaces) through which different forms of knowledge are produced. What is, or might be, specifically educational, in any politically productive sense, in the contemporary production and dissemination of forms of knowledge globally? How is access to such forms determined? And how do these relate to the circulation and accumulation of forms of capital in what, as we have long been told, is (at its ʻcutting edgeʼ at least) a developing knowledge economy?

The complex relations established in some contemporary art to a social documentary tradition provide one possible case study here. A work like Allan Sekulaʼs photographic sequence Fish Story (1995), exhibited at Documenta 11, intrinsically involves, as part of its production and reception, ʻpractices of research in cultural, economic and social historyʼ. At the level of ʻsubject matterʼ, these engage, in Buchlohʼs words, ʻthe fallen facticity of the world … [the] sites of cover-ups and myths, of clandestine and concealed “public” operations … the operations of capitalʼ. This clearly implies an educational (and self-educational) dimension to the piece, a kind of critical revelation and articulation of widening differences of wealth, power, and of relative inclusion in a globally networked capitalist modernity, via knowledge of its uneven local manifestations. At the same time, however, formally, as Andrew Fisher puts it, meaning in such a work is conceived as being itself ʻproduced in exchanges of information that are located in [already existing] systems of communicative practiceʼ. To the extent that this is a ʻfundamentally social characteristicʼ, it is ʻonly ever actualised in the form of socially instituted relations of exchangeʼ. [14] What Sekula calls the ʻtraffic in photographsʼ, in a society organized around commodity production and exchange, cannot be separated from the institutional spaces in which artʼs production of meaning takes place. The success of a piece like Fish Story is predicated on the degree to which it engages immanently, in critical fashion, the mechanisms of a ʻglobal complex of cultural translationʼ, inextricably connected to the operations of capital, at the level of both form and subject matter.Yet, in an important sense, current art-theoretical concerns are less focused on such critical potentials of the individual artwork than, as I have already argued, on the various broader networks of cultural translation, communication and exchange internal to the operations of the artworld itself. The present pre-eminence accorded to the job of the master curator – as ʻan act of presentation that presents itselfʼ, in Boris Groysʼs words – over and above that of the individual artist or movement would be, in part, a function of this. More crucially, and more generally, (and not without irony, given the context), it is what appears to be most immediately political about the issues of cultural ʻtransferʼ and ʻrelationalityʼ intrinsic to the contemporary art system that would today invite speculation upon the possibility of some new conjoining of art to radical politics, such as Groys suggests in a recent article in this journal. An apparent structural homology, precisely at the level of organizational form, between the international art biennale and the social forum might itself appear as a kind of testimony to this.

Groysʼs own choice of example is telling: the exhibition ʻUtopia Stationʼ curated by Molly Nesbit, HansUlrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija for the 2003 Venice Biennale; an exhibition which ʻemployed artworks as illustrations, as documents of the search for a social utopia, without emphasizing their autonomous valueʼ. [15] If there is a utopian moment in the form of such phenomena themselves, then one can only presume that it lies in certain formal possibilities immanent to the speculatively ʻglobal complex of cultural translationʼ contemporary art generates at such points; its productive power, in Benjaminʼs famous terms, is to create new, always different if connected, significances. It is in this sense that ʻtranslationʼ produces new forms of knowledge in a way that might indeed be ʻeducationalʼ in a strong, and at least potentially political, manner. Yet, while, as Barry Schwabsky puts it, the ʻdemocratic thrust of art emerges where artist and public engage on equal termsʼ, the curatorʼs assumption of the job of translator-in-chief can easily construct a ʻposition of childlike dependencyʼ for artʼs putative public, who (subject to an instrumentalized model of ʻsocial inclusionʼ) apparently still need things translating for them. [16]

More than an analogy?

Does some genuine connection with politics, an analogy that is more than an analogy, hold here? ʻThe power of art to change life is indirectʼ, writes Susan BuckMorss, ʻBut so is (or ought to be) the power of political sovereignty.ʼ Once any ʻworkʼ enters ʻthe interactive world of the everyday, its use should be allowed and indeed encouraged to transcend the constraints of the creatorʼs intentʼ. This is surely the utopian moment in all complexes of translation. And as a model of ʻaesthetic analogyʼ rather than ʻinstrumental dominationʼ, it might indeed provide one experimental basis for the kind of global public sphere that Buck-Morss herself has perhaps most lucidly and winningly sought to articulate. [17] Nonetheless, we can hardly afford to ignore what T.J. Clark has called the bad dream of modernism that may accompany it. In such a dream, associated in particular with the readings of architectural and art history in the work of the great Italian theorist Manfredo Tafuri, the avant-garde is perpetually haunted by the possibility that every opposition to the logics of capital ʻcomes to seem, in retrospect … not much more than an idealization of capitalism and its representationsʼ. [18] What if the aesthetic education of modern art has always been the basis not for some learning to inhabit a future de-alienated state, but precisely the production of new forms of subjectivity capable of inhabiting smoothly the alienated spaces of a metropolitan capitalist world? Today perhaps this is the troubled dream of the culturally productive forms of ʻinterfaceʼ experience that would educate us to live in an emergent infomatic globality – one open to ever-more-transitory and fugitive flows of capital and commodities, and from which the contemporary art world can hardly be separated.

If so, itʼs probably an unavoidable condition of artʼs critical articulation of the experiences of capitalist modernity and its capacity to locate, however precariously, latent potentialities within its social formations. Artʼs contemporary mediation by and of what Hardt and Negri call the currently ʻhegemonic figureʼ of the network itself, as a figure of organizational and spatial form, is exemplary of this. Subject to a utopian construction (that stretches back to Buckminster Fuller at least), which may project it as an expression of ʻthe demands of a collective life to comeʼ, it may also, in its openness as form, serve as an ideological veil for capitalist development, helping to ensure, in Tafuriʼs words, that ʻthe real lawsʼ of its universe remain unknown. Past utopian projects, like Constantʼs New Babylon, included in Documenta 11, with its emancipatory visions of absolute flexibility, nomadism and transitoriness, can easily come to seem, in retrospect, as much an ʻaesthetic educationʼ in what one critic calls free-market ʻdreams of hypermobile and flexible capitalismʼ as any speculative transcendence of them. [19]

There is no doubt that new forms of social connectivity on a potentially planetary scale have both transformed the possibilities and conditions of ʻgrassrootsʼ politics, and created new kinds of transnational subjectivities, which promise a potential renewal of political imagination. There is every reason to think that art, at least in some both altered and expanded sense, might have a role to play in aspects of its materialization. Yet, as Buck-Morss herself says, it will have to make productive the contradictions inherent in the formation of a public space around it, the antagonisms and divisions that condition and traverse it. [20] Moreover, if the Left ʻprojectʼ is itself a struggle for ʻopen communicationʼ, democratic and educational at its core, only a ʻdebateʼ concerning the relationship of emancipatory praxis to the existing regimes of economic development will make possible a space in which the very question ʻWhat is to be done?ʼ might be effectively asked today.


1. ^ Theodor W. Adorno, ʻTaboos on the Teaching Professionʼ (1965), in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford, Columbia University Press, New York, 2005, pp. 187–8.

2. ^ I take this suggestive term ʻtheoryworldʼ, to be conceived in conjunction with the more familiar idea of an ʻartworldʼ (with which it often overlaps), from Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror, Verso, London and New York, 2003, p. 8.

3. ^ Julia Kristeva, ʻThe Ethics of Linguisticsʼ, in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature, trans.

Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudiez,

Blackwell, Oxford, 1980, p. 32.

4. ^ As my colleague Stewart Martin noted in his review of Documenta 11 in this journal, in considering its ʻpolitical positioning … as an agenda for a new form of radical art, it becomes apparent that it indicates transformations of a number of fundamental conceptions of the radical avant-gardeʼ. ʻA New World Art? Documenting Documenta 11ʼ, Radical Philosophy 122, November/December 2003, p. 9.

5. ^ See David Cunningham, ʻThe Futures of Surrealism:

Hegelianism, Romanticism and the Avant-Gardeʼ, SubStance 107, vol. 34, no. 2, 2005, pp. 47–65.

6. ^ John Roberts, ʻOn Autonomy and the Avant-Gardeʼ, Radical Philosophy 103, September/October 2000, pp. 25–8.

7. ^ See Theodor W. Adorno, ʻFunctionalism Todayʼ, in Neil Leach, ed., Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, Routledge, London and New York, 1997, p. 18.

8. ^ Martin Ryle, ʻOppositional Mentalities: Intellectuals,

Protest and the Leftʼ, Radical Philosophy 114, July/August 2002, pp. 2–6.

9. ^ Comte de St Simon [actually Olinde Rodriguez], ʻThe Artist, the Savant and the Industrialistʼ, from Opinions Litteraires, Philosophiques et Industrielles (1825), in Charles Harrison, Paul Wood and Jason Geiger, eds, Art in Theory 1815–1900, Blackwell, Oxford, 1998, pp. 40–41.

10. ^ Jacques Rancière, ʻThe Sublime from Lyotard to Schillerʼ, Radical Philosophy 126, July/August 2004, p. 13.

11. ^ In the light of Rancièreʼs intervention, it would be worthwhile rereading the conclusion to Schillerʼs final letter (27), which, arriving at the point of a necessary absolute separation between the ʻaesthetic stateʼ and any actually existing social and political institutions, for the present, can end only with the location of the former in ʻsome few chosen circles, where conduct is governed … by the aesthetic nature we have made our ownʼ.

Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters, trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L.A. Willoughby, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1967, p. 219.

12. ^ See David Cunningham, ʻArchitecture as Critical Knowledgeʼ, in Mark Dorrian, Murray Fraser, Jonathan Hill and Jane Rendell, eds, Critical Architecture, Routledge,

London and New York, forthcoming 2007.

13. ^ In fact, itʼs far from clear that the forms of experience at stake in most recent art are strictly ʻaestheticʼ (as opposed to post-conceptual) in character. See Peter Osborne, ʻArt Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Criticism, Art History and Contemporary Artʼ, Art History, vol. 27, no. 4, September 2004, pp. 651–70; reprinted in Deborah Cherry, ed., Art: History: Visual: Culture, Blackwell, Oxford, 2005, pp. 171–90.

14. ^ Andrew Fisher, ʻAnti-Modernism and Narrativity in the Work of Allan Sekulaʼ, in David Cunningham, Andrew Fisher and Sas Mays, eds, Photography and Literature in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge Scholars Press,

Newcastle, 2005, pp. 169, 163. Buchloh is cited on p. 172. This is not restricted to photography or film. There would be an interesting comparison to be made at this point with the intrinsic ʻpractices of research in cultural, economic and social historyʼ manifested in the form of much recent literature, for example in the poetry of Jeremy Prynne and Allen Fisher or in the novels of W.G.

Sebald and Iain Sinclair.

15. ^ Boris Groys, ʻThe Politics of Equal Aesthetic Rightsʼ, Radical Philosophy 137, May/June 2006, pp. 33, 34.

16. ^ Barry Schwabsky, ʻPatriotism as Paranoia: Steve Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensembleʼ, Radical Philosophy 129, January/February 2005, p. 8.

17. ^ Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, MIT Press, 2000, Cambridge, MA, pp. 65–6; Susan Buck-Morss, ʻA Global Public Sphere?ʼ, Radical Philosophy 111, January/February 2002, pp. 2–10.

18. ^ Clark, Farewell to an Idea, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 1999, p. 306.

19. ^ Fredric Jameson, ʻGlobalization and Political Strategyʼ, New Left Review 4, July/August 2000, p. 68; Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co, Modern Architecture/2, trans. Robert Erich Wolf, Rizzoli, New York, 1986, p. 357; David Pinder, Visions of the City, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2005, p. 255. For further elaboration of this point, see David Cunningham, ʻArchitecture in an Age of Global Modernity: Tafuri, Jameson and Enclave Theoryʼ, in Matthew Beaumont, Andrew Hemingway, Esther Leslie and John Roberts, eds, As Radical as Reality Itself: Marxism and the Visual Arts, Peter Lang, forthcoming 2007. The ambiguous homology of form of Empire and Multitude in Hardt and Negri would also seem to be a function of some of these difficulties.

20. ^ Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror, pp. 10–11, 7–8.

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