[-empyre-] on re-thinking our practices

Brian Holmes bhcontinentaldrift at gmail.com
Sun Mar 18 16:42:06 EST 2012

Hello everyone -

Greetings from Chicago, and thanks to all for a fascinating list 
conversation so far.

Here is a perfect place for me to jump in (so thanks particularly to 
Teddy Cruz for relaying and reformulating many core ideas of the entire 

> the question remains: How are we
> to re-organize as artists, communities, to perform a more effective
> project that can enable institutional modifications? [snip]
> -Can conflict itself become a tool to enable a more critical debate
> beyond our clichés and the clichés of the other, as well as the
> retooling of artistic practices?

It seems to me that practically everywhere, conflict has been such a 
retooling tool in the agitated year of 2011. An important tool, for a 
simple reason: the individual operating within contemporary institution 
can, imho, do nothing to change the inequities of society. The 
conditions of competition are such that the individual can "excel" (as 
they say) but that's it. "Excel" means stand out from the rest, so, no 
common struggle, so, no change.

Conflcit, on the other hand, has the wonderful effect of putting even 
the "excellent" individual in the position where s/he is likely to lose. 
Lose your money, lose your job, lose your "career opportunities": these 
are the most likely dangers for middle-class individuals who might post 
to an email list such as this one. The threat of losing it all is cool 
because then you have to look around and think: With whom can we all 
save our skins and maybe change things so as not to get into such a 
position again tomorrow? In the best of cases, a more generous and 
wide-ranging philosophy can stem from this initial, diectly existential 

> -What I mean is that while we debate the ‘differences’ between
> ‘resistance’ and ‘resilience,’ capitalism has stolen those terms from
> ‘us’ already, a long, long time ago.
> -And I say ‘stolen’ because those and many other terms in the last two
> decades initially emerged from the ‘left,’ in our attempt to ‘resist’
> binary thought: ‘fluidity,’ ‘multiplicity,’ ‘hybridity,’
> ‘self-organization,’ ‘anti-centralization, and beyond.

If we are threatened - and I definitely feel threatened, not so much in 
career opportunities ('cause I have no career) but on some more basic 
level of human potentials - then maybe it's necessary to figure out why 
so many terms can be "stolen from us."

On the one hand, it's obvious: the big money has the big transmitters. 
But why is it that even in the domains of culture, philosophy, art, 
sociology, economics, urbanism and similar areas where the left was once 
strong, "we" have lost control over language itself? Why, in fact, are 
we not "resilient" at all? Why has it taken so long for resistance to 
arise on the left (in the US I mean), and to the extent that it has, how 
to reinforce it?

I think one of the major mistakes has been, for decades, the idea that 
self-organization and the resistance to centralization are (or at least, 
were) the exclusive property of the left. Because this idea is 
historically false. The neoliberal ideology which grew up in opposition 
to New Deal programs, and to social democracy wherever in the world that 
it had taken root, was clearly against centralization and in favor of 
self-organization. All of Hayek, all of Friedman and Posner and Becker 
are there to prove it.

We on the left were against centralization and for self-organization as 
well, because for us as well, the social-democratic state (which in the 
US at the time was called the Great Society of LBJ) was itself 
unbearable. In the US, both the libertarian left and the libertarian 
right called the LBJ regime the "welfare-warfare state." If we don't 
recognize that "we" shared many ideas with "them," then we will never be 
able to do the important work of identifying our real problems and 
developing solutions.

Since the 1960s, and this appears true across the world, the left end of 
the spectrum has been simultaneously anti-statist and continually 
outraged at the cuts to social budgets. Now, there is a sense to this: 
we are against certain state abuses (both repression and state-mandated 
massification and commercialization) and yet we still recognize that 
only a function of redistribution can create conditions of material 
equality where substantial freedom can be experienced by all and 
cultural differences can emerge without inequity and consequent hatred 
among the social classes. The problem is: we no longer have a unifying 
philosophy to express what we are for and what we are against. 
Crucially, we cannot properly define where the powers of government 
should be limited and how the techniques of redistribution should be 
modified and perfected.

 > Only the
> knowledge of the protocols embedded in stupid urban policy and
> discriminating economic models can give ‘us’ the ammunition to present
> counter models.
> -Only by understanding –very well- the conditions that produced the
> current crises can we advance the conversation: those conditions
> themselves must be the material for artists today.

I totally agree. It seems to me that the question is how to develop this 
knowledge? Again, I doubt an individual can do it. Since the advent of 
neoliberalism in the 80s there have been 3 decades worth of opportunity 
and intellectuals have produced remarkably little in terms of 
counter-governance. I am a little suspicious now of the sort of friendly 
and formally projects that have been showcased in art schools for so 
long: if they could change something, they already would have. Most of 
what I see is fundamentally good but radically insufficient.

> -We need to be the producers of new political processes and economic
> models (the site of intervention is the very politics and economics that
> have perpetuated a selfish urbanization in our time),
> -We need to be the enablers of new models of political representation
> and participation (the site of intervention is education itself and the
> very notion of community: who represents who during this period of
> transformation)
> -We need to be the ones who visualize and expose institutional conflict
> (the site of intervention is educational processes themselves, at the
> scale of the urban)

I would love to hear more about the above. Concerning the first and 
third statements of that list, some of us in Chicago recently tried an 
experiment. We set about trying a truly "self-organized" seminar to 
explore the very politics and economics that have created, not just a 
selfish urbanization but what you might call "institutions of 
selfishness" across the board. To do this in a strong and deeop way, we 
focused on Three Crises. The 30s from which the welfare-warfare state 
ultimately emerged. The late 60s-early 70s from which neoliberalism 
emerged. And now, the time of great danger. Our idea was to "intervene 
in the educational processes" by generating a collective outside, not in 
order to withdraw but as a kind of goad to thinking and acting, directed 
at potentially anyone, including those who teach and those who learn. As 
we did this, the Occupy movement erupted (on the very day when we kicked 
off our program, as it happened). That was an incredible experience, a 
new principle of hope. The seminar is all archived here:


That's a "modest experiment," in other words, from my view, still 
practically useless. But it has not only generated interest from many 
people - as content and as a model for autonomous education - but also, 
crucially, the study involved has alerted those of us who did it to 
other things being done by other people in other places. I do hope over 
the next 5 or 10 years to be able to pursue work on common themes with 
many many people, in order to arrive at well-conceived and shared modes 
of action that can allow the left to reaffirm its major demands, which I 
take to be equality, care of the environment and respect for/ love of 

all the best to everyone on this list, Brian

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