by Eli Namay
On Cultural Struggle: Artistic Militance and the Abolition of Value acts as a both a statement on semiotic ontology, as well as artistic intent. I attempt to show how my artistic practice rises out of a specific analysis of the functions of symbolic violence, and why both are relevant to material political concerns. This analysis is inspired by by Alberto Toscano’s essay titled The Abstraction and Abolition of Value. Toscano describes the problem in terms of quantitative notions of equivalence that link abstract labor to commodity production:
in Marx’s own work there is much oscillation as to whether value – understood in terms of the mechanism of commensuration and accounting that regulates the distribution of social labour and social consumption – is synonymous or not with capital and capitalism.
…I think this is a question best approached from the unlikely vantage of value’s abolition (or of the abolition of the capitalist form of value as the principal form of regulation or synthesis in our society). …My main angle into this question – insofar as it concerns value – is that of equality. I am struck by the manner in which recent debates on radical egalitarianism or indeed on communism fail to take seriously the strictures of Marx’s critique of social-democracy in his notes on the Gotha programme, namely that the only equality we know under capitalism is one thoroughly conditioned – as any attention to property law and citizenship would suggest – by the way in which the formal equality of subjects is predicated on the equivalential logics that link abstract labour to commodity production. Marx (and Lenin after him) noted that a transition out of capitalism, even when it abolishes private property, would still operate in keeping with labour-time as a measure of ‘value’, and that its form of law, of ‘right’, would, like all such systems of normative abstraction, require imposing an unequal standard on qualitative differences. The ‘utopian’ character of communism, or perhaps its character as a transvaluation, is not ultimately to be sought in abundance or the overcoming of human finitude, but in the notion of a society that is not regulated by the forms of equivalence, and thus in which equality would mean something radically other than what it means for us.
Since I feel that this analysis has pertinent political implications, I wanted the writing itself to be as approachable as possible, particularly by those with different positions on the left, without watering down the content. To these ends, I used language geared towards educating a broad audience and tried to use as little politically loaded terminology as possible, favoring clearly defined proprietary language. I felt that in abandoning language that was explicitly marxist I would be able to subvert any biases the reader might possess. They would then be more likely to consider my analysis of the material conditions as mediated by our dominant socioeconomic symbols and ideologies. This also inspired my decision to produce this writing in zine form—rough analogue design with little omission of flaw, formatted with fairly small amounts of text on each page— which I felt would make it feel more approachable than if it were in the form of an article or essay.
I also decided to acknowledge my ethnic, sexual, and gender identities, which is a decision that I feel uneasy about for two reasons. Firstly, these are aspects of myself that I generally don’t care to highlight due to my understanding of identity as non-fixed and largely socially manufactured phenomenon, created by the ruling elite for the explicit purpose of maintaining capitalist power relations. And secondly, my sexual and gender identities are things that I don’t like to take up space with. The aspects of my identity that could potentially be experienced in the form of serious oppression occur almost exclusively as internal psychological phenomena, thus giving me the privilege of having avoided the extreme violence reserved for those whose marginalized identities are more visible. However, I understand that oppression due to identity has to be a part of any adequate analysis of systemic economic oppression. And, it is also a great source of strength for a lot of people (myself included) who have experienced oppression because of their various racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual signifiers. So, I’ve included this information hopefully in a way that helps illuminate my perspective, contributes to the accessibility of the piece (specifically that of folks who are on the identitarian side of the radical left), and allows people to consider it alongside my ideas—all while simultaneously hinting at the limiting nature of this type of categorization used alone.
I also used this project as an opportunity to challenge a personal hesitancy of working with aesthetics that contain more popular (or maybe colloquial?) signifiers (e.g. the backbeat, smoother melodies and harmonies, DIY punk aesthetics, etc). My reluctance comes from both an understanding that these aesthetics can be difficult to deal with in a meaningful and authentic way due to the role that they play as appropriated symbols used in spectacle culture, as well as, if I’m honest with myself, a bit of an aesthetic xenophobia. Unfortunately I find that I and, based on what I often observe, the Jazz and New Music circles that I am a part of (to varying degrees of explicitness, directness, and consciousness) often view outside aesthetics as less serious or less valuable. There is legitimate concern with regards to the role many of these symbols, as appropriated by capital, play in social conditioning, but this critique has to be clearly articulated as such. I really love and admire these circles’ deep convictions about practice, and their general refusal to compromise aesthetically. This is extremely necessary in a highly commodified world. However taken to an extreme, this can create an insularity that breeds its own destruction in the form of political and cultural isolationism. Many of these insular tendencies have to be overcome if we, as experimental artists, are to enable our art to meaningfully engage with the broader social, political, and economic context.
Lastly, this piece is about cultural struggle and the philosophical underpinnings of capitalist systems of domination, it is not meant to be taken as all that is to be done in the realm of political struggle. I’ve intentionally left out my thoughts and feelings on what a complimentary political programme would look like, again to maximize the potential impact of these foundational observations. This in and of itself is a demonstration of the type of communication I am calling for artistically, culturally, and politically. While I feel that it is good to have an explicitly socialist understanding of the political, social, and economic problems we face, it is important to be able to communicate using various sets of symbols and aesthetics when necessary. In this case, I aim to minimize triggering of the fight or flight response in my readers that might not feel the same way I do about socialism, but are still on the radical left. My basis for the validity of this approach comes from an ontological understanding of language and semiotics that consists of interactions between a fixed reality, an intrinsic but plastic human capacity for language and abstraction, and non-fixed symbols. In other words reality remains fixed, but the symbols that we use to describe it can be infinitely rearranged. This is a quite different observation than a postmodern position in which language is slippery, and reality changes according to the arrangement of language and symbols.
Feedback on this one would be greatly appreciated: