Guide books recommend the cafe at Bordeaux’s CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art. That is as it should be. Every asparagus soup radical expects a good lunch. Gathered for Think . . . And See, they will want more to eat than attitude.
Of the nine participants in this series of speakers, eight out of nine are listed as philosophers. When an art museum sponsors a program that looks like a plenary session of the International Society for Philosophers, you know that ideology, not art making, is the purpose at hand. Turn and run.
The symposium’s roster is dedicated to a hypnotic vision of the artist as a subversive force to blunt the spiritual weapons of a dying class. Taken in toto, the topics invite a reprise of Leonid Ilychev’s aim to displace “the depraved formalist art of the bourgeois West.” In Kruschev’s considered estimate, formalist art was all “dog shit,” not worth a kopek. An online browse through CAPC’s permanent collection suggests a line—straggly, but a line nonetheless—of descent from the aims of the Central Committee of the 1960s to the contemporary mindset. There are differences in phraseology and taste, to be sure. But these are historically conditioned, and more superficial than they appear at first glance. The significant and enduring link is creedal.
The catechetical nature of CAPC’s program announces itself in the c.v. of each participant, beginning with its organizer, Francois Cusset. Teaching Philosophy of American Civilization at the University of Nanterre, Cusset is committed to undermining distinctions between gay and straight. To queer a field of study is to blur differences, to promote gender confusion, and to analyze the political and moral stakes at play in that confusion. Employed in queering American civilization, the petri dish in which queer theory was conceived, Cusset looks to the eventual queering of the French Republic. [An eight minute video of Cusset discussing, in English, the nature of queer theory and its migration from America to France is worth watching.]
Beatriz Preciado, born in Barcelona and credentialed by Princeton and the New School for Social Research, comes billed as a leading thinker in gender studies. A professor at the Université de Paris VIII, St. Denis, she is also the author of Manifiesto contrasexual, a queer theory classic, and Pornotopía: Architecture and Sexuality in Playboy During the Cold War. She sports a trim mustache that recalls another Catalan and AC-DC tease, Salvador Dali.
Enter Judith Butler, lesbian, philosopher, and decorated gender ideologue at the University of California, Berkeley. Her métier is the “performativity of gender” and the social construction of sexual difference. Nothing is innate; it is all just theatre. Add her animus toward the “state violence” of Israel, and we have an exemplary sample of the kind of American academic congenial to European audiences.
The nerve center of Catherine Malabous’ pensées is the flexibility of the brain, the organ that she sees as the basis of many of our political metaphors. Nothing is as hard-wired as we think (hint, hint). She finds it ominous that words used to describe the brain, such as “flexibility”, are used in economic life. This leads her to wonder whether the very description of our brain today is not in fact the image of the capitalist world in which we live. [You follow the logic?] Malabou has also co-authored with Butler an inquiry into domination and servitude entitled Be My Body. The text explores the fantasy we surely all have of delegating our bodies to someone else to inhabit.
During his student years in Paris, “independent researcher” Maurizio Lazzarato was too radical for even the Italians. He went into exile in Paris in the 1970s and stayed. Since then, he has become a political entrepreneur engaged in probing immaterial labor (“cognitive capitalism”) and “post-socialist” social movements. His scheduled talk is a riff on his book The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay in the Neoliberal Condition.
Keep in mind Lazzarato will be addressing an audience weighted toward artists and art students. It is unlikely there will be many in attendance capable of addressing his contention that debt is the necessary means of social control at the heart of the global capitalist shell game. Whether the audience grasps the mechanisms of free enterprise matters not. Lazzarato cuts a romantic figure. He strides across the barricades as both participant in and theorizer of such European activist movements over the past decade as the Tute Bianche. Let’s hear it for a universal citizen’s income.
On it goes. It is tempting to poke fun at the penny-arcade Marxism and missionary gender-bending implicit in the program. In reality, though, there is nothing humorous about it. All the nebulous opacity sounds intellectual, engagé. The stance is seductive to young aspirants to the mantle of a redemptive dissident. In just this way, we commit cultural suicide one symposium at a time. And one museum of contemporary art after another.