The Post-political Context and the Role of the Artist

Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s public intervention titled “Questions, Questions” (Barcelona, 2009).

Autonomist Marxists refer to our present situation as post-political (e.g., Lotringer, Marazzi and Bowman). Within this post-political context, Santiago López Petit, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona, argues that the often repeated question “who has the right to the city?” (Lefebvre 1968: reformulated in Mitchell 2003) no longer makes sense:

[…] en la medida en que la afirmación “el espacio es político” se hace problemática…la propia lucha en el marco del derecho—en nuestro caso “el derecho a la ciudad”—se hace también problemática. (“Espacio público o espacios del anonimato”)

[[…] in the extent to which the assertion “space is political” becomes problematic…the very struggle within the framework of rights—in our case “the right to the city”—also becomes problematic.]

The urban movements that attempt to fight for certain rights in the public space of cognitive capitalism, like the fight for the right to decent housing in Barcelona, no longer are able to give their collective speech public meaning because their speech constantly passes through mediating institutions (state and corporate forms).

Against this particular state of society, Brian Holmes, in his book Escape the Overcode, argues that the role of the artist is “to mark a possible or real shift with respect to the laws, the customs, the measures, the mores, the technical and organizational devices that define how we must behave and how we may relate to each other at a given time and in a given place” (13-14). Critical Art Ensemble, a U.S. collective that explores the relationships between art and political activism, agrees and adds that “sign manipulation with the purpose of keeping the interpretive field open is the primary critical function of the cultural worker” (The Electronic Disturbance 139). Paris-based sociologist and social theorist Mauricio Lazzarato takes the position that “the activist is simply someone who introduces a discontinuity in what exists. She creates a bifurcation in the flow of words, of desires, of images, to put them at the service of the multiplicity’s power of articulation…” All three describe how creativity can be used as a line of flight from neoliberal control.

Works cited

The Electronic Disturbance. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1994.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Créer des mondes: Capitalisme contemporain et guerres ‘esthétiques’.”Multitudes 15 2004.

López Petit, Santiago. “Espacio público o espacios del anonimato.” Barcelona Metropolis: Revista de información y pensamiento urbanos.

Lotringer, Sylvère, Christian Marazzi, and Betsy Bowman. Autonomia: Post-political Politics. New York: Columbia University, 1980.

Mitchell, Don. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York:Guilford Press, 2003.

The autonomist Marxist category of social labor and the city

The Italian workers’ rejection of rigid, authoritarian hierarchy, and impersonal, rationalized routines, and call for more flexible, cooperative social production forced capital into a paradigm shift. The industrial factory gave way to networked organization and production. The technological innovation of the personal computer, however, gave capital the means with which to extract surplus value, not from labor materialized in a product, but from labor based upon language. In other words, the new social laborer ushered in a new era of capitalist development known as post-Fordism and cognitive capitalism in which the very faculty of language is exploited for economic gain.

The theoretical basis for autonomist Marxism’s privileging of communication in contemporary configurations of capital is Karl Marx’s Grundrisse. In this text, the autonomist’s category of social labor in the form of Antonio Negri’s “socialized worker” (Books for Burning xl) and Maurizio Lazzarato’s “immaterial laborer” (“Immaterial Labor”) finds its precursor in Marx’s “social individual” who “steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor” (Grundrisse 705). Paolo Virno explains the quote’s importance for Marx:

This placing of labor activity ‘to the side’ of the immediate process of production indicates […] that labor corresponds more and more to ‘supervisory and regulatory activity’ (ibid., 709). In other words: the tasks of a worker or of a clerk no longer involve the completion of a single particular assignment, but the changing and intensifying of social cooperation. (62).

Production and its relationship to consumption have drastically changed. The goods being produced are no longer just material. The production of knowledge, technology, and advertising are just as important if not more so. The game-changer is that today an exchange of knowledge precedes an exchange of goods. Images and signs are sold before the product. Cognitive capitalism, as Lazzarato astutely observes, is obsessed, not with the production of the commodity, but with the creation of the “world where the commodity exists” (“Créer des mondes”). Virno describes the post-Fordist experience of cognitive capitalism as one in which the communication industry (he interchanges the term “communication industry” with “spectacle” and “culture industry”) “plays the role of industry of the means of production” (61). Machinery is no longer the primary productive force, but, rather, “linguistic-cognitive competencies inseparable from living labor” are (61).

What this means for the city is deindustrialization, the dependence on culture and technology to produce wealth, the sanitizing of public space, and the linking of art, urban planning, and politics.

Works cited

Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labor.” Trans. Paul Colilli and Ed Emory. Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Ed. Paul Virno and Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 133-147. Print.

—. “Créer des mondes: Capitalisme contemporain et guerres ‘esthétiques’.” Multitudes 15 2004. Web. 14 Dec 2010. <<>>.

Marx, Karl. The Grundrisse. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

Negri, Antonio. Books for Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy. London: Verso, 2005. Print.

Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext, 2004. Print.