“We have to decipher all the images that surround the country and the city and to understand the real contradictions and connections between them.”
These are the final lines, read by the Welsh Marxist theorist, of Mike Dibb’s excellent 1979 TV collaboration with Raymond Williams, rendering the latter’s book into a compact and poetic essay on the historical entanglement of urbanisation, property and agriculture in British culture and society, as it came to be articulated in verse, prose and painting.
A fascinating talk on the political and methodological challenges of visualising slavery by Vincent Brown:
See also his cartographic narrative of slave revolts in Jamaica, and this brief chronological visualisation of the Atlantic slave trade.
[image from Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, Volatile Smile]
Some years ago, it was common to lament, in critical circles, the taboo on “naming the system”: capital’s unlimited reign was everywhere cloaked in euphemism. While challenges to that reign have been fitful and fragile over the last decade of staggered crisis, the cognitive demand for figures, images, narratives, and allegories of the social totality has been nothing if not insistent.
Across domains, genres, and media—from the economic treatise to the television serial, the novel to the art installation—the same prescription: it cannot represent itself, it must be represented. Underlying it, a common sense: disorientation is the quality of our present; a strategy of emancipation demands a cartography of domination; the collective must be cognitive; knowledge of the levers prepares the power to seize them. And, over and again, the urge to represent is itself the object of dramatization—each fiction a metafiction, every scene tracked by its commentary, all information transmuted into its allegory.
That the representation of capital should so often devolve into a representation of representation is perhaps unsurprising. The demand to visually or narratively identify and encompass a social form, a relation, a totality—a demand often acknowledged to be impossible in the same breath it is proffered—cannot but raise metaphysical conundrums, in all their sordid anxious everydayness. Among them is what we could term the speculative identity of epiphany and opacity.
The remainder of the essay can be read in the catalogue to the exhibition I stood before the source at the Blackwood Gallery, Toronto, Oct 16-Dec 3, 2016.
For the scourge of the people, the source of the scarcity, is the obstacles placed in the way of circulation, under the pretext of rendering it unlimited. Is public subsistence circulating when greedy speculators are keeping it piled up in their granaries? It is circulating when it is accumulated in the hands of a small number of millionaires who withhold it from the market, to make it more valuable and more scarce; who coldly calculate how many families must starve before they reach a price fixed by their terrible greed? Is it circulating when all it does is cross the regions that produce it, before the very eyes of destitute citizens suffering the tortures of Tantalus, to be swallowed up in the unknown pits of some entrepreneur in public scarcity? Is it circulating when beside the most abundant harvests the needy citizen languishes, unable to give a gold piece or a slip of paper precious enough to purchase a little bit? Circulation is that which puts essential foodstuffs within reach of all men, and carries abundance and life to humble cottages.
(Robespierre, ‘Sur les subsistances’, quoted in the forthcoming book by Geoff Mann, In the Long Run We’re All Dead)
In anticipation of visiting the Wifredo Lam exhibition at the Tate Modern, London, here is a translation of a short text by Louis Althusser on the Cuban painter, included in vol. 2 of Écrits philosophiques et politiques (Paris: IMEC, 1995). The text in italics is from the volume’s editors.
This text, entitled “Lam” by Althusser, was commissioned from him by Wifredo Lam in a letter dated 18 August 1977. It was to feature in the catalogue of a retrospective on Lam’s work at the Nanterre Maison de la Culture in April 1978, which was ultimately cancelled. Going by Lam’s letter, the catalogue was to also include texts by Aimé Césaire, Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier. Althusser sent this text to Wifredo Lam, along with a letter dated 13 October 1977. Continue reading
Multiplication of traces through the modem administrative apparatus. Balzac draws attention to this: “Do your utmost, hapless Frenchwomen, to remain unknown, to weave the very least little romance in the midst of a civilization which takes note, on public squares, of the hour when every hackney cab comes and goes; which counts every letter and stamps them twice, at the exact time they are posted and at the time they are delivered; which numbers the houses . . . ; which ere long will have every acre of land, down to the smallest holdings . . . , laid down on the broad sheets of a survey – a giant’s task, by command of a giant.” Balzac, Modeste Mignon, cited in Regis Messac, Le “Detective Novel” et l’influence de la pensee scientifique (Paris, 1929), p. 461.
– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (p. 221)
“The cinematic deceit transmuted liberation into vengeance, the pursuit of a social justice which embraced race, class, and gender into Black racism, and the politics of armed struggle into systematic assassination. The screen impostors occupied a manichaean world in which whites were evil, corrupt and decadent; where Black accomplices to white venality were tainted with a similarly debased nature; and the central Black protagonists were preoccupied with vigilantism. Capitalism, signified at most by skyscraper exteriors, almost entirely disappeared, constituting a normalising space whose interstices lent marginal terrain for the practices of the drug trade and prostitution. The real world of the market, unseen and unremarked upon, hovered above the ghetto streets, the police station, the strip club and the dealer’s locales (storefront, suburban home, high rise apartment, etc.). The world in front of the camera was some sort of twisted, perverted mirror of the normal, the reasoned, the ordered, the safe and unremarkable American landscape. The denizens dwelling in the nether world were as different from real America as gargoyles are from pigeons. The object was to exhibit these bizarre and semi-mythic life-forms while assuring the screen audience that they inhabited a space some safe distance away.” Continue reading