The nature of art is to create and sustain a void. It has been said: “It is the unintelligibility of the world alone that gives it worth.” As protector of the unintelligible, art has its enemies. It battles against forces of closure or capture, and any agent or object that might fill the void.
The nature of art as guardian of the void is an eternal fact. But during the 20th century it became something more – a task. The threat was more real than it had been hitherto. It was becoming technologically possible to cement the void closed. The potentially-void-filling enemy was always one or another function of social capture; representation, ideological hegemony, mental health institutions, conformism, exploitation by means of symbolic marginalization.
In this context, art took on the sign of libido as protector of the void. Nick Land’s essay “Art as Insurrection” (1991) is a good index of this realization of art at the close of the century. According to Land, art is the insurrectionary unconscious; it drives towards a pathological, ecstatic sublime beyond the pleasure principle. Art’s enemy, in this context, is the deadly reversal characteristic of human society: the tendency to derive the (true) cause from the (fallen, illusory) effect. This manifests itself economically and culturally: the economic tendency to paralogically derive economic forces of production from the socio-economic apparatus they generate (the mystification constitutive of capitalism), and the complementary cultural tendency to ground creativity in what it creates (to be conservative about form). 20th century art desperately fights against this tendency – Los furiously at work with his hammer and bellows in the name of Albion. The task of art is to approach that which is strictly impossible and maintain contact with the illegal, constitutive, productive agent – saving us from ourselves culturally and politically. Land was confident that art would win: “But creativity cannot be brought to an end that is compatible with power, for unless life is extinguished, control must inevitably break down.” (174)
Maybe relational aesthetics was the culmination/destruction of this effort for the “visual” arts. But from the 1960s to the end of the century, the importance of the fine arts waned and the counterculture, with music as its center, was the real engine for this task. There are two notable features of the 20th century counterculture. The first is the Deleuzian “nomadic and of 20th polyvocal” aspect – narcissistic identification as or with the transient and marginal subject-group (“I am a beast, an arab, a cyberpunk”). The second is the (ever-accelerating) cycle of transgression and reabsorption. Each generation of the latter half of the century raised a new illegal, incomprehensible gesture in the name of freedom. Its recognition had the paradoxical dual function as the criterion for success on the one hand and as a rendering-no-longer-legitimate on the other. In other words, the void would open up, and then, more and more quickly, be refilled.
The libidinal model for art no longer works. At the turn of the 21st century technological changes took place that rendered this model of counterculture obsolete, because the accelerating cycle reached a limit at which the void could no longer open even for a moment. The key element here is : data mining. Because of data mining, the void is filled immediately both at the economic level (transgression simply fuels the economy, it does not go outside it) and at the level of identification (I am in love with my ever-fleeting non-conformist identity which functions, without my realizing it, as a tool distracting and exploiting me). The speed of capture has reached a limit beyond which no time passes between the opening and the closing of the void. It is closed as soon as it is open – or rather it only seems to open. Simply by searching for or communicating interest in a new music scene on the internet, I’m performing unpaid labor. If during the 20th century social conformism was something like a cage, today person or disaffected conter-community gets to be caged in its own ‘about me’s’, stats, likes, and so on. This is what Galloway calls “the new customized micropolitics of identity management, in which each human soul is captured and reproduced as an autonomous individual bearing affects and identities” (142-3). The revolutionary gesture is immediately unpaid labor, and the transgressive identity is a self-esteem crushing/stoking vice for extracting monetizable fantasies and desires. Galloway writes:
Today, under the new postfordist economies, desire and identity are part of the core economic base and thus woven into the value chain more than ever before. [… ] But also in a more specific sense, postfordism is a mode of production that makes life itself the site of valorization, that is to say, it turns seemingly normal human behavior into monetizable labor. The new consumer titans Google or Amazon are the masters in this domain. No longer simply a blogger, someone performs the necessary labor of knitting networks together. No longer simply a consumer, browsing through links on an e-commerce site, someone is offloading his or her tastes and proclivities into a data-mining database with each click and scroll. No longer simply keeping up with email correspondence, someone is presiding over the creation and maintenance of codified social relationships. Each and every day, anyone plugged into a network is performing hour after hour of unpaid micro labor.
Social control no longer (only) employs means we’re used to (conformism, hegemony, violence, fear of an enemy). Now there is a new, perhaps more effective means: digital capture of the desire stoked by identification, youth, creative contrary ideas, all things cutting edge and transgressive, novelty, etc.; namely, all the operations that libido represents in the first place. More than ever, sex sells. Once ineffable, now easily defined and stored: that which once served to pry open the void now serves to fill it.
Art’s task is to protect the void. Under the sign of libido it is no longer able to perform its task, because of data mining. So, if art should no longer be conceived as libido, we need a new conception. The new sign for art: ascesis. If art’s eternal task is to protect the void, it has to function as restriction. What does this mean? First, it needs to at all costs not generate buzz or identification. There are two ways to do this. One is to intentionally disavow any kind of internet presence. This is totally legitimate; any musician who works off the grid altogether in the name of true human contact is a hero. A second way is to stay connected but generate scorn rather than desire. Here it would be a matter of engaging any and every basin of identification and appearing ridiculous. Scorn is the highest poetic function today, because it generates alienation – not narcissistic identification with a socially valorized image of alienation, but actual alienation, disgust, contempt. This contempt creates a passage to reality. By disqualifying identification, scorn paints a reflection of the finite, confused, fragile creature staring at the screen.
It may seem like the situation is bleak and has only gotten more bleak and will continue to do so. Is art fighting a losing battle against forces that are ever more intrusive, illusory and crushing? It turns out it isn’t. This new situation for art opens up a new horizon which was not visible during the 20th century. The question: We know art protects the unintelligible. But why? Why should art be the guardian of the void? Finally, after all this, we have the answer. It is: art protects the void so that grace can enter somewhere. Yes, it is now possible to arrive at, by means of art, the attitude towards the world articulated by Simone Weil in her notebooks. If we cannot have our imaginary revenge, only then is the hole sustained through which light shines, when it decides to: “to empty desire, finality of all content, to desire in the void, to desire without any wishes…and to wait. Experiences prove the waiting is satisfied”