The third rail in any social discourse is one can never question the market system itself. It alone engenders total faith, an impersonal god now resting in the purity of its computer-driven mind. Can we really expect that advanced technological civilization will spread without some sort of blowback? Some sort of resistance bubbling up within the human being? Or, does the production of this digitizing, technologizing, abstracting, fragmenting, coercing, commodifying, civilizing market force itself create the docile subjects it needs without resistance? Is the system itself is so debasing, alienating, even dehumanizing, that the human subject is condemned to the paltry manipulations of market-driven consumerist bubble of unfreedom? Where, then, can the spirit of resistance be found in the sado-world?
The market, despite its omnipresence, cannot adequately account for all of reality and it cannot yet monopolize all of sensuous phenomena for the civilized subject. There are images and sounds that are not mediated, are not intentional, and certainly are not products of the generated spectacle.
Félix Guattari writes in The Three Ecologies that what is needed today is a mental ecology to make way for a great green refusal of global capitalism. This involves reviving subjectivity from ideological coercion. The translators write in the introduction:
Human subjectivity, in all its uniqueness—what Guattari calls its “singularity”— is as endangered as those rare species that are disappearing from the planet every day. It is up to us to resist this mass-media homogenization, which is both desingularizing and infantilizing, and instead invent new ways to achieve the resingularization of existence. It is not enough to take to the streets and wave placards, an entire mental ecology is necessary in order not to give (globalization) our unconscious assent. (6-7)
A new mental ecology needed for significant change was promised by other radicals like Guy Debord and the Situationist movement in France, who counted on the transformative ability of art. Debord himself made films based on his writings in which he took Hollywood films, and through the magic of editing, distorted the intent of the narratives of the cultural industry. The Situationists would participate in street art and inspire performance artists to invent alternate symbolic spaces creating an irruption into normalized urban space. In one instance, Situationist René Viénet took a Chinese kung fu movie and dubbed over new dialogue about dialectics and class struggle. He re-dubbed the movie, “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?” Phil Ochs, as seen in the film There but for Fortune, even did this in a form of music-meets-guerrilla theater, creating counterculture slogans like “The War is Over,” amid the obvious fact that a really real war was occurring in Vietnam. It distorted and confused a repressive fed reality.
This faith in art was popular amid the New Left, for what was correctly feared: that the market system was monopolizing culture and managing desire for a new and improved commodity culture. The Left struck back at the time with the zeal of anti-consumerism.
In The Aesthetic Dimension, Marcuse too gave voice to the potential of art, writing that the purpose of art is to have an affirmative character for life. He distinguished art from propaganda. Propaganda is representative of an optimistic order, of a staus quo ante, whose task is to maintain the spectacle. Real art, however, is supposed to serve Eros, and as such, is subversive and critical of repressive forms of production and capital exploitation. This, for Marcuse, is the true function of art in society, writing in The Aesthetic Dimension, “Art challenges the monopoly of the established reality to determine what is “real,” and it does so by creating a fictitious world which is more real than reality itself” (22). Art here allies itself with Eros against the prevailing Promethean culture historically in thrall to the production principle. “Art can preserve its truth; it can make conscious the necessity of change, only when it obeys its own law as against that of reality (the production principle)” (The Aesthetic Dimension 32).
Art in this sense paves the way, creates a vision for a new society in which Antigones finally defeat Creons, through which there is a new place in the world for Eros. This was the role that satiric Chaplin films had—the tramp lost in a cruel world of fools, looking for peace of mind and simple pleasures amid machines, fascists, capitalists and bureaucrats. This is how satyr plays functioned in Athenian society—mocking autocratic power. It is a form of comedy narrative lost in today’s society which is more content to regurgitate crude jokes and stereotyped humor about how everyone is awkward and castrated. These new comedies mimic but do not usurp the cynical and ridiculous castrated reality of late capitalism. They strive on their predictable pomo cynicism, not in their alliance with Eros, and show no way through the tangential ability of art as a means of escape from the banality of the megamachine.
Banksy is an artist who thrives on all of these counts, irrupting normalizing urban space, allying with Eros, and offering a subversion of consent. Emerging from graffiti and pop art, Banksy utilizes stencils, posters, and spray to create a hoax both of and on the postmodern. Banksy portrays the human subject as a schizoid creature trapped in a phallocratic military-industrial world, but longing for an unalienated state of nature. This is art as Marcuse prescribed. This is art against a conspiracy of images, as he reverses the meaning of landscapes, turning them right side up in a world turned upside down. Norman O. Brown agrees with Marcuse in this spirit, writing, “The function of art—Freud says “wit”—is to help us find our way back to sources of pleasure that have been rendered inaccessible by the capitulation to the reality-principle which we call education or maturity—in other words, to regain the lost laughter of infancy” (Life Against Death 60). And he continues, “. . . art represents an irruption from the libidinal unconscious into the conscious. Art has to assert itself against the hostility of the reality-principle and of reason, which is enslaved to the reality principle. Hence its aim, in Freud’s words, is the veiled presentation of deeper truth; hence it wears a mask, a disguise which confuses and fascinates our reason” (62). This is the essence of Banksy, a kind of Orphic conjuring of images from beyond the spectacle, distorting the reality principle to expose its cracks.
His nom-de-plume (or nom-de-guerre), is a mask that reveals, just like the art he leaves on the walls and halls of Briton, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and the West Bank. “Art, if its object is to undo repressions, and if civilization is essentially repressive, it is in this sense subversive to civilization,” Brown writes (63). And it is precisely with the anarchist-primitivist-trickster-libidinal irruption of Eros into repressive urban spaces that the artists’ wit enchants. The following figures and commentary elaborate. (see www.banksy.co.uk for more)
Bansky untitled 1:
A depiction of what Marcuse calls “repressive desublimation.” The underlying worldly asceticism pervading modernist reactionary civilization places the feminine in an ideological model of surplus-domesticity. On top of this foundational ethic is a manufactured pornographic image, giving the feminine the dual phallocratic injunction of repressed domesticity and pornographic object. This is not erotic, but a parody of Eros. Eros gives way to the production ethic, first by repression, and then by exploitation in a kind of deadened, petrified state objectified for its clean exchange value.
Banksy, untitled 2.
A depiction of the eradication of the pleasure principle through the Oedipal/castration complex. It is a ritual occurring in every civilized subject to turn them about against Eros.
Banksy, untitled 3.
A depiction of the reductively mechanistic worldview prevailing in modern civilization. A bird’s direct sensorial song gives way to interpreting it a mere tool serving the designs of “selfish genes.”
Banksy, untitled 4.
The striations of urban space are irrupted into a tangent. Here the production principle gives way to flower power, Eros.
Bansky, untitled 5.
Another theme Banksy works with is shifting the urban space with time travel. In this figure a child scrawls, “I remember when this was all trees.” It doubles as grief. It is the child artist who “remembers.” This is the revealing memory of instinct, not of the given providential history that is inscribed in the subject.
Bansky, untitled 6.
The decayed urban landscape gives way to a glimpse of another plane. Here the tangential image recalls the archaic memory. Reminiscent of cave paintings of hunter-gatherer economics, the dissonance between the reality of directly engaged time against the poverty of the new economic system. Recall Marshall Sahlin’s the hunter-gatherer “original affluent society,” in which he described that without excesses of property and without surplus demands, Stone Age economists suffered no lack or law. Poverty is a condition and institution of civilization.
The aspiration of a nonrepressive society is firmly in the scope of critical theory, where this prescient question and need hang over history, and point toward a critical version of reason that is empathic and introspective rather than stupidly instrumental. In critical theory, societies whose predominant ethic is domination are also dominionist over nature. A circumstance where society is nonrepressive is also nonrepressive of nature. This is where liberation psychology and ecology merge. Banksy, street art, improv, guerrilla theatre, forum theatre, poetry, music are gestures toward a different society, a different vision of society. It is where philosophy and aesthetics merge, or perhaps, where philosophy meets its end and impossibility, emptying into aesthetics like a river meeting the ocean. It is where repression, borders, striations meet their doom. Aesthetics in this sense challenges the ego, which for relations theory, was a kind of false self system created in order to deal with repressive society. The ego is essentially a result of the civilized formation of society. Only in finally rejecting the phony mechanization of the leviathan does the species find its freedom. Marcuse called it “the great refusal,” perhaps referring to what Sartre wrote, “We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us” (preface to Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth 17)
Marcuse found an iconoclastic way to speak of desire. Desire was not a monster that needed taming. Rather, it was the essence of freedom, and it was the task of a free society to tend to Eros, not create societies meant to reactively restrain it. Eros. Desire. Aestheics. It was these lines of flight that inspired Gilles Deleuze the philosopher and Félix Guattari the antipsychiatrist to write their lyrical rhapsodic hooliganism in Anti-Oedipus. It was inspired as much by the surreal theater director Antonin Artaud as by Nietzsche. They write:
If desire is repressed, it is because every position of desire, no matter how small, is capable of calling into question the established order of a society: not that desire is asocial, on the contrary. But it is explosive; there is no desiring-machine capable of being assembled without demolishing entire social sectors. Despite what some revolutionaries think about this, desire is revolutionary in its essence—desire, not left-wing holidays!—and no society can tolerate a position of real desire without its structures of exploitation, servitude, and hierarchy of being compromised. (116)
Desire, in its unalieanated form, creates an errant movement in the society, and emerges from a potential of getting lost, of being out of tune, of creating more breaks and schizzes in the pattern of society. It is both brilliant and heretical madness. And it calls for a revolution in the psyche toward nonreactive coordinates. Integral to this is a closer understanding of nature, and elemental understanding, and a deep unforgetting of biological heritage. Where does this emerge in an age when the sensuous has become so debased that one is even hesitant to speak without fear of cynicism, irony, where one can no longer even speak of reality? Perhaps a new way of reinterpreting, re-encountering what is given and what is felt is the only way. The giveness of over-intentional realities are closed off, filtered realities polemicizing for the civilization complex. There is a secret world of unsymbolized desire that does not conform to these boundaries. Psychoanalytic feminist Luce Irigaray writes lyrically of this gap between desire and the phallogocentric culture in her book Elemental Passions:
Deprive me of the place where I take place. And the atmosphere of flesh which my amorous body could envelop you.
You supplant that horizon by the home and its institutions. Instead of ties which are always developing, you want fixed bonds. You only encounter proximity when it is framed by property. Without the ceaseless penetrating movements which make us overflow one into the other.
Everywhere you shut me in. Always you assign a place to me. Even outside the frame that I form with you. Through and for you? You set limits even to events that could happen with others.
You frame. Encircle. Bury. Entomb. Only a spiritual body could escape. You do not even know that flesh can have this power. Or do you prefer not to think about it?
In any case, the frame you bear with you, in front of you, is always empty. It marks, takes, marks as it takes: its fill. It rapes, steals.
Could it be that what you have is just the frame and not the property? Not a bond with the earth but merely this fence that you set up, implant wherever you can? You mark out boundaries, draw lines, surround, enclose. Excising, cutting out. What is your fear? That you might lose your property. What remains is an empty frame. You cling to it, dead. (24-25)
Irigaray recognizes that here that the phallogocentrism of civilization is a mere banalizing grasp of reality. She recognizes that real bodies and unalienated desire betray the commands of the reality principle and expose the spectacle for what it is, a veil of illusions and boundaries. Grand narratives and ideologies are not infallible. There are holes in their logic that occur all the time, just as there are times when reactive desire of the phallic order no longer functions, no longer accounts for all of reality, and finally fails to symbolize the Real. Mick Smith expands upon Irigaray:
Beyond the margins and beneath the surface of modernity, overlooked or dismissed, there remains an excess that escapes containment, an undercurrent that flows around and through the bounds of the masculine/instrumental symbolic order: a “physical reality that continues to resist adequate symbolization and/or that signifies the powerlessness of logic to incorporate in its writing the characteristic features of nature.” (Irigaray) . . . The modern and the masculine tries to, but cannot, take into account and make tangible that which is least amenable and most alien to its own order of things—the emotional excess that transcends self-interest in its unequal and unfathomable responsiveness to others. The ethical marks a refusal to force others to comply, to make them fit into the categories of one’s own symbolic order to see them fit into the categories of one’s own symbolic order or to see them as someone exactly like us. In this way Irigaray suggests that we might yet experience a return of this repressed, of the “other(‘s)” side of the symbolic order; of the feminine rather than masculine, of nature rather than culture, of a mechanics of fluids rather than solids, of ethics rather than economics.” (173)
This overflow of experience at the margins of the civilization complex offers itself continuously as a break of the symbolic and the flow of desire. An affluent society is characterized by this—not its construction ability, but its flow of desire. It asks the needling question—what if society’s highest aim was not production, but aesthetics? Not reactivity, but desire itself? Not continual development and improvement of nature, but the celebration of the natural event itself? Not the construction of an intentional reality, but the event-happening of dreams?