A Talk for Toby

Today I was in Bari for a conference and therefore had to Skype a talk to the Showroom, London for an event organised by Toby Huddlestone. Towards the end of the talk, with about six minutes to go, I lost my wifi signal. I was also not entirely sure whether I could be heard clearly in London. So, I’m publishing the text in full here for anyone who felt let down or anyone who, like me, couldn’t make it to the Showroom.

Howdy Strangers.

The emancipated spectator? No, thanks. I have written previously about the theoretical problems of Rancière’s conception of the spectator, but today I want to do something different. I want to talk about how his concept makes me feel and how I’d prefer to feel. The emancipated spectator is an unsatisfying term to me. I am an artist but, like all artists, I am also a viewer, spectator, fan or whathaveyou, and the kind of subject that I yearn to be when I visit a gallery is not the one advocated by Rancière. To be always already emancipated is to be adequate, satisfied, untroubled, capable. I dont want to be capable in the art gallery. I want to be stretched. I want to be incapable. I want the labour of experiencing art to be a process of self-transformation. The worst thing that can happen when I visit an exhibition is to discover that the work addresses me, knows me, likes me – just as I am. I get more pleasure from art that asks more of me.

Hank Williams’ radio show was introduced by a continuity announcer with the simple phrase, delivered with the voice of a market trader, “howdy neighbours!” Hank built his career on popular sentiment – it served as an anchor and foil for his excess. Music industry professionals tried to steer Hank upmarket_. His success was plain to see but the industry couldn’t understand it, so didn’t trust it to continue. His band members complained that playing his simple tunes would ruin their reputation as musicians_. Three-chord hillbilly music had no right to compete with western swing, but Hank Williams trusted his instincts and trusted his audience. “Play it vanilla” he would tell his band before going on stage and there would be hell to pay if anyone over-elaborated or showed-off. “Play it vanilla” had, perhaps, a racial connotation_ to it, but it was essentially an instruction to the musicians that the songs were to be played ‘plain’ because they were not performing for their own pleasure or taste, but that of the audience. Hank Williams’s performances were acts of hospitality and his songs were a form of greeting. Every line and every chord said ‘howdy’, as they welcomed the audience on its own terms and in its own voice.

As a corny welcome, ‘howdy neighbours!’ is a prime example of what Adorno criticised as the fraudulent happiness and premature reconciliation peddled by mass culture: “the hostility inherent in the principle of entertainment.” Its warmth and familiarity compensate for and are contradicted by the calculation and distance required by radio stations/programmes/stars to survive in a competitive market. Greetings, then, can be graded (hostility at one end, hospitality at the other) but it is only the tip of Adorno’s iceberg. A particular greeting’s full social significance extends beyond, and cannot be read off directly from, its warmth or coldness. A game show host’s professional familiarity, for instance, is an act of warmth that is a symptom of the systemic coldness of the culture industry: the industrialisation of welcome is the abolition of warmth in the guise of the smiling face. Adorno’s aesthetic thinking, therefore, campaigns for an inverted economy of the greeting, tracing the most aggressive social forces within the most hospitable and popular culture while discovering hope in the most austere and hostile art. As such, Adorno’s inverted economy is a valuable corrective to one-dimensional cultural criticism; it cannot, however, be used as a formula for analysing the social life of culture’s greeting. If social hope or despair cannot be read off mechanically from a greeting’s warmth or coldness, it makes no sense simply to invert the mechanism. Adorno may be a spellbinding advocate for inhospitality in art but we need to guard against taking his analysis as a new equation of inhospitality and hope. Perhaps Adorno makes this mistake himself now and then, overstating the case for cultural austerity or tying hope and inhospitality together too tightly. The essential thing is not to take sides with one style of greeting or another but to examine critically the complex totality of forces brought to bear with each cultural encounter. Cultural forms of attention (in their full social depth)_ and culture’s modes of address (beyond the vagaries of hospitality and hostility) are the basis of the performative deployment of social relations in culture.

What does it mean to engage critically with the social relations that are deployed in a corny welcome or a vangardist affront? In part, it means attending to how culture greets us, rather than reducing cultural engagement to the binary logic of high and low, or the illogic of pluralism, postmodernist or otherwise_. Consider, for instance, a film’s opening credits. Credit sequences are the first welcome of movies. Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of the opening credits to Star Wars – that it signals the futuristic tale, in fact, to be a ‘nostalgia film’ – describes how the film frames itself semiotically for the cinema-going audience. In considering issues around culture’s forms of greeting, on the other hand, I am concerned less about how culture frames itself than how culture constructs itself and its audiences through its modes of address. Credit sequences undoubtedly frame the movies they precede, but they also establish the movie’s greeting. Star Wars greets us warmly, we might say, insofar as it introduces itself and addresses us in the guise of an anachronistic genre. As such, Star Wars contrives to say ‘howdy’ even as it prefaces its adventures with an arcane and alien back-story. In place of ‘howdy neighbours’ Star Wars greets us with something like ‘howdy B-movie fans’. In the words of Jameson, it “satisfies a deep (might I even say repressed?) longing to experience them again.” The guise is, indeed, a semiotic matter, as Jameson describes it, but its social effect is carried in its mode of address – and, pace Adorno, its apparent warmth cannot be taken at face value. It’s not that a chummy credit sequence is bound to be a disguise for an iron fist or an accountant’s calculation. Each howdy welcomes you differently and consequently (to put it moderately) welcomes a different version of you. The radical formulation goes like this: the welcome constructs whoever is welcomed by it; a credit sequence never merely says ‘hello’, it determines (by singling out and actively forming them) to whom it says ‘hello’. It puts us in the correct frame of mind; gets us in the mood; and, prepares us for what is about to unfold. In this way, the performative ‘howdy’ always places conditions on the welcome and the welcomed.

In Nanni Moretti’s beautiful film “Dear Diary” the director/author/star introduces himself by saying, “what I like most is to see houses, neighbourhoods,” Moretti says, “My favourite neighbourhood is the Grabatella. I wander through the old housing projects. I don’t like to see only the facades, I like to see the inside too.” He turns off the road into a courtyard and walks into the building with his scooter helmet still on. In order to gain access to the properties Moretti has to introduce himself in a mask, as Cohen puts it in “I’m Your Man”, so that the occupants will accept him. “I ring the buzzer and pretend I’m location scouting for a film. The tenant asks me what the film is about. I don’t know what to say”. He re-enacts this moment for us, in a piece to camera in which he makes up a pitch that might allow him to enter someone else’s house. “It’s a film about a Trotskyist pastry chef in Italy during the 1950’s”, he pauses for moment to think and completes the description in English, “a musical”. He is asking to be welcomed. Hank Williams’ continuity announcer speaks as the host, welcoming the virtual neighbourhood to Hank’s entertainment; posing as a location scout, Moretti greets the residents as their potential guest, so that when he re-enacts this for the camera it is the audience that is put in the position of the host. Moretti, the filmmaker, is showing us how the power of the movies can be used as a passport into people’s intimate lives, and, at the same time, using the cinema as a foil for his own, more idiosyncratic, pastime. That last sentence is a description of his greeting to the tenant but read it again, now, as a description of what he does to cinema in Dear Diary.

Cohen’s song confirms Moretti’s subversion of the power of the cinema (as spectacle). We are not his audience; he is our man. “If you want a boxer”, Cohen sings, “I will step into the ring for you”. Whatever or whoever you want, the song says, I’m your man. ‘I’m Your Man’ is not a boast, though, it is a plea: it is not the arrogant statement of a man who is everything the beloved wants, it is the masochistic promise of a man who will become whatever the beloved asks. It’s masochism is not the popularised conception of masochism or the subcultural one but rather a masochism rooted in Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs”, in which Severin, the swooning narrator, takes an excessive step beyond merely expressing his love. He asks his Venus, Wanda, to marry him and anticipating her rejection, offers himself as her plaything. Severin is not his own man, as they say. Severin is Wanda’s man. “Be a tyrant, be a despot”, Severin says, “but be mine”. Regardless of whether this is his preference or his taste, Severin expresses it differently. It is his plan-B. Severin chooses to be Wanda’s slave rather than being apart from her. And the deal he is striking with her is stated clearly and up front when he says, “If you cannot be mine entirely and forever [by which he means, be my wife] then I want to be your slave, I want to suffer anything to be able to stay by your side”. Note the ‘if/then’ structure. Severin may or may not derive pleasure from pain or of engaging in sexual role play as a slave (most readers assume that he does); what he says, though, is that he craves a totalising bond with his beloved over and above his own identity, dignity or power – if not a mutually captivated bond, then an asymmetric master-slave one, but at any cost a bond that is total. His slavery is neither inevitable nor his own choice; his love for Wanda engulfs him to the extent that he cannot live without her, hence he offers her the choice between being his wife and being his tyrant. “If you want a partner”, Cohen sings, “take my hand or/ if you want to strike me down in anger/ here I stand/ I’m your man”.

Watching Moretti’s film, I find myself enjoying Cohen. Perhaps I am sharing Moretti’s pleasure, experiencing one through the other? But the music affects me. I notice that my foot is tapping while I watch the film. Have I been ‘possessed’ by Cohen? His voice is in my foot! Or, my foot temporarily belongs to him. Tapping our feet, following the beat with a finger or slapping the arm of the chair – these are the proof that the border between subjects has been breached. The audience listening to Cohen, whispering the words or following them in our heads, says, “I’m your man”. You might not necessarily feel utterly devoted to the singer or the song in the way that Sacher-Masoch did, but you have at least devoted your time, your attention, something of yourself. After all, isn’t that what attending to someone else’s movie, essay, artwork or song is like? Doesn’t singing along transform us, make us more like Cohen, wear his mask for a while? Isn’t the labour of experiencing art partly the process of forcing oneself to be contaminated by the subjectivity of another?

For the lover, the beloved is everything, and in response, the lover promises to become everything. However, when everything equals anything, anything equals nothing. I’m your man, therefore, does not mean I am everything (as in, I fulfil your all your desires) but I am nothing (your desires, not mine, are sovereign). I am nothing precisely because I can be anything (tell me your desires and I will conform to them). “I’m your man” makes no demands on the beloved and asks for nothing in return. In the contract between Wanda and Sacher-Masoch the disappearance of the ‘slave’ is spelled out in clear terms: “You shall renounce your identity completely”; “You have nothing save me; for you I am everything, your life, your future, your happiness, your unhappiness, your torment, your joy”. To love is not to ask for more of the beloved but to wish for them more from you. A better you, perhaps. Or a version of you (a particular construction) that pleases the beloved, so that the beloved’s happiness is prized above your own. This is why the lover who says, ‘I’m your man’ is promising to change but going further than that. He is dreaming of multiplying himself. “And if you want another kind of lover, I’ll wear a mask for you”: Cohen volunteers all of these possible men and announces, “I’m your man”. Cohen is your man because he is your men. Moretti is our man because he multiplies himself, too – each scene articulates another Moretti – rather than reducing himself to a single image, character, trait, role, logo.

Pulling up at a traffic light Moretti eyes a young man in a sports car and dismounts. There is no anger in his voice when he says, “You know what I was thinking?” The driver listens without joining in. “A very sad thing”, Moretti continues, “even in a more decent society than this one, I’ll only feel at ease with a minority of people”. Economically, Moretti takes his point of departure from the roots of capitalist ‘mass’ culture, in which the cultural product that appealed to the largest majority made the most of its profit margin. This is not the only formula for making money, but it was central to the development of the culture industry, and of the cinema in particular. The first condition of ‘mass’ culture, therefore, is that it produces and requires (constructs for itself) a ‘mass’ out of the individuals and groups who come before it, in order to sell to them. Mass culture is a defunct term because it presupposed an homogenous audience (passive recipients, or dupes, in the notoriously pejorative versions). In terms of the greeting, a culture that welcomes its audience as a mass of people cannot help but be centrifugal, in which the product holds the central position from which everything flows. Under these circumstances, the audience can be brought into the calculations but not regarded as individual, contingent or unpredictable. To side with the minority, on the other hand, is not only to prefer the audience to be sovereign in its own contingency but also for those you address to be beyond your calculations. Capitalism likes to think of its markets as pools of ‘demand’ that justify its ‘supply’ but Moretti’s preference for the minority goes against economic good sense for the sake of the contingent identities hidden by the averages of market research.

In effect, the majority (mass audience) only exists as an effect of the possibility of calculating its average responses to certain products. A minority is, by contrast, not subject to these broad calculations. For too long the Left (and postmodernists across the board) have equated minorities with elitism, failing to factor in the power necessary to turn a minority into an elite. The minority, then, is not a concept to be preserved for ruling elites but needs to be extended to groups with a kernel of resistance to cultural calculation. In siding with the minority, Moretti is not being elitist in the usual sense, and he makes this clear by distinguishing his love of the minority from both the capitalist exploitation of the masses and the elitist distinction_ from the herd: “Not like those films where a couple fights on a desert island because the filmmaker doesn’t believe in people. I believe in people, I just don’t believe in the majority of people. I’ll always be in tune with a minority”. Moretti puts his commitment to the minority to the test by trying to explain it patiently to a complete stranger. The stranger is a minority of one, who, when faced with Moretti’s argument about the value of minorities, does not respond. If you can’t calculate the response of a minority in the way you can with a majority, you have to be prepared to miss your mark. When the lights change the driver leaves Moretti behind, but not before wishing him ‘good luck’. The meeting is not a total failure, then. Moretti gets back to his scooter and continues on his way.

Warmth is not enough. Accepting an invitation amounts to submitting to its authority and, by doing so, contributing to its authority. This is why Derrida’s investigation into the politics of friendship has made its greatest insight by deconstructing the Kantian opposition of hospitality and hostility. Welcoming the stranger as a friend (as a proxy friend, we might say) is a virtue perhaps but it is not without its economy of power. Hospitality moderates the split between friend and stranger without confusing the roles of host and guest. In fact, from a structural point of view, it could be said that the hospitable elision of the friend/stranger opposition preserves the vital distinction between host and guest. Mastery conditions hospitality. If, in Kant, hospitality is owed to the stranger as a duty, it follows that the host receives authority in the very act of welcoming. Hospitality is possible only on the condition that it is impossible. Welcoming the stranger into the economy of the household, of which the host is master, means to submit the stranger to the host’s mastery. For there to be hospitality, Derrida says, there must be a door. But if there is a door, and there must be, then hospitality is hostile to the stranger. Someone has a key to the door, Derrida adds, which means that someone controls the conditions of hospitality. Indeed, hospitality is the door – the threshold – that closes onto the world of strangers in order to be able to permit entry to strangers-as-friends.

Hospitality is hostile to the stranger by virtue of demanding the stranger be greeted as a friend. The stranger is not an intruder but a friend when the host authorises the guest as a proxy friend. Hospitality is opposed to hostility – which fixes the stranger-as-stranger – so as to be more effectively hostile to the stranger. It would be a mistake to think of hospitality as hostile only inasmuch as it administers (rations, legislates, selects) passage across the threshold; hospitality is hostile to the guest through the effect of including the stranger in the law of the ‘house’. To accept an invitation, therefore, is to codify oneself, or allow oneself to be so codified, and thereby to submit to the ‘house rules’. Invitations are not issued without conditions; they are demands for proper behaviour. Effectively, to welcome a stranger as a friend, then, is to convert the stranger into a friend in order to welcome them as a guest. The guest is the iteration of the stranger that submits to the mastery of the host. Only the host has the authority to issue invitations. Hence, every invitation is a coded – in both senses, of cryptic and semiotic – order to comply. And, the warmth of the welcome assures compliance. The friendlier the host, the more efficient is the conversion of the stranger into the guest. That is to say, the ebullient host allows the guest to believe that the authority of the host is not being imposed at all. Likewise, the more inviting the invitation, the more conspicuous is the concealment of the hostility within hospitality.

Derrida’s warning about the hostility concealed within hospitality should not be underestimated. It has a very important contribution to make to our understanding of culture, especially culture’s forms of attention and modes of address. Like Adorno’s critique of ‘mass’ culture’s fraudulent happiness and premature reconciliation, Derrida unfolds the greeting with devastating effect. Unlike Adorno, though, Derrida does not give any reason for equating cultural hostility with hope. He gives no clear indication of hope at all. For this we need to return to Barthes, I think, for whom hope lies in love and the dialogue of writing’s (culture’s) address. This is Moretti’s hope, also. “Anything is likely to ravish me which can reach me through a ring, a rip, a rent”, Barthes said, “the first time I saw X through a car window: the window shifted, like a lens searching out who to love in the crowd; and then – immobilized in some accuracy of my desire? – I focused on that apparition whom I was henceforth to follow for months”_. To be ravished by the fragment, fascinated by the occluded scene and immobilized by the chance encounter is, in Barthes, to prefer care to justice and prize parochial sentiment over universal truth. In the 80s, cultural theory coerced artists into getting things right; Barthes gives us higher ambitions. Even amidst the technical orrery of ‘Myth Today’, Barthes chose to clarify the relationship between signifier and signified with the example of a bunch of roses given to a lover. Philosophers have typically preferred to talk about tables and other dull objects in order to foreground the analysis at hand; Barthes illustrates the liveliness of signs by talking about ‘passionified’ roses. Instead of the ‘pious show’ of standard critique and academic achievement, Barthes closes in on the world and its passions. Semiological theory was never Barthes’ attempt to absolve the intellectual from the everyday, the contingent and emotional life. On the contrary, it places the writer among the manure of contradictions in which the writer is always implicated by writing. The theory of signs does not indulge itself in a show trial in which the culture industry (or some other false rival) is tried for crimes against culture and found perpetually guilty. When he writes “Take a bunch of roses: I use them to signify my passion”_, it is Barthes himself who is offering the roses, and, perhaps, it is the reader directly who is being asked to take them.

So, let’s think about the forms of greeting that art might adopt, given my opening remarks about wanting to be stretched. If art is going to ask more of me, then its greeting might be characterized not as ‘howdy neighbours’ but ‘howdy strangers’, the point being that art cannot know its addressees in advance as a calculable average. Art if this kind welcomes guests by asking friends – ie the lovers of art – to occupy the place of the stranger. If you don’t feel strange or estranged once in a while in your trips to art galleries and museums then you’re either doing it wrong or getting short-changed by those institutions. The spectator (or viewer, participant, visitor, etc) should not come to rest in the encounter with art, but should be sent off, transported, transposed and transformed by art. Art, in this way, always hopes for and tries to produce a new spectator, a spectator that was previously impossible. The spectator is not meant to be capable – at least not straight away – but needs to engage in a kind of creative labour which is as much about transforming oneself as it is about ‘knowing’ the work. The labour of engaging with art is a labour of transformation from the possible to the impossible, not in terms of knowledge but in terms of subjectivity – a becoming. Art allows us to become something unpredictable, something unacceptable, something strange. The subject of art that I yearn to be is constantly changing because she or he must continue to outstrip their own capacity. I’m for an art-goer whose capacity runs out quickly. They are not capable once and for all but are continually stretched by the experience of art – the shocking artwork or artist should be re-thought in these terms, I think, ie as an unusually vivid version of what all experience of art ought to be, namely, the process of self-transformation through engaging with art that greets you, initially, as a stranger). Capacity is death, here. Capacity is facile. Incapacity is joy, self-realization, counter-hegemony, liberty.

So, the avantgarde, instead of emancipating the spectator from ‘passivity and ignorance’, can best be seen as establishing places for impossible spectators. These unprecedented places address and call up the spectator to come, the spectator liberated from the established regime of spectatorship, the spectator that requires a new apparatus and a new horizon of possibility. The avantgarde, I am suggesting, ‘wakes up’ the spectator not because it assumes actual spectators to be passive and ignorant but because, like all the best art, it greets us as not yet the subject of the new art. When art is shocking, illegible, ugly or frustrating, it wakes up another subject that we struggle with ourselves to become. Warmth and care, therefore, if we value them in art, should not be confused with the sort of pastoral responsibility for others that turns care into calculation and control. Care, understood in the Foucauldian sense of ‘care for the self’, likewise, does not mean preserving oneself but opening oneself up to self-transformation. Art and artists that care for the spectator must, therefore, dream new spectators up rather than pandering to actual ones.