[-empyre-] Affectivity, social flesh and the desiring-machine - Barrios

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Tue May 20 05:45:52 EST 2008

Affectivity, social flesh and the desiring-machine

quoted in ....

www.curare.org.mx   documenta 12 magazine project/curare A. C.

José Luis Barrios

  If art has any function, even for a single instant, it is its  
capacity to dismantle the
symbolic sites of power, even when it does not have the explicit  
political intention
of doing so. This at least is what, in my view, occurs with the work  
of Melanie
Smith (England, 1965) and Francis Alÿs (Belgium, 1959).2

I am interested in calling attention to the work of these two artists  
because their
aesthetic strategies allow them to address, firstly, the problem of  
nomadic desiring-
machines—Deleuze’s term--, from a panoramic viewpoint in the case  
of Melanie
Smith and the horizontal displacement of affectivity in the case of  
Francis Alÿs.
Secondly, they allow me to analyze the material production of objects  
on the basis
of certain aspects of Smith’s production: an initial dialectic moment  
in which the
aesthetic function becomes an imaginary catalyst of the site of the  
event. There, the
transference toward the “territory of fiction” is in fact a sort of  
oneiric opening to a
dejà vu, where a particular level of artisticity densifies and  
intensifies a specific
context of affectivity and daily social practice. In summary, I hope  
to show how, in
these artists work, the eruptions of bare life are concentrated, thus  
opening up a
second—political—phase of the event or incident (occurrence), that  
allows me to
address the current implications of mass power and collective unity  
marches and demonstrations, and objects and representations. 3

“In early 2002  -Cuauhtémoc Medina affirms–, Melanie Smith decided  
to go
beyond the registration of urban scenes and monuments, in order to  
represent the
mass of the megalopolis in itself”. 4 I am interested in calling  
attention to two
aspects in this representation of the English artist: the inability to  
represent the
limits of the change in the flow of events, but also particularly, the  
introduction of
concentrations or densifications of the vital flow, through the  
emphasis in this
series on the presence of plastic tarps typical of transient street  

Much of Melanie Smith’s work is related to the logic of the  
interruption and
concentration of these spaces on the street, and the materials through  
with this
interruption is visibly articulated: orange and blue synthetic  
materials which
generate fields of vital intensity that, going beyond their symbolic  
function, inform
us of the ephemeral basis of the event which is the site of  
uncontrolled mercantile

Here we can find everything from fruits and vegetables to piracy of  
industrial and
mass media products, spaces and objects that subvert and put in  
operation, as I
have noted, a king of dystopia of the market. 5

In this context, Melanie inscribes a relationship between the whole  
and its parts in
which, rather than referring to the whole which contains the part, or  
to the whole
which is always more than the sum of its parts, she removes the part  
in order to
concentrate the whole in terms of fields of intensity—in vital  
immanence--, in
order to demonstrate the material production of desire outside of the  
controlled by power. Her works are metonymic representations that  
activate the
fetishistic potential of the market, but also reinscribe it in its  
immediate social
context. Undoubtedly the aesthetic metonyms of Melanie Smith interrupt  
activate, through this interruption, certain social mechanism of the  
production of
desire which function as affectivity and artifacts, that is, nomadic  

If Melanie activates a strategy between the concrete object and its  
abstract fluidity
(flow), Francis Alÿs moves the strategy onto the horizontal plane of  
its realization
and the vital plane of its action. Alÿs’s interventions or  
performances are
transversal displays that relocate the gaze in order to highlight its  
displacement as a
manifestation of tension and occurrence (event). His work does not  
social processes, but rather activates their minimal space in order to  
give way to
the event.

In the manner—or not—of a flâneur, his walks, while reconfiguring  
the aesthetic
act—and particularly the visual act--, make present the forms of  
appropriation of the place: from activating the movement of paint  
itself, to the
apprehension of the modes of abandonment which produces a vital  
impulse as
elemental as that of sleep, or registering the forms in which the  
social mass
refunctionalizes symbols. Francis’s work is undoubtedly a restitution  
of the ready
made in the vital space of the accident and spontaneous vitality.
Starting with irony as a performative strategy of activation of the  
paradigm of the
modern flâneur –the painting of passersby whom he sets walking by  
walking like a
flâneur –; moving through the forms of spontaneous reordering of  
space –such as
the span of the Zócalo, the central plaza of the capital of the  
Mexican nation, where
the heat may cause the passersby to ignore the symbolic value in favor  
of its
refunctionalization as a result of the heat–; up to the vital  
restitution of instinct
through sleeping in any available space, as a reflection of a cynicism  
which recalls
Diogenes Laercio and the animal which typically symbolizes this school  
aesthetics: the dog.

His actions are strategies that put into effect narratives,  
introducing an aesthetic of
concentration and displacement by constructing urban fables that open  
up a space
of affectivity and improbable events, in a place where bare life  
dislocates and
disfunctionalizes the institutionalized logic of public space.
Up to now I have tried to show the aesthetic space of affectivity and  
the ways in
which these two artists achieve its activation, through the liberation  
of vital and
social impulses that destabilize the forms of power control. Let’s go  
a little further
now, in order to advance an analysis of the desiring-machine that,  
from my
perspective, is set to work in the political, rather that the  
aesthetic, space of
Mexican society.

Mass, flow and presentation: the restitution of political impropriety as
Lo impropio—in Spanish--has at least two meanings, in its current  
usage: it refers
to a space or place that is nobody’s property (a term which has no  
equivalent in
English, but is related to the verb impropriation), and also qualifies  
conduct that
violates behavioral norms or the social and political regulatory systems
(impropriety, in English).
For Jean-Luc Nancy, lo impropio (closer to the meaning of  
impropriation as
secularization) defines the public space, the public domain that is  
from all other forms of property: that which is not private, that  
which has no
private ownership, that which belongs to nobody and to everybody. In  
multiplicity of overlapping meanings, we can understand the social  
that have occurred in Mexico City in the past year and a half as  
impropriations, in the discursive logic that defines political space  
as an individual

The impropriation—or collective appropriation—of political space,  
the space that
belongs to no one in particular, is constructed through an operation  
of displacement
in which communality and/or community is manifested. This operation is  
according to modern tradition, on the social contract that permits the  
of a legal and institutional space for “landless” collective  
entities. But, what
happens when this communality is violated by the exercise of private
appropriations of power, coinciding with the concentration of wealth  
in the
institutional spaces occupied by political power, and inscribed and  
superimposed in
the Ubuesque body of the king?6

I will not address the images produced by power nor the satires of  
them produced
by caricaturists. Rather, I am interested in taking up the political  
implications of
Badiou’s notion of the site of the event as the singular presented  
representation which, in my view, has to do with the phenomenon of
demonstrations –such as that which protested the trial for  
infringement of the law--
and the occupation of Paseo de la Reforma, as an affective restitution  
of political
impropriety in the face of the cancellation of institutional means of  
mediation. It
has to do with the dislocation of the vital impulse of desire, with  
the potens that
constitutes society as mass and multitude, and with the existing power  
In these movements, the event was manifest and a nomadic desiring- 
machine was
set in motion that liberated an impulse, which surpassed the symbolic  
locus that
originally convoked them.

In this context, I would like to call attention to the forms of  
corporeal displacement
and production of material objects. Since the famous march of April  
24, 2005,
protesting the trial for infringement of justice, up until the  
occupation of Reforma
of July, August and September 2006, if anything has characterized these
mobilizations, it has been the distinct features of the group(s),  
which participated
in them. On the one hand, according to leftist corporative tradition,  
the flow is
orderly; however, at the same time, a parallel flow is defined by the  
multitude, that
is “by a singularity which acts collectively” and which can be  
identified as “the
totality of those who work under capital and form the potential mass  
which does
not accept the dictates of capital”.7

The relationship between mass and multitude defines an internal  
practice os
disiring machine which reveals a complex as yet undocumented register  
(at least
for contemporary Mexico) of the instating of power at the same time as  
simultaneously convokes both the mass and the individual. The  
functioning of this
potens, in terms of mass and multitude, can be observed in the  
between the neutral flow and individuality, that is, in the material  
production of
imaginaries. Let’s see how it functions ...

In the first image we observe a head-on view of a PRD march, in which  
we can see
the functioning of the mass as an organized social body, which recalls  
closely the
movements of the 1970’s in Mexico. However, when we see the spilling  
over in the
other two images, what is produced is a kind of monstrosity, not the  
social body
but rather the social flesh, as Michael Hardt and Antoni de Negri have  
“In fact, as we contemplate our postmodern society –the authors  
affirm--, that
harbors no nostalgia for the modern social bodies in dissolution nor  
for the already
disappeared populace, we can see that what we experience is a type of  

This social flesh, in terms of its trajectory or flow, is inscribed in  
the surpassing of
its own limits, a little like that which we can see in the production  
of Melanie
Smith. In her aerial photographs, the artist highlights the city as a  
site at once
overflowing and saturated, and something similar occurs in the  
liberation of the
social flesh: a kind of thickening of affectivity, the indetermination  
of a potens
which subverts or at least paralyzes the controlling practices of the  
powers that be.
The dialectic between the overflow of the city limits –like a kind of  
expansion of space—and the interruption constituted by the quotidian  
practice of
the street market, is no different from the densification of this  
excess of social
flesh. From the perspective of the discourse of political modernity,  
this can only be
a monster: something that grows beyond the limits of its own nature.  
However, if
this is displaced toward the condition of social flesh and multitude,  
what we have
is a mechanical form: a construction of flow and articulation which at  
the same
time permits the generation of a node and a displacement, where, as I  
stated at the
outset, the conventional relationship between the part and the whole  
does not
apply; the latter is more than the former, and the eruption of  
dispersions in the
whole generates a resistance.

If Melanie subverts the controlled space of market circulation through  
and metonymy, the formlessness of the social flesh subverts political  
institutional space. The interference in this circulatory system  
prefigures, then, the
site of an event that forces the power to rescind its right of  
sovereignty over that
same area. Just this occurred in the State of the Union message of  
September 1,
2006, when walls and bodies of security invaded the autonomous space  
of one of
the state powers, or with the loss of scale of the body of the king,  
in the grito of
September 15th, versus the densification of the site of the PRD camps.
The constituent power and social affectivity produce forms of  
interference and
with them, oblige the powers that be to recede and retract from their  
function, in a moment in which affectivity erupts and acts on the  
practices of
power, thus putting into operation different modes of subjectivization  
production of objectivity.

In the phenomenon of the demonstrations it is important to underline,  
not only the
pure collective sense of an organized social body but, above all, show  
that, beyond
the “modern” forms of resistance, what this phenomenon activates  
responds more
to the global practices of contemporary society that, at least, are  
characterized by
two things: by the strategies of singularity and by the mechanical  
mediation of
affectivity and vital pulsations.

In this respect, I would like to call attention to these modes of  
production of
objecthood and subjectivity. On the one hand, we have the production  
of objects –
in this case artistic in intention—which take up the typical motifs  
of the pop art
production of Andy Warhol, reinscribing the site of resistance by  
generating a
composition identical to that of the Campbell’s soup cans with cans  
of La Costeña
beans but, above all, through the symbolic intervention of the object:  
the yellow
paint as a strategy of subversion of one the companies which financed  
underhanded “campaign of fear”. On the other hand, the modes of  
in which the individual places himself and through which he constructs  
erect a kind of carnavalesque space in which a pure vital positiveness  
is configured
and affirmed as an image of resistance.

Undoubtedly, in the face of the body of power, the space of social  
affectivity of the
subjects and the displacements in the form of the multitude, are  
that put in to circulation a force with which the power will have to  
Perhaps the greatest difference between what has happened in Oaxaca9  
and what
has happened up to now in Mexico City, is that the liberation of bare  
life, as pure
vital positiveness, has impeded the declaration of a state of exception.
This liberation of the affective potens of the social flesh, can also  
be articulated as
a specter; undoubtedly these two images, let us see the way in which  
the phantasm
of power is represented by the visual imaginary, and how this  
imaginary passed
through a blind spot of affectivity, where desire and fear intersect  
in order to
configure systems of representation.

 From my perspective, in these images the spectral functioning of  
power is
condensed and we my well need to pay attention to what they suggest:  
how can we
resolve the space in which affectivity is instituted between a specter  
of power
which convokes us and another which excludes us?

Of laughter and instinct: artifacts and bare life

Giorgio Agamben asks a question about the condition of bare life on  
the basis of
which I would like to approximate a conclusion to the argument that  
has been
presented up to this point. The philosopher asks himself: “How is it  
possible to
politicize the natural sweetness of the zoe? Does it really need to be  
politicized or
is the political already contained in it as its most precious  
nucleus?”10 In the Greek
philosophical tradition, cynicism was both an aesthetic attitude and a  
position that subverts the discussion between the Sophists and Plato,  
against the
logic of persuasion and demonstration. Diogenes dismounted language on  
the basis
of the immediate affirmation of the most fundamental functions of  
life. The cynics
opposed the sinosargo, a site on the margins of the city, which from  
its interior
overflows the limits imposed dialectically between the city and  
nature, to the agora
and the academy. As I have affirmed in another context, in the face of  
rhetoric and
dialectic, which move in the order of the enunciation, the cynic is  
located in a place
prior to the opposition: in the place of pleasure and enjoyment.  
Cynicism is located
on the margins of the symbolic systems of Greek culture: it occupies a  
place in the
city with the condition that it subvert the uses and meaning of power  
in that space.

One of the most radical and least visible means of subversion of the  
power of
capital can be found in the marginal products of the market, to which  
I referred
earlier and which are hyperbolized in the work of Melanie Smith. But  
these acquire
a particular significance when the merchandised object is not only  
inscribed in the
fictional space of desire, but also replicates and reproduces the  
social and political
impulse of collective desire. I refer here to the production of  
fetishistic artifacts in
which the community is transmuted and in this transference, an object  
symbolic and vital is produced, in which the social potens is  
concentrated in order
to create a utopian materialization of the social flesh. In this  
process, affectivity is
affirmed as pure positiveness and even dislocates the forms of organized
resistance. It is interesting to observe that in the flow of  
circulation and
concentration that operates during the demonstrations, a system of  
production of
pure affective positiveness is set into play, through the fabrication  
of imaginary
artifacts in which laughter, in the manner of the cynics, becomes at  
the same time
the eruption of the joy of life, in the vital resistance to power.

The artifact-figurine of López Obrador appears as yet another piece of  
and, at the same time, as a form of imaginary resistance and  
production of
affectivity. Undoubtedly—beyond the forms of objectivization and  
critique of
power present in political caricature or in the images that even  
reveal the Stalinist
projection of some left-wing groups that respond to the disciplinary  
power that
sustains modern totalitarianism, --this artifact reveals the impulse  
of the social
flesh which produces its own space of representation, it speaks of the  
and flow that overcomes both the existing power and the constituent  
power in
order to establish a more fundamental relationship with public space,  
which has
more to do with laughter as the construction of subjectivity.
In this muddle, constructed both by what the powers that be permit and  
escapes them, from time to time artifacts are produced that reveal the  
places where
the social flesh flows, the vital restitution of objects and the  
improprietous place of

In conclusion, I would like to return to my starting point, to take up  
once again
Melanie Smith’s aerial photograph of Mexico City, as a representation  
of the logic
of the flow, as a metaphor of the nomadic desiring-machine that, in  
the degree to
which is goes beyond its territory, activates a visibility in the  
fields of intensity and
accident of the social space, and at the same time, relocates the  
concentration of displacement which is Francis Alÿs’s raw material.  
But now, I
focus on the place of representation in the referential abstractions  
by Melanie and
the subjectivization or, better still, the animalization as social  
flesh in the work of

Between the flow which Smith abstracts and the dog as one of the urban
inhabitants insistently addressed by Alÿs, we can imagine the nomadic  
machine that surpasses territory and affectivity, giving way to bare  
Finally, between the limitless urban cartography –where Benjamin  
perhaps would
have projected the failure of modernity in the overflowing of the  
metaphor of the modern city—and the late modern flâneur, who robs  
the offering
to the gods in order to question sovereign power, we can locate the  
event: the
singular presented without representation . . .. And this, in spite of  
Benjaminesque figure of the melancholy city walker, his flâneur: who  
wanted to
contain the speed of the modern world by taking his tortoise for a walk.

Giorgio Agamben, "Homo Sacer. El poder y la nuda vida", Valencia, Pre- 
Textos, 2003, p. 38.
    Francis Alÿs studied Architecture and Engineering at the Institut d 
´Architecture of Tournai
(1978-1983) and later at the Instituto Universitario di Achitettura in  
Venice (1983-1986). His life
changed completely in 1987 when he decided to move to Mexico City to  
work as an architect. It
is until 1991 when he shows his work as an artist sharing his time  
between D.F., New York and
London. His work is constituted of an eclectic group of pieces of  
painting, photographs, video
and performance and is, in good part, the result of the artist’s  
meandering in different cities
around the world. “To meander” is according to himself, one of his  
main sources of inspiration:
“My work is a succession of notes and guides. The invention of a  
language goes in parallel to the
invention of a city. Each one of my interventions is another fragment  
of the history that I am
making up, of the city that I am composing” he has written. He has  
participated in a long list of
collective shows among them: “Now Here” Louisiana Museum,  
Copenhagen, Denmark (1966)
and “Antechamber” White Chapel Art Gallery, London, UK (1997). Out  
of his solo shows it is
worth mentioning the one at the Museum of Modern Art, Mexico, D.F.  
(1997), “Francis Alÿs: El
Poeta y la Mosca” National Museum of Art Reina Sofia, Madrid (2003)  
and “Waking Distance
from the Studio”, Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, Mexico, D.F.  
(2006). Melanie Smith lives
in Mexico since 1989. She has worked on a multiple exploration of the  
aesthetics of the Mexican
megalopolis through a varied formal and thematic technique. Her pieces  
emerge from the daily
life and refer to visual structures derived of the global capitalist  
culture in the - so called - third
world, as the informal street vendors, the invasion of logos,  
billboards and visual stimulants, etc.
Among her latest shows are: Parres Trilogy, Art Now, Tate Britain  
(2006), “Ciudad Espiral y
otros placeres artificales”, MUCA, Mexico, D.F. (2006) and Six Steps  
to the Unpredictable,
Mark Quint Contemporary, La Jolla, California (2005). Smith and Alÿs  
are two immigrant artists
who moved to Mexico at the end of the eighties and early nineties,  
that settled at the number 8 of
Licenciado Verdad street at the historical center of Mexico City being  
since then significant
producers of contemporary art. They – as other artists who lived in  
the same neighborhood –
explain one of the genealogies of the neo-conceptual movement of the  
art in the last fifteen years
in this country.
  I refer to the Mexican electoral process in 2006 and the previous  
and aftermath demonstrations
carried out by the followers of the candidate of the “Partido de la  
Revolucion Democratica
(PRD)” Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The PRD is the leftist political  
party and main
opposition to the conservative party “Partido Accion Nacional  
(PAN)” currently in office.
Cuauhtémoc Medina, Ciudad espiral y otros placeres artificiales,  
exhibition pamphlet, México,
Museo de Artes y Ciencias de la UNAM (MUCA), August-September 2006, p.  
  Cf. José Luis Barrios, “París capital del siglo XIX, México  
capital del siglo XXI”, Fractal 39 .
July-September 2006, p.p. 43-54.

I refer here to the systematic interference of the media and its use  
by private industry to create a
“campaign of fear”, which was supported by the communications  
apparatus of the presidential
office and by the President himself. It is important to note here that  
private industry does not own
the communications signals; they are public property and should  
therefore serve the public good.
Michael Hardt y Antoni de Negri. Multitud. Guerra y democracia en la  
era del imperio,
Barcelona, Debate, 2004, p. 133.
Ibid., p. 227.
   On the 22nd of May 2006 emerged the popular movement of the  
“Asamblea Popular de los
Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO)” who – among other demands – asked for  
the resignation of the
Governor of the State of Oaxaca, as well as, the democratization of  
such southern State of the
country. This movement has been fought systematically by the Oaxaca.
  Agamben, op. cit., n. 1, p. 21.
See José Luis Barrios, El cuerpo disuelto, Ph.D. thesis, Mexico,  
Universidad Nacional Autónoma
de México, 2005, p. 39.

Translation Karen Cordero

Terry Hargrave
Architect, Emeritus Professor of Architecture

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